A Cat Named Darwin: How a Stray Cat Changed a Man into a Human Being

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9780395986424: A Cat Named Darwin: How a Stray Cat Changed a Man into a Human Being
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Bill Jordan's life changed forever the day a stray cat nesting under his bougainvillea bit him on the hand. A reformed biologist, Jordan had no particular love for animals and felt vaguely contemptuous of those who did — until the cat, beckoning with a wink and a yawn, led him on a journey to exotic lands, strange cultures, and fascinating discoveries. As their bond deepened and the cat's health began to fail, Jordan was forced into a commitment more devoted and sincere than any he had known before.

Puzzling through his own feelings, he came to some remarkable conclusions: that those we love live in the synapses and molecules of memory, and that as long as we exist, they exist as part of our brain. It doesn't matter to our neurons whether the loved one is animal or human; the mechanism is the same. Even so, the two relationships are quite different: A cat is a creature with whom one shares solitude; with a human being, on the other hand, solitude generally means a failed relationship. And while communion with animals is usually considered inferior to communication with human beings, the truth is that the need for companionship is a human trait. In the absence of other companionship, the human mind will grow around any living thing like a vine. Bill Jordan learned that the first time your mind grows around a cat, you don’t realize you have fallen in love until it’s too late.

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About the Author:

William Jordan is the author of Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature (1991). The Washington Post called it "a dazzling range of philosophical speculations about the meaning of life, " and Noel Perrin in the Chicargo Sun-Times described Jordan as "a major new talent," adding, "move over, Stephen Jay Gould. Make way, Barry Lopez. Here comes William Jordan to join you." Jordan has a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California. He lives in Culver City, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


It"s the solitary ones who are most vulnerable—those of us who live by
ourselves and have time, probably too much time, to think. It happens
gradually, imperceptibly, like temperature rising or water seeping, and one
day you find yourself noticing new lines, say, in his facial markings. You
notice the way he greets you, nuzzling your outstretched finger, then sliding
his mouth along your fingertip to the corner of his jaw. You notice the
whites of his eyes as he watches you continuously, not out of wariness, but
out of a gentle, calm trust we humans would call love. You notice the nuance
in the way he moves, the subtle pauses and postures that express his own
personality and distinguish him from other cats—and you hear the particular
timbre of his voice and know intuitively with a crawling of the nape when
he"s threatened by another cat out in the wilds beyond the door. You realize
at some point that his movements and gestures are a language, his tail
wrapping gently around your leg, or his head pressing deliberately into your
hand, or his mouth opening in a wide fang-bearing yawn of greeting as you
walk into the room. The way he stretches forward and claws the rug, the
little crook in the end of his tail, the unique tufting of his belly fur . . .
These quiet, introspective revelations are the gift of the cat to the
solitary person, for the cat is a creature with whom you share solitude. A
human being, on the other hand, is a creature with whom solitude is
generally a failed relationship. With one the essence of success is
communion. With the other it is communication. One depends on spoken
language and rational intellect, the other on the language of gesture and
intuition, and whereas communion with an animal is considered inferior to
communication with a human being, the truth is, the need for
companionship of any sort is a human species trait, and in the absence of a
human companion, the mind grows like a vine around any living thing. The
first time your mind grows around a cat, you do not realize you have fallen in
Communion with a cat takes time to mature, and it is irreversible.
Those who find it are forever altered and cannot go back to the way they
once were because the mind, the soul, the eye of self, arises from the
physical substance of the brain, and that substance has been altered. The
brain records experience continually in a running record, which is crucial to
the working of conscious awareness. When you notice a new pattern on your
cat"s face—the stripes have always been there, but for some reason one of
them now stands forth—this revelation occurs because the mind compares
the current perception with visual memories. The longer you live with a cat,
or any living thing for that matter, the more detail you see because the brain
has had more time to record. This in turn sharpens the perception of detail in
the present, the mind comparing present with memory and memory with
present, back and forth, forth and back, in a resonating fusion of memory and
instant that we experience as conscious awareness.
And how does the brain record these memories? We know in a
general way that it does so through physiological changes. Neurons make
new connections with other neurons; neurons recruit other neurons, so
when one becomes active, its activity stimulates its immediate neighbors to
join in; eventually a pathway forms along which the impulses of memory and
perception run; complex chemicals are probably also involved in storing
memories, and who knows how many other operations of brain physiology?
This means that a physical mechanism—a neuronal machine—is slowly,
gradually assembled in the brain to service the relationship, and details
accumulate in the mind as more neurons, more synaptic connections are
dedicated to your companion. Those who work at home and live the single
life can easily spend 80 to 90 percent of existence with their animal
comrades, which means that a very large mechanism indeed must be
You don"t realize how pervasive this mechanism has become until
your companion is taken ill; then the world cracks and crumbles around
you. Its suffering becomes your suffering. When it lies in pain and silence
you immediately grow depressed. If it shows the slightest sign of recovery,
the sun shines into your soul and your spirits soar euphoric. In other words,
the health of your companion controls your moods as if your nerves were
linked directly together. You are fully aware of this influence, you just cannot
control it.
And when your companion dies, the pain is almost unbearable.
The longer and the deeper you love him, the greater the price in grief. It"s as
if part of your self has been amputated without anesthetic, which it probably
has—literally—because the machinery needed to generate the miraculous
subtlety and nuance you experience with your loved one is, in one ineffable
instant, rendered moot. It has no more reason for being.
Without purpose, without meaning, that part of the brain devoted
to your friend will now be altered. The gray matter is needed for life and the
brain has now to be recast around the emptiness where you and your
companion once lived.
Meanwhile the memory mind continues to operate as if your friend
still lived, projecting images in all the places he loved to be, and you see
him everywhere, lying on the bed, sleeping on your desk, jumping over the
wall and walking gracefully to greet you on your return home. The fact is,
those we grow to love continue to live in the synapses and molecules of
memory and as long as we exist, so they exist as part of the brain. That is
what happens when anyone loves anyone, or anything. It doesn"t matter to
the neurons deep in the brain whether those whom you loved were human or
animal. The mechanism is the same.

