The Paula Gordon Show
Animal Tribes

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger brought anthropologist and author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas to the attention of millions who share her interest in other species. Ms. Thomas has studied hunter-gatherers and animal behavior first hand, living in wild places from the Kalahari Desert to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She spent much of the 1950's in Botswana and southwest Africa living among !Kung Bushmen, the first white female many of them had ever seen. Her non-fiction books The Harmless People and Warrior Herdsmen describe what she learned among African tribesmen. The Animal Wife and Reindeer Moon are fictional explorations of how humans lived in "the old way." Certain Poor Shepherds is a Christmas tale in which Ms. Thomas once again casts "lowly" animals into entirely new roles.

She lives with her family of featherless, feathered, and furry bipeds and quadrupeds in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Excerpts3:02 secs

Peterborough, NH - All species have limitations. Arrogance toward other species is ours, according to anthropologist and author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She fears arrogance will not only limit our enjoyment of and participation in the biosphere. While we have dominated and impacted the evolution of other species for millenia, we forget we are profoundly dependent on our own animal nature, more similar to other animals than different from them. If we do not now learn from them, Ms. Thomas fears we will perish.

But wait! Ms. Thomas offers us keys back into the animal kingdom from which we have estranged ourselves. Respect other creatures. Enter into their worlds. Empathy is the key. We can learn empathy from species more adept at being empathetic than we -- lions, chimps and dogs among them.

While lions and chimps are not readily accessible to most of us, our house pets are. They stand, sit and perch -- ready, willing and able to be our window to the natural world. Millions of people came to appreciate Ms. Thomas' gifts as both participant and observer reading her books The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger. "We can learn a great deal about ourselves and the world from our pets if we do not jump too quickly to conclusions," believes Ms. Thomas. Her own dogs and parrot are her guides to her current interest -- love between species.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent time in wild places from her current home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the savannahs of Africa. For years during the 1950's, she lived with the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari. They lived in "the old way" -- surviving by hunting and gathering as all of our animal brethren still live. Their culture was highly successful and capable, lasting 35,000 years, up to the end of this century. "Humans are the answer to the question, ‘What species survives successfully in the savannahs of Africa?'" Perhaps part of the success of the !Kung stemmed from their atypical openness to the ways of other peoples.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent time in wild places from her current home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the savannahs of Africa. For years during the 1950's, she lived with the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari. They lived in "the old way" -- surviving by hunting and gathering as all of our animal brethren still live. Their culture was highly successful and capable, lasting 35,000 years, up to the end of this century. "Humans are the answer to the question, ‘What species survives successfully in the savannahs of Africa?'" Perhaps part of the success of the !Kung stemmed from their atypical openness to the ways of other peoples.

The experience with the !Kung was supremely important to Ms. Thomas. Along with other anthropological expeditions to Africa, those years informed much of her fictional descriptions of humans' deep past in Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife.

What kind of human is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas? One who has not been diminished by arbitrary academic boundaries. She neither sugar-coats nor dissembles. Among her teachers are other creatures including ancient peoples, her own life companions, feathered, furry and with any number of legs, and her experiences living "very close to the earth." And Elizabeth Marshall Thomas simply radiates ... empathy.

Conversation 1

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell stories from her years living with the !Kung Bushman in the Kalahari Desert in the 1950's. They are hunter-gatherers who up to then had a whole, capable, successful material culture which had endured for 35,000 years.


Conversation 2

Ms. Thomas talks about humans' animal nature, living once as all other animals live -- hunting and gathering. "We are the answer to the question 'what kind of animal survives well in the African savannah?'" She compares how Mongolian wild horse, lions and wolves living in "the old way" solve common survival problems. She wonders how humans would fare if the mental abilities of salmons or tarantulas or wolves were dominant.

Ms. Thomas tells stories of Bushpeople she knew who lived and traveled vast expanses with absolutely nothing, yet were materially wealthy by their own definitions.

Our house pets are our window on the natural world, from whom we can learn a great deal about ourselves and the world if we do not jump to conclusions!


Conversation 3

Ms. Thomas describes how humans have been a powerful evolutionary force, "infantilizes" species through neoteny. She describes how dogs, horses, and cats came to live with us. Over time, we eliminated the most dominant, aggressive and territorial individuals, contributing directly to selection. She speculates about what happened to North America's macro-mammals when humans arrived.

Ms. Thomas talks about the importance of those things in us which are atavistic. She gives us a glimpse of her current interest -- love across species -- using dogs and parrots as examples. She urges a greater appreciation for our animal natures and stronger connections with other species.


Conversation 4

"Shame" plays an important role in human interactions. Ms. Thomas describes how the societies of social creatures (including humans) protect themselves. Group rules protect the good of the whole, among humans, dogs and cats.

She uses Stephen Budiansky's "absent minded professor" example to describe how we humans elevate our ability to theorize over all of our other animal abilities.


Conversation 5

The role of our five senses has changed. Ms. Thomas compares how she used her senses living in the African savannah to those living in New Hampshire. While humans tend to be ethnocentric, the Bushmen she knew were more open, willing to grant other people the right to be different from themselves. She notes the common evolution of all species from a premised organism.

Ms. Thomas speaks to how profoundly dependent we continue to be on our animal natures, on being only one part of the planet's much larger whole. She describes how dogs offer a good thumbnail test of how intent all creatures are on our own species.


Conversation 6

Humans have far more in common with other creatures than we think we do. We must learn to respect them. Ms. Thomas speculates on the effects of our runaway population and our technology.

Empathy is our key to entering the worlds of other animals, though we are less empathetic than lions, chimps, dogs and others. "Nothing in outer space is more miraculous that what we have here, if we chose to enter the world other animals inhabit." Ms. Thomas believes it is vital we develop a greater respect for other species if we are to survive.


Acknowledgements

Jenny Chan at Pocket Books Publishers/Simon & Schuster was the critical link connecting us to Liz Thomas. We couldn't have done it without her and we're grateful.

Liz Thomas opened her home and her heart to us. We are honored that her companions accepted us as well, sleeping quietly at our feet as we recorded. It was a great day which we will long remember.

Related Links:
Certain Poor Shepherds, The Tribe of Tiger, and Reindeer Moon are all published by Simon & Schuster (http://www.simonsays.com)


Quick buttons

© 1997 The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are
copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may
not be used in any way without the express,
written consent of Paula Gordon.
Since Oct 12, 1997 this page has been accessed times.