We love going to zoos. We click on a seemingly endless supply of cat videos. We stop to pet other people’s friendly dogs in the park (well, some of us do). David Barash, an evolutionary biologist, tries to ferret out in his essay, “Animal Magnetism,” why it might have enhanced our survival to be so moved by the furry faces of animals.
He proposes that in our past, our survival depended on attention to animals, both our predators and our prey. Our ancestors who were attuned to the presence and habits of other beasts, especially to sabre-toothed cats, cave bears, wolves, and the like, would have had a selective advantage. Those who noticed and caught animals to eat would have been rewarded as well.
Now, though, Barush exclaims about how our propensity to “really see” animals has “inspired a dizzying world of artistic creativity.” He cites John James Audubon’s bird portraits, Henri Rousseau’s painting The Dream (1910), and Christopher Smart’s 18th-century poem about his cat, Jeoffry, among other artists and writers who have created great animal works.