Recently sold by a private dealer, a letter from President Theodore Roosevelt to naturalist John Burroughs spotlights the “nature faker” controversy that stirred up Americans in the first decade of the twentieth century. Roosevelt, renowned as the conservation President, was personally involved in the debate—a debate still echoes today in questions of scientific objectivity and the nature, and rights, of animals.
What literature scholar Sue Walsh calls the “debate over the ethics of the esthetic representation of animals,” probably pre-dates Aesop’s fables, but things really heated up in 1903, when John Burroughs published “Real and Sham Natural History” in Atlantic Monthly. He named names, castigating very popular nature writers Ernest Thomas Seton and Reverend William J. Long, for “too much sentiment, too much literature.” Burroughs scoffed at Seton’s cute animal capers and Long’s animal schoolhouse, where talking animals learned about life in a classroom; this was not, Burroughs insisted, Nature “as she is.”
Burroughs’s feminization of nature highlights the generally male participants in this debate. One prominent woman in the debate was Audubon movement activist Mabel Osgood Wright, whose 1895 book Birdcraft was a prototype of the modern bird-watching field guide. She positioned herself in the middle, arguing for creativity and imagination as well as realism in writing about nature.
President Roosevelt, never a middle-of-the-road type, would be drawn into the debate as a friend and champion of Burroughs. His being president didn’t seem to stifle counter-attacks. Although Seton and Jack London, another target of Burroughs and Roosevelt, are more remembered today, Long was the feistiest on the defense, writing:
“The idea of Mr. Roosevelt assuming the part of a naturalist is absurd. He is a hunter. He knows little or nothing concerning the beasts he hunts except how they try to escape death. […] every time Mr. Roosevelt gets near the heart of a wild thing he invariably puts a bullet through it.”
As it happened, Long depended on hunters and trappers to validate his own stories, so his take was, writes Walsh, “somewhat inconsistent.”
With the various sides “taking a position which claims to know what animals essentially are,” the debate shifted to questions of who was a real naturalist. Long’s invitation to Roosevelt to have it out face-to-face went unanswered. (It may be hard to imagine Mabel Osgood Wright exclaiming “Oy!” but she should have.) But, prickly-as-porcupine personalities aside, the debate was also very much about nature versus nurture: were animals what they were because of instinct or did they learn? Science of the day went with instinct all the way, but for all his talking animals, Long wasn’t wrong that animals learned. It’s nature and nurture in animals as it is in humans, who are, of course, animals, too.
Long’s debt to learning from those he called “old Indians” is matched against Roosevelt’s dismissal of indigenous knowledge as superstition. Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks—“America’s best idea” according to the well-received PBS documentary series in 2009, but also Native American removal projects.
The moral and ethical complexity of the Native American/National Parks history parallels the complexity of the issues thrashed over by the nature fakers debate. Animals are undoubtedly individuals. They are also part of ecological relationships, complex webs of life, that are, even in remote places (via climate change and pollution, for example) subject to human influence. This is, after all, a planet of more than 8 billion people, whose farm animals and pets very much outnumber wild mammals and birds.
Walsh stresses that there’s no getting away from the fact that humans think about animals, not with them. Anthropomorphism may be inevitable, since we see and think everything through our perspective and want everything else with a face to be like us, too.
“Ethically speaking, the question is perhaps not so much what claims we make for or about animals,” writes Walsh, “but what is at stake in those claims, what projects or ideologies do they support, and whose interests do they serve?”