When we are young and heading out into life, we are going to marry, of
course, get a good job, raise a family, live a long, peaceful life surrounded
by loved ones. Of course we are. What is there even to discuss? Not to
marry, not to have a family, not to paint one"s life by the numbers—that is not
an option and it is not to be countenanced. It has to be denied. We must
dream high when we are young, navigate toward a star, putting off for many
years the fact that happiness is a state of denial. In case we need motivation,
society presents us with a symbol of failure: the spinster with her cats, the
aging bachelor with his dog. Failure in life, loneliness. Deep inside we pull
back in pity and relief, thanking God that such will not be our lot.
Life, however, has a way of hindering dreams. People get
divorced. They die from accidents or early disease. They pursue pleasure
for a few years, and the few years become many; time passes them by. They
fail to find the right one. Some discover they prefer freedom to marriage. For
any number of reasons life does not work out as we had known it would,
and people find themselves without human intimacy.
A cat then appears in the yard and we notice it lurking around.
Without the urgencies of family responsibility, the notion of putting out food
fills the blankness beneath the conscious mind, and the cat soon turns up
every evening at the appointed time. One thing leads to another, and before
long the cat comes into the house. It rubs against your leg, meows for food,
jumps onto your lap. A name comes to mind. And you are on the way to
conversion. Cat, dog, parrot, potbellied pig, hamster, canary, et cetera, et
cetera—for any number of reasons, people find themselves with animals in
lieu of humans, and if you could read their deepest feelings and thoughts,
you would find that many of them are much happier than you might
imagine. There are many paths through life, and some continue past the
picket fence and the cozy bungalow of conventional dreams.
However, the vast majority of people do take the normal path,
settling down with husband or wife, begetting a family. The world runs
according to their values, as it must. The machinery of civilization with its
industries, farms, hospitals, universities, government, all depends on people
who course through life in that vast river of humanity known as the
mainstream, accepting without question the traditional way in which we
humans view ourselves against the backdrop of planet, cosmos, eternity,
infinity. That view, with its self-promotional exultation, is essentially a
Human Chamber of Commerce: "What a piece of work is a man, How noble
in spirit, how infinite in faculty . . . in apprehension how like a god." Or, "God
said, Let us make man in our image/ . . . and let them have dominion . . .
over every creeping thing/that creepeth upon the earth." And ever since
Darwin, "The Pinnacle of Evolution."
There is no understanding Life in its larger, planetary sweep so
long as one adheres to this anthropocentric point of view, and we shall
come back to this fact. Suffice it to say that the cat offers another way of
seeing things.

