About Animal Magnetism

By long tendency, humans inhabit communities of affection and symbiosis with other species.  We all know this; in fact, it seems so “natural” that what is actually a remarkable and deeply complex phenomenon has too often escaped analysis and wonder.  That situation has, of course, been changing in recent years, with animal studies increasingly on the rise in numerous divergent fields, from classics to cognitive science.

The intervention we plan, through this Sawyer Seminar, is motivated by two fundamental contentions. First, such studies have tended to remain, by and large, within disciplinary bounds despite the subject’s enormous cross-over potential, not to mention innate appeal. Second, and for us the even more provocative observation, is the fact that—while humans and animals have cohabited for millennia—controlled comparisons and assessments of these relationships, across epochs ranging from ancient to modern times, have not been undertaken. This disconnection leaves a vast and sensitive record of past human-animal relations unexplored by those considering present-day themes or employing novel scientific techniques, while those absorbed in the past fail to perceive the potential long-term implications and consequences of their work. “The Emotional Ecology of Animals and Humans” aims to bridge these gaps, offering support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments.

The Emotional Ecology of Animals and Humans

Emotions flow from humans to envelop other creatures, such as a treasured pet or a feared predator.  Sometimes, too, in both reality and perception, emotions flow back from animals to humans, as part of an “ecology” of sentiment that transcends the boundaries of species and establishes new forms of social communion. From this interaction arises the possibility of an “extended society”—a web of “con-socials” that interact on a regular basis—as well as novel, supra-human definitions of society itself.

That this sense of connection is problematic—both linking humans to animals and preserving categorical distinctions between them—offers rich material for study and debate. Yet, as already observed, this topic of emotional ecology lacks comprehensive, cross-cultural, historical or multidisciplinary reflection.  Recent research by cognitive scientists, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists has given little attention to the abundant historical and cultural evidence for con-socials in pre-modern societies; conversely, those scholars dealing with that plenitude of information seldom engage with the tenets of universal process that underlie much scientific research.  To bridge the divide between early (or “ancient”) and modern, and to do so explicitly through comparison is a primary goal of this Sawyer Seminar.