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The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

Greg Linster is left howling at Mark Rowlands’ memoir of his pet wolf.

Humans often wonder how other animals think or feel. I often wonder: do non-human animals wonder how humans feel? For Mark Rowlands, a philosophy professor and author of The Philosopher and the Wolf, the answer to this question is “No.”

The Philosopher and the Wolf is a philosophical memoir about a man’s life and what he learned about it by living with a wolf for over a decade. Ultimately, however, the book is a philosophical reflection on the human condition. As such, its main purpose, I think, is to examine how what we call ‘social intelligence’ affects how we think about and engage with the world.

Social intelligence is the characteristic which allows humans to empathize, and it is a large part of what makes humans distinctive. It also allows us to live in civilized societies. Wolves are intelligent; but according to Rowlands, wolves have mechanical intelligence, not social intelligence: they know how to do a wide range of things. Moreover, lupine intelligence is usually rated inferior to that of humans. Rowlands suggests that since we are simians, we naturally cling to the belief that our simian intelligence is superior to the intelligence of other animals, like wolves. But is it superior? Or is it just different?

Attempting to answer these questions and more in this book, Rowlands first acknowledges that he is a brutish ape himself, undoubtedly making it difficult to see things from outside the perspective of an ape. As such, he writes about many of the negatives that come with our social intelligence, such as our evolved ability to deceive others: “When we talk about the superior intelligence of apes, we should bear in mind the terms of this comparison: apes are more intelligent than wolves because, ultimately, they are better schemers and deceivers than wolves.”

A Story: Man Owns Wolf

In the first part of the book we quickly learn about how Rowlands acquired Brenin when he was living in Alabama as a twenty-something philosophy professor. Readers are likely to wonder whether wolf ownership is an intelligent thing to allow in civilized society, and rightly so. Animal rights activists are also likely to question the ‘unnatural’ conditions in which Brenin was forced to live, thanks to his human owner. Philosopher that he is, Rowlands challenges potential animal cruelty accusers by questioning what it means to have an unnatural existence anyway.

Rowlands is understandably defensive about his actions, and he writes emphatically about how his purchase of a wolf cub was entirely justified. His arguments in support of his actions are compelling, although not entirely convincing. I think Rowlands also unintentionally demonstrates how a person’s ego can lead one to believe, with righteous certainty, things he cannot possibly know. For example, he writes, “To suppose that Brenin could not be happy simply because he was not doing what natural wolves do is little more than a banal form of human arrogance, and belittles his intelligence and flexibility.” I suspect that some people may be turned off by Rowlands’ own apparent arrogance (at least I was, initially). For instance: “I think the Koehler method that I used to train Brenin was ultimately so successful because it resonates with a certain understanding of the existential nature of dogs and their wild brothers.”

As the book progresses we learn more about the escapades Rowlands and Brenin shared. Brenin sat quietly through many of Rowland’s philosophy classes, attended his rugby matches around the southern United States, and followed his testosterone-filled, beer-loving owner to plenty of social gatherings (Brenin, cute wolf that he was, was a ‘chick magnet’, according to Rowlands.) Brenin also followed his owner overseas, spending six months in quarantine before being allowed to enter Ireland. Rowlands and Brenin then did a short stint together in London before moving to the south of France, where Brenin would eventually take his last breath.

Reflections of the Philosopher as a Young Wolf

A significant part of this book is about the philosophical and personal lessons Rowlands learned from Brenin. Rowlands also borrows from the philosophies of Sartre, Heidegger and Nietzsche, and philosophical vignettes are intertwined throughout the book.

Rowlands makes no attempt to hide the failings and unhappiness of his younger self. Although in his twenties he appeared to be a gregarious fellow, he informs readers that his socialization with other humans then was largely lubricated by alcohol. He makes perfectly clear that at heart he was a misanthropic loner. However, during the drunken haze in which he spent his young adulthood, Rowlands was not acting authentically. He was not being true to himself.

One of the most notable philosophically-focused chapters in the book is called ‘Time’s Arrow’. In it Rowlands offers a powerful argument as to why humans struggle to find happiness. For starters, he thinks our notions of happiness smack of dire misunderstanding. To Rowlands, enjoying specific moments is the one thing that can make us happy. Yet humans naturally tend to think of life in terms of a linear progression towards some desirable goal. This is in order to help us make sense of our lives in narrative terms. However, on this way of thinking, the moments are always slipping away. Our way of understanding time, then, is a curse which distracts us from experiencing happiness: “The human search for happiness is, accordingly, regressive and futile,” writes Rowlands.

For the wolf, however, Rowlands claims that there is no sense of time or progress, so there is no end-point that a wolf is working towards. Thus, unlike many humans, a wolf finds happiness in its experience of moments – even in the repetition of them. Humans, by contrast, easily become bored and seek novelty.

As a professional philosopher, Rowlands makes it a point to also tell readers that nothing is more inhuman than philosophy, aside from pure mathematics or theoretical physics (I think he forgot to add economics to that list). Philosophy, after all, worships logic in all its coldness. According to Rowlands, “to be a philosopher is to be existentially deracinated” [torn up by the roots].

Canine Conclusions

Parts of the book were touching and thought-provoking. There were also parts of this book where I couldn’t stomach the rationalizations Rowlands offered. Nonetheless, overall I found the book to be engaging and enjoyable. Rowlands, clever ape that he is, ultimately reminded me that (as he writes), “Philosophers should be offered condolences rather than encouragement.”

© Greg Linster 2012

Greg Linster is a writer and a graduate student studying the branch of applied philosophy called ‘Economics’ at the University of Denver. He blogs at coffeetheory.com.

The Philosopher & The Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death & Happiness by Mark Rowlands, Granta, 2008, 256 pages, £8.99 pb, ISBN 978-1847080592.

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