All of which implies a set of core values essential to mainstream
philosophy. These values are compressed into one hard, tough little three-
word pellet of an expression: "Get a life."
"Get a life" most often implies that one is wasting time in trivial
pursuits and ought to do something more significant with one"s time.
Keeping in mind that an extremist is anyone whose opinions are extremely
different from your own, the mainstream person senses intuitively that those
who cross the divide between animal and man have values that pose some
sort of threat. In fact, the love of other creatures could, theoretically,
revolutionize the nature of civilization. Civilization is manufactured in large
part from living things, and if a majority of humans were to embrace all forms
of life, treating them as kin with respect and reverence, the cost would come
back to us in countless proscriptions and deprivations. Animal
experimentation, animal husbandry, amusement parks, aquaria, and circuses
would be strictly curtailed or eliminated altogether; the trade in ivory and
ornamental furs would be eliminated; and 2 billion Asian men, deprived of
tiger penis and rhinoceros horn, would be reduced to bleating castrati.
"Get a life" speaks to all of that. As a rebuke, it ranges in strength
from gentle, patronizing reproach to utter, baleful hatred, depending on how
radically the person addressed appears to differ from mainstream society,
and when the lover of animals advocates animal rights, "get a life"
becomes "fringe zealot."
The point being that it is natural and normal and inevitable for
people sweeping past in the mainstream to belittle the lover of animals.
Normal, mainstream people are not capable of understanding the mindset
that lovers of animals evolve toward their companions for the simple,
physiological reason that the brains and the minds of normal people grow
chiefly around their spouses and children and only secondarily around their
pets. Humans require the overwhelming share of attention. Animals get
emotional leftovers. Mainstream human values, therefore, function as a
social mechanism, like the invisible hand of Adam Smith, to glorify the
human image of its species self. Those who take alternative paths must
expect a certain level of prejudice and persecution and accept it, because
that is how reality works.
Now if the deep love of one"s animal companion is essentially a
surrogate affair—a relationship that often grows in the absence of human
companionship—and if society tends to look with raised brow and wrinkled
nose at folks who go this road, that is not to say the rewards are
necessarily inferior to those derived from the company of humans. In fact,
one of the greatest of alternative rewards is the very absence of humanity. To
live with animals is to recognize how obtrusive and harrowing the minds of
other humans can be and to realize, ultimately, that innocence is nothing but
the absence of the adult human mind. That is why animals are innocent, that
is why infants are innocent, that is why sleeping adults appear as innocent
as prior experience will allow you to perceive. By contrast, the
companionship of a cat or dog or other creature requires no deceit and little
conniving and allows us to indulge whatever fancy we will. Words cannot
express what a pleasure this is.
Still, to have a creature at the center of one"s world is the mark,
according to mainstream standards, of a very little life, a life on the fringe.
Ah, the irony of dwelling at this "fringe." You stand at the portal to another
dimension, a universe so vast and rich and endlessly fascinating that once
you have passed through, your perceptions of life, your values, your entire
image of self, will be permanently altered. The cat sits upright and alert at
the entrance to this portal, and you enter through its eyes, through those
ecstatically clear, still eyes, passing into its mind, into its view of the world,
into a comprehension of life that obliterates the human illusion and purges
the Human Chamber.
The intimacy that humans crave at the center of love draws you
inexorably into the animal"s mind, yearning to feel how a different being
knows the world. As time goes on, you begin to experience a sense of
oneness, as if you actually are the creature you love, and when this occurs
you have passed the point of no return. That which the animal gains, the
human species loses, and your allegiance to Homo sapiens has been
You have also been liberated. Now, for the first time, you stand at
an emotional and intellectual distance from the values of humanity looking
back at your own kind, and now you see Homo sapiens through the values
of another species. How utterly self-absorbed we humans are, so narrow in
vision, so parochial in interests, so driven by appetite, the infant mewling at
the center of its own cosmos. Yes, and how unsapient our society appears
from beyond the self, spinning faster and faster in a tarantella of quotidian
chores, errands, duties, rushing forward in a fog of sightless schedules and
commitments, and always, always poking, probing, questing for yet more
efficiency in our appetite of appetites.

So it was, during my forty-fifth year on this glowing blue Earth, that a cat
entered my house and stole my heart. When he beckoned me with a blink
and a yawn, I followed him away on a journey to exotic lands and strange
cultures. Why not? I thought. I had nothing to lose. The time was right. I
had no wife and family to set my agenda and I could travel light, exploring
places where those with children and the essential allegiance to Homo
sapiens were not able to follow. And off I went, taking nothing with me but the
spirit of science and the love of this little creature, because the spirit and the
love were all I needed for the journey on which I had naively embarked.
Not long after we left, other cats entered my house, in particular
Hoover and Little Grey, and as the bonds between us strengthened and our
love and respect deepened, I became fluent in their language, and gradually
it dawned on me that my companions had ulterior motives. They were not

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