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Humanities Fest puts animals under microscope to yield human insights

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

10:22 AM EDT, October 18, 2013

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Cattle; chimpanzees and bonobos; dogs and dolphins; rats and mice; horses, turtles, glowworms and pigs; goats, chickens and Rin Tin Tin — and, at the center of it all, humans.

The animal kingdom, from invertebrates to dinosaurs to us, is on parade at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival, the listings for which can read like the blueprint for a successful online photo gallery. Animals (including human animals being photographed before they enter a holding pen, as in police mugshots) are among the Internet's leading click bait.

From another angle, though, the one where you actually read how the scores of CHF speakers plan to incorporate the world's fauna into their talks, the listings can read like an endlessly fascinating, intellectually challenging next several weeks.

And it was this, of course, that the crafters of the city's venerable festival — a sort of college major in microcosm, without the bothersome homework — had in mind when they themed the 2013 edition "Animal: What Makes Us Human."

The organizers dispute the idea that this year's talks sound any more compelling than ones from previous years; parents love all their children equally, of course. They point to the fact that last year's festival, with the theme of "America," set an attendance record of 36,450.

But ticket sales this year are on a pace to match that or better it, and Paul Sereno talking about dinosaurs, Frans de Waal about bonobos and Temple Grandin about cattle — to cull just three from the herd of almost 100 individually ticketed talks — are especially enticing.

We could go on: Rebecca Skloot on human-animal connections; anthropologist John Hawks on our Neanderthal selves; Jonathan Safran Foer on his influential argument for vegetarianism, "Eating Animals."

Why does the theme of animals so resonant?

"I've puzzled though it," says presenter Susan Orlean (Nov. 10), who, in addition to "The Orchid Thief," has written about her own chickens and the canine movie star Rin Tin Tin. "The nearest I can come to an explanation is that our interest in animals is as persistent and enduring as our curiosity about Martians. They are a life form that clearly has a range of behavior and emotions we can see with our own eyes. We know they are registering the world we're registering. But they will be forever a mystery that we cant unlock."

Justin Torres (Nov. 9) called his first novel "We the Animals" for reasons entirely related to the festival's theme.

"The title is reflective of the kind of thematic obsession of the book," says the 33-year-old Brooklyn writer. "Whenever you're talking about our animal selves, you're trying to investigate what makes us human … what separates us but also what connects us to the natural world.

"The book that I wrote, the concern is the battle between our instinctual, primal selves, those desires, and the domestication of those desires."

Sereno, the University of Chicago paleontologist, will talk Sunday during the fall festival's U. of C.-centric Hyde Park Day, in advance of the main body of presentations Nov. 1-10. The kickoff Northwestern Day in Evanston happened last weekend, and the festival also stages other events throughout the year.

Using dinosaurs and humans, Sereno intends to tell listeners that while their design might be intelligent, it is far from perfect. "The theme I'd like to explore is the common misconception that humans, or for that matter any complex animal, are truly well-designed for what we're doing," he says.

And if you are taking that sentence in through reading glasses, you'll have an inkling of what he means.

The animal behaviorist Temple Grandin (Nov. 9) says she reached an early breakthrough, designing cattle chutes that didn't spook the animals, by, in essence, thinking like them, bringing humans to animal level.

She is an almost purely visual thinker, she says, and so she saw things from the cows' perspective: "I got down in the chute to see what the cattle are seeing," whether it was a chain hanging down or an ominous shadow that made the animals skittish.

"I found if they removed those reflections, (the cows) just walked right up the chute" without having to be forced, Grandin says.

Bringing animals onto the program wasn't about click bait or making the festival program easy to illustrate, says Matti Bunzl, the University of Illinois anthropologist who is CHF's artistic director.

It was a reflection of what has been going on in the academy, of a coming together in recent years of science and the humanities that has led to new, interdisciplinary approaches.

At graduate school in the mid-1990s, he says, "those of us on the cultural side, we never touched biology. We never touched the natural kingdom. There was such a wall. It was a chasm.

"Then something changed. In the early- to mid-2000s, a series of humanists started having discussions with their scientific counterparts. They realized that maybe new perspectives being developed might inform how we think about human nature and culture. And the same thing from the other side. Humanists were asking biological questions and biologists were asking humanistic questions, and the next thing you know we have this new field called animal studies."

And a theme for the 2013 festival.

De Waal, the Emory University biologist (Nov. 3), is "for my money the most influential scholar" in this melding of the two realms, Bunzl says. "His last book is called 'The Bonobo and the Atheist,' and it's all about finding the evolutionary kernels for morality."

But is the selection of animals as a theme purely a reflection of what's going on in the nation's colleges and universities? Bunzl has an admission.

"I also have a pug," he says. "She played a role."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson