Interview on Marc Bekoff’s “Animal Manifesto”

Despite the edgy title of his book, Marc Bekoff is a beloved teacher about the need to extend compassion to our non-human neighbors. In his view, celebrating global diversity means more than accepting races, cultures and faiths. We need to welcome different species as well.

One reason Marc is attracting an ever-growing audience is that he’s a flat-out nice guy. His goal is to win people over with the pure good-hearted logic of his scientific and ethical positions. For example, his new book includes dozens of clippings from news stories about fresh developments in animal care—and in research about animal behavior. Marc’s goal is epic in scope—nothing less than a global transformation in the way we relate to animals. But, he goes about this like a favorite uncle who shows up for dinner with a big grin and a host of great new stories to share with everyone by the time dessert is served.

Marc is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His personal website is much like his new book—jammed with interesting bits of information and ideas for further reading. To follow Marc on a regular basis, check out his Psychology Today column. Currently, he is scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection.


DAVID: Everywhere I look, I’m finding voices chiming in on ideas very much like your “Animal Manifesto.” A few weeks after we publish this interview with you, we’ll welcome William Powell to ReadTheSpirit to talk about his book, “12 by 12,” a kind of contemporary “Walden” that touches on similar ideas. Earlier this year, we reviewed the new documentary film, “Examined Life,” which includes some ideas similar to your own. Rather than a lonely rebel—you must be feeling the consensus rising around you.

MARC: Yes, there’s much more support around me now. I felt alone for a really long time especially in the scientific community. I’ve done a lot of work with theologians and religious scholars and, for a long time, I actually felt more at home with them in acceptance of some of my views. But times are really changing. Skeptics used to line up at the door to refute what I and some other persons were saying but it’s now hard to find those skeptics. My books get really favorable reviews in scientific journals and magazines. I’ve done a lot of science and I’ve won awards in science. And “The Animal Manifesto,” like my other books, is very strongly evidence based.

DAVID: The book’s format actually stops at various points in your text so you can list news items and specific pieces of evidence you’ve found. I wouldn’t describe the style of your book as heavy-duty science. I found it quite inspirational. You write like an evangelist for your cause.

MARC: I don’t think science is the only way of knowing things, but the important points I’m trying to make and drive home are supported by really solid science in this book. The paradigm shift that I’m calling for in “The Animal Manifesto” is already underway and it’s wonderful to see. And it is based on solid science.

DAVID: Why is this happening now? We’ll include a link for readers to your Psychology Today blog, so they can follow your ongoing columns. I know that you’ve thought a lot about what seems to be fueling this historic change in attitudes. So, let me ask you simply: Why now?

MARC: Why now? That’s a great question. I think the Number 1 reason is that people are more sensitive now to good science and what we’re learning about animal emotions and the lives of animals from science. Number 2, people are feeling this intense alienation themselves. I wrote about this in a column for “Psychology Today” that I called “Old Brains, New Bottlenecks.” In that essay, I was trying to describe how our old evolutionary brains are drawing us back to nature. We sense the alienation and loss of connection to nature in our lives—our loss of beautiful landscapes and our loss of animals in those landscapes. When that happens, we feel out of sorts. We feel alone. The new technological milieu in which we live is pulling us away from nature, but there is this innate sense of biophilia that E.O. Wilson has written about—this innate drive that pulls us back to nature. It’s like a rubber band. It’s getting stretched so far that it’s threatening to snap. For most of us, we feel it as a sense of alienation and it’s really uncomfortable.

DAVID: I know from looking at the sociological research myself in recent years that there’s less push back from religious groups. Generally, researchers find that Americans are happy to hear their clergy preach about protecting the environment. That welcoming attitude in churches about ecology doesn’t extend into many other hot-button issues these days.

MARC: I do think people are more enlightened and less fearful about science. I know there are still some problems and conflicts, but I think people are less fearful about a schism between science and religion. More and more people just don’t see a schism.

DAVID: Some of the authors we’ve recommended in ReadTheSpirit on these themes, including E.O. Wilson, would describe themselves as not believing in God. But obviously that doesn’t mean they can’t share a deep concern for the Creation with people of faith. Wilson wrote a whole book about that. But let me ask you: How do you describe your own religious viewpoint?

MARC: I’ve thought about this a lot and I vacillate in all honesty from being almost agnostic to atheist—back and forth. I have no trouble in some universal way of thinking about life. I’ve just never seen any great reason for there to be a split between religion and science. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with theologians and religious scholars about basic principles concerning life and justice. I’ve had a wonderful time doing this. I’ve never had a problem. I agree that E.O. Wilson is a great model. He’s a genius scientist and he clearly believes in evolution, too, but he’s also reaching out and talking with people in the religious community.

DAVID: Considering that your new book features these big sections of news clippings, I’m impressed that the book is so fresh. In the old days of publishing, books sometimes were finished a year or more before publication.

MARC: This book was finally updated at the end of November and I was able to keep making tweaks all the way through the proofs of the book. This is a very important subject in the news, today. It’s hard to pick up a New York Times or the Independent or the Times of London and not find a fresh article about the environment, about animals and often about animals’ close connections with people. These days, I can’t even keep up with all the invitations I get to talk at science meetings in the U.S. and in other countries. And the diversity of invitations I get now is just astounding—a wonderful barometer on what’s happening in the world. The kinds of things that once were widely criticized in my work now are well established. People accept what I’m talking and writing about now.

Here’s another example: I was asked to write an article for a major magazine a year ago and they couldn’t find a skeptic to write an opposite piece. They couldn’t find anyone who’d write publicly anymore saying that animals don’t have feelings and don’t have compassion. Ten years ago, they wouldn’t have had any trouble finding a skeptic.

DAVID: Well, another very distinctive part of your work is that you’re a nice guy! That may sound odd to readers of this interview, but it’s an inescapable tone throughout your book. You’re overflowing with optimism and you warn your readers that they should be nice, too, as they try to spread this “manifesto.” Why are you so nice?

MARC: (Laughs.) It feels good to be nice! We have neuroscientific data supporting that. Because of the alienation so many people feel, they really are going back to nature when they start taking these ideas seriously. It feels good to them, too.

I’ve found that if you explain the facts in a nice polite way—people often listen. And it’s important to listen to all sides. It’s very important to be nice to people with whom you might disagree. I’m very careful in picking battles because I believe that most people out there want to agree with me. When I run across people with whom I disagree, then at some point I just have to let them go. I mention this toward the end of my book. A good strategy of deflection makes sense within our overall activism strategy. If there is a real disagreement that just cannot be resolved, then sometimes we can exhaust all the good dialogue we can have with another person or group. If that’s true, then we may have to say: “Well, we’ll just have to disagree and move on. I don’t want to be engaged with you for the rest of my life. There’s a much larger community with which I need to work.”

DAVID: It sounds like you don’t run into those dead ends very often, anymore. And I have to tell you: I really respond warmly to the whole tone of this book. I think readers will, too. This is a great book for small groups to discuss. People will have spirited conversations, but I don’t think they’ll get into angry arguments.

MARC: Being nice makes good sense. People want to be respected. I want to be respected, too. I don’t like somebody telling me what to do in any kind of nasty way. And, in “The Animal Manifesto,” we’re talking about long, enduring changes we need to make in our lives here on the Earth. If we’re going to make major changes like that, then we must be nice.

DAVID: Refreshing.

MARC: And natural. I believe we are born to be good and I believe non-human animals are born to be good, too, so I’m not asking anyone to do anything unnatural.

Read the entire series on Marc Bekoff’s “Animal Manifesto”

  1. Excerpt of “Animal Manifesto” including the 6 main principles in Marc’s work.
  2. Highlights of interview with Marc Bekoff, Part 1.
  3. Highlights of interview with Marc Bekoff, Part 2.

Care to read more? Today, Dr. Wayne Baker and his OurValues.Org online magazine tackle the thorny issue of American values and the BP oil spill. Stop by and add your thoughts!

You can order “The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint” from Amazon now.

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