Buffon & the Beaver


Boria Sax's

The Frog King

In his book The Frog King, Boria Sax, a scholar at Mercy College in New York, explores the often fanciful, usually inaccurate writing about animals by 18th and 19th century Europeans, principally natural historians. In chapter five he considers "the commonwealth of beavers," created by men who had never seen a beaver in the wild. Sax suggests that the social ways of the beaver colony opened the door to projecting the values of human society on the world of the beavers so that "old books of zoology tend to tell us far more about human society when they were written than about animals."

The beaver became the examplar of new industrial era. Indeed before the 18th century, beavers were largely ignored. "Although beavers were not uncommon in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, they hardly ever appeared in fables or fairy tales. They were not used in heraldry, nor were they a subject of painting. There were far more old stories about hedgehogs than about beavers. The beaver simply did not evoke much interest."

The great virtue of Sax's book is that he puts human concerns about animals in context. Books and articles focusing solely on beavers usually make the beaver's sway in the past seem mighty indeed, never casting a glance at the lowly hedgehog's far greater impact. However, Sax might be shortchanging the beaver. A case can be made that the beaver was driven to the fringes of Europe in the Classical Era, hunted and killed for the medicinal qualities of its castoreum sack. Sax shows how the Classical tale of the self-castrating beaver (the castoreum sack being conflated with the testicles) changed in the Middle Ages to the homily about the beaver renouncing sex by giving its pursuers his testicles in order to deliver itself from the legions of hell in hot pursuit: "Typical is an author of the twelfth century who draws the moral that a servant of God 'must cut off from himself all vices, all motions of lewdness, and must cast them in the Devil's face.'" That legend is pretty good evidence of the paucity of beavers. The beaver, after all, is a rodent, and like its cousins rather prolific.

However, Sax's point is well taken. The continued presence of an animal is neither necessary nor a guarantee to its being embraced by the human imagination. And it flourished until recently in Russia and Scandinavia. So the European beaver, evidently a dud of an animal had no influence on how Europeans reacted to that news of the North American beaver, or rather, at first, how they didn't react. Beavers evidently didn't entertain the Renaissance imagination. "Animals from the New World, apart from some brightly colored birds, evoked little interest."

Then came the Industrial Revolution: "The major quality of the beaver which so impressed zoologists was something which ancient and medieval authors had not even considered significant enough to remark upon: the ability to build. This explained the dramatic increase in status and attention given to beavers. In an age increasingly dominated by practical men who were devoted to industry, such skill was accorded considerable importance. Industrialization also led to an increased emphasis on the work ethic and, here as well, the beaver was made to serve as a sort of model."

In 1792 Johann Matthaus Bechstein highlighted beaver dam building as nature's endorsement of the division of labor. "Different beavers," Sax writes, "were said to fell trees, to chew trees into shape, to bring lumber to the water, to dig holes in the river bottom, to place pillars in these holes, to bring glasses, to tie the pillars, to bring clay and stone and, finally, to plaster the walls. All were said to work under the directon of a beaver who served as foreman, whom the others must obey."

Unfortunately, and perhaps because it is impossible, Sax does not give a tight narrative describing who first observed beavers and how they described beavers; and when, how and through whom that information filtered back to Europe; and whether there was any extended discussion about beavers or whether it was merely a question of filling in the blanks in natural history texts with some entertaining "facts." In Antonello Gerbi's The Dispute of the New World: The History of a Polemic 1750-1900, which explores in depth the swirling debate on the significance of the New World, beavers are not listed in the index.

Sax suggests, along with Morgan and others, that Europeans passed off as facts the tales they got second hand that originated with trappers and Indians. The implication is that both trappers and Indians took some delight in fooling greenhorns. That may be the case, but I fear there might be a tendency to apply that charming scene of many a movie too far back in time. The source of the mistakes about beavers might indeed rest on the honest opinions of Indians and trappers who were, of course, far from being avatars of the Industrial Revolution. I keep tabs on the Internet Lists catering to fur-trappers. Recently a veteran was explaining to a novice how to calculate the number and character of the beavers in a certain pond. Categorical statements like "only young beavers strip the bark off a standing tree" were rife. And that's a mis-statement I've seen disproved with my own eyes, akin to saying about humans that only kids eat candy.

It bears remembering that trappers do not need to closely observe beaver behavior. They merely identify their habitat, their presence, and then resort to the many tricks of the trade to kill them. In a sense they like to think of themselves entering into an unspoken dialogue with their prey and by adding complexity to beaver society, such as a strict division of labor, they can better explain their own successes and failures.

In addition beaver behavior is more complex than what is commonly observed in nature. There are a series of things a beaver does that do not on the face of them appear to have anything to do with eating. How exactly is the unprepared person to explain these actions? Beavers do dive into the water and attach sticks to the bottom of a pond. Beavers do carry mud in their forelegs and deposit it on top of the lodge.

