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

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.:

Introduction

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 love.
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 constructed.
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 exxxxxperience 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 proscrip...

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