Review of Paul Shepard’s “The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game”

tumblr_m5fln6scd21ryqsz0o1_1280The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game
Paul Shepard
New York:  Scribners, 1973

This is the first truly indispensable work in the canon of a seminal writer for ecologists and anti-authoritarians alike. The Tender Carnivore is the first concise statement of all the arguments that would form the basis for Shepard’s future work.  It is the true inauguration of Shepard’s contest with the heart of civilization despite it being his second monograph.  In the later years of his life, he referred to this book as “a somewhat rowdy assertion of the epitome of love in the heart of the hunter.”  The description of the book as “rowdy” indeed does justice to the strong command of his material evident in the writing, drawing as it does on a wide array of disciplines and perspectives culled from a plethora of natural sciences and social studies.  And the phrase “epitome of love in the heart of the hunter” is also an apt distillation of the poetic and almost mythological treatment Shepard gives of his subject.

This book might represent the first instance in contemporary scientific literature of an unequivocal valorization of the lifeway of hunter-gatherer peoples that doesn’t succumb to the problematic aspects of prior manifestations of primitivism in the modern age, in its classical literary and religious forms, or in the philosophical trope of “noble savagery.”  Shepard avoids unqualified romanticism in his stunningly panoramic description of the origin of the past “ten thousand years of crisis” in the instigation of the biological domestication of plants and animals.  He examines the possible roots of this transition, its biological substance and its totalizing social and environmental consequences, which include the invention of hierarchical social organization, the drudgery of work and environmental catastrophe.

In calling farming “an ecological disease” Shepard sets for himself an enormous task of explanation, writing as he was in a milieu extremely enamored of the agrarian ideal as the alternative to urban malaise and ecological destruction.  Shepard delivers in spades.  Despite the hold exercised on the imagination of environmentalists by this simple Thoreauvian self-reliance, a kind of corollary to the “yeoman farmer” concept of Jeffersonian democracy, Shepard thoroughly skewers all of the foundational institutions of a political society as such.  He gives a long explanation of primate evolution to contextualize the human experience in evolution.

From there, in the chapter “On the Significance of Being shaped by the Past,” Shepard makes an argument for our essential species requirements for health and happiness.  He explores diet in general and carnivory in particular, birth rates and death rates of a foraging society, small group size and low population density as a basis for vigor, and conjectures on a host of human attributes and behavior patterns inherited from hominid forebears, including aggressiveness, sexual dimorphism, etc.

The following chapter “Hunting as a Way of Life” is what it sounds to be:  a paean to a largely extirpated lifeway.  Here, Shepard is in his glory, going into detail about the band structure of hunting-gathering society, the venatic art and its underpinning of our social lives, a portrait of “cynegetic,” or hunting, humanity and the meaning of its tool use, totemic vision, cave art, fire-making.  This chapter is in places a sort of homage to Jose Ortega y Gasset, author of Meditations on Hunting, whom Shepard credits with anticipating all of his own central arguments about hunting as an essentially human activity.

Next, “The Karma of Adolescence” is itself an anticipation of what would become Shepard’s legacy:  his enduring theory on normal human psychological development.  The content of a future essay by this author, the final chapter of Nature and Madness called “The Dance of Neoteny and Ontogeny” is more than foreshadowed here.  A more or less random example of the prescience of Shepard’s writing has to do with arrested adolescence:  “The perverted adolescent has great inner pressure for senseless destruction.  His moral absolution is based on felt– “gut”– reactions and the simplistic reduction of complex issues.  Repetition, exaggeration, and slogans are taken as validation of assertions, and reasonable arguments are rejected as diversions.”  If this isn’t a description of myself and almost all of my peers, especially the men, then I don’t know what is.

The final chapter of this book, “The Choice:  Industrial Agriculture or Techno-Cynegetics,” is a fairly anomalous little corner of Shepard’s corpus as I know it.  I’m too young to know for sure, but its strikes me as a suitably wingnutty closing to an ecological book from the early seventies, when I imagine all sorts of highly implausible scenarios verging on science fiction were being tried out on the general reading population.  This chapter is a clarion call for, and an in-depth explanation of, the migration of all humans to the coasts of their respective continents to allow the interior country to rehabilitate or rewild itself while we all live in temporary, dense, utopian eco-settlements subsisting on cultivated bacteria cocktails.  Weird.  This is the type of top-down fantasy of control that Shepard doesn’t ever seem to dabble with again, thankfully.

I would recommend Tender Carnivore as a very good first book to read by Shepard, as it is the first in a kind of trilogy that also includes Thinking Animals and Nature and Madness and is a quite good, and only occasionally scatter-brained, map of some of the most essential of Shepard’s very many essential ideas.

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