What Animal Behavior Tells Us About Humans

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If your spouse has been ignoring you lately, reading one article in the New York Times will explain it all to you. The piece describes the success that the author had in domesticating her husband by studying the techniques of exotic animal trainers. It is extremely funny, and entertaining even if your spouse has not been acting strangely.

Some readers will squirm at the idea of extrapolating from animal behavior to human conduct. The human neshamah is sui generis; what could we possibly learn from lowly animals? My understanding is that we could gain a significant amount of knowledge. This is true whether or not one completely dismisses the idea of evolution, or believes that a guided evolution is compatible with Torah thought. (We’re not going there in this piece!) According to the latter view, there is ample room for the overlap of human and animal behavior; according to the former, the inclusion of an “animal neshamah” within the human apparatus leaves room for commonality of responses as well.

In case you still doubt it, consider this passage fro). R’ Meir Simchah in Meshech Chochmah (Shemos 12:21 s.v. u-vaderech zeh) comments on an otherwise inexplicable passage in Pesachim 112B, wherein the Gemara list various animal calls, concluding with a much longer string of sounds meant as a call to laborers pulling river barges. (Free translation)

What is meant here is that animals can be aroused with a simple sound, uttered and repeated several times. Humans, however, respond to difference. This is a wonderful insight. It instructs us that to break the strength of some lust or passion [i.e. whose source is in the “animal” side of our personalities], repeating a simple saying or thought over and over can be effective. For example, a person who desires some forbidden object might repeat to himself some awe-inspiring phrase, like “jealousy, lust, etc remove a person from this world.” On the other hand, to properly refine a person’s opinions and attitudes, shoring them up against the onslaught from questions that arise in man’s mind, the same process would be insufficient. For this [which relates to “higher” parts of man’s makeup], he needs to think and become wiser through the acquisition of more complex arguments and intellectual ideas…

Apparently, according to R’ Meir Simchah, the animal trainers do have what to teach us.

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4 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Here is another article about human – animal connections, this one about a three year old girl who was neglected and abused by her parents, so she went to live with a dog pack and acted like a dog until she was rescued five years later.

    http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2006/07/18/1153166383022.html?from=top5

    It’s a horrible story on one level, but on another it’s a story of incredible wisdom exhibited by a very young kid.

  2. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “the inclusion of an “animal neshamah” within the human apparatus leaves room for commonality of responses as well”

    I will resist commenting on the extreme feministic attitude of the NYT writer; doing so may be more contentious than discussing evolution. :)

    For better or for worse, I live in Brooklyn, and the only animals I encounter are the friendly fury felines that inhabit my backyard. I can sometimes stand for many minutes watching Mrs. Katz and Family(read: cats) doing whatever cats do.

    I sometimes find myself thinking along the above-mentioned lines regarding “commonality of responses” as well. I am aware of the animal experiments performed by behaviorists such as Pavlov and Skinner; obviously, one needs to adopt the concept of conditioning to bechira chofshis(see Kuntres haBechira of Rav Dessler regarding psychological determinism).

    Any commonality has nothing to do with a non-Torah anthropological view of homo sapiens; to the contrary, such commonality highlight man’s uniqueness(see also Immortality and the Soul by RAK and Twerski on Spirituality regarding Nefesh Habamis). There is also the concept that through Mitzvos, such as abstaining from non-Kosher food, a Jew’s body may become different as well.

    Mishpocha Magazine had a recent feature about a Lakewood rebbe(“Zos HaChayah Program”) who believes that children’s fascination with the animal world is a vital chinunch tool. Such fascination need not be “babyish”, as we also see that Dovid Hamelech speaks about the animal kingdom in Tehilim. In a different volume, Mishpocha quoted Rabbi Slifkin that “Why do only children’s books have animal symbols?….It’s a shame that kids grow-out of it. Animals provide a wealth of different colors, shapes, textures, sounds, and personalities. They give us a rich insight into the beauty of Creation.” I agree with this.

    The Yated usually has one picture of an animal in each edition. The one I liked best, and which illustrates the point of this post, was a picture of a chimpanzee drinking from a can of Coca-Cola with gusto. The caption was ” don’t let your Nefesh Habahami get out of control !”

  3. Binyamin says:

    The gemara says that if we had not been given the torah we could learn correct behavior from animals. We would learn modesty from cats, and not to steal from ants.

  4. GB says:

    Interesting to note that the above-mentioned NYTimes article is one of their record-setters for “most emailed article.”
    But really, what is the chiddush: everyone, be it child, adult, human or animal responds better to positive reinforcement rather than negative, and tunes out and is turned off by kvetching and a barrage of criticism.