The first interpretation of that will of necessity be an exaggeration. All this to say, that while Sax is certainly right that humans applied human standards to beaver behavior, it bears remembering that the startling behavior of beavers gave their first observers no alternative. Were their animal standards, so to speak, that they could apply, especially given that there was no tradition of "cool" scientific writing which informs most modern observations of animals?

This is not to suggest that Sax thinks it sufficently enlightening merely to ridicule the European nature writers of the 18th century. Few seem to resist making a buffoon of Buffon. Sax is quite sensitive: "Buffon was amazed at the accounts which reached him of the beaver's social and architectural sophistication. In 1758 he adopted a beaver imported from Canada. He found the creature exhibited no remarkable abilities and concluded that, 'If we consider this animal, then, in a state of nature, or rather in his dispersed and solitary state, we shall find, that his internal qualities are not superior to those of other animals; he has not the genius of the dog, the sense of an elephant, nor the cunning of a fox...' Nevertheless, the testimonies regarding the ingenuity of the beaver seemed too overwhelming to be doubted. Buffon reconciled the apparently contradictory indications in an ingenious way. He concluded that, although the beavers were individually unremarkable, the cohesion of their society rendered them capable of developing great intelligence.... The beavers of North America impressed him as the only known remnant of a rudimentary civil society which had once existed among animals: 'It is only in remote and desert countries, where there is little dread of the approach of man, that they [beavers] endeavor to establish themselves, and render their habitations more fixed and commodious, by constructing dwellings or, as it were, small hamlets, which not unaptly represent the first efforts and feeble labours of an infant commonwealth. In countries, on the contrary, over which mankind are diffused, all society is not lost among animals, all industry ceases, and every art supressed.'" [To see William Smellie's 1781 translation of Buffon's chapter on beavers go to: Buffon.html]

Buffon's "ingenious way" of reconciling observed and reported behavior has, in my own observations, some merit. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing a lone beaver out on the pond during a late summer afternoon. It will often spend a bit time simply staring at me

and then go about leisurely feeding on roots or a stray stick. Generally when I see the beaver accomplishing those great works for which beavers are famous, there are other beavers in the pond. Work seems almost always a communal activity. Which is not to say that I always see beavers working together. Some beavers might be feeding or grooming, but as that is going on, another is working, and then in turn the others will work on the dam or lodge.

Oliver Goldsmith carried on with Buffon's ideas in English, and, in Sax's opinion, with the beavers being examplers of British utilitarian ideals not French Romanticism. Goldsmith writes in History of Animated Nature: "....The beavers, in those distant solitudes, are known to build like architects, and rule like citizens. The habitations that these have been seen to erect, exceed the houses of the human inhabitants of the same country, both in neatness and convenience. But as soon as man intrudes upon their society, they seem impressed with the terrors of their inferior situation, the spirit of society ceases, the bond is dissolved...."

Yet, at the same time writers made so much of the brotherhood of beavers, they were as fascinated by "slave beavers." The earliest known expression of the phenomena is by an Arabian writer in 1288, see arabian.html. Sax notes the 17th century zoologist Edward Topsell describing beavers singling out one beaver for punishment. Buffon thought beaver society did reject some beavers "guilty of some crime against it." Soon enough writers found a lesson in this, as Sax explains: "The immensely popular S. G. Goodrich, for example, wrote in Natural History of the Animal Kingdom, first published in 1859: 'It appears that among the beavers there are some lazy ones which do not, or will not, assist in the general labours of the association. These, as might be expected, are all males, and are beaten off by the community, and are often injured by having their tails cut off, and by other wounds. It has been suggested that they are disappointed lovers...."

Sax suggests that this exaggeration of human qualities was in part a reaction to the slaughter of beavers by the fur trade. "A sense of collective guilt may even have led people to humanize the beaver as a gesture of atonement." That said, Sax credits an agent of the Hudson Bay Company, Samuel Hearne, writing in 1795, for debunking many of the myths about beavers. (I soon hope to have a link to Hearne's writing on this web site.) Audubon expressed regret that all the tales weren't true, writing, "We now are almost led to regret that three-fourths of the old accounts of this extraordinary animal are fabulous."

Sax himself clearly is not a debunker. Ridicule is not one of his weapons. He is even gentle with Grey Owl, the fake Indian, who excited Anglo-American society in the thirties with his love for beavers, and indeed, one should debunk Grey Owl with care, for though Archie Belaney was not an Indian, he walked the walk and talked the talk which means in his case long trap lines in northern Ontario throughout the long winter.

In concluding Sax warns that "it is even possible that the behavioristic bias of many contemporary works on animals - the conscious attempt to avoid any anthropomorphism - may impress generations to come as a very serious failure of empathy."

Like a beaver I may come back to gnaw some more on Sax's ideas, and he provides many leads to explore.

Bob Arnebeck


Beaver Lore