Picture an English garden on a hot summer day in the early 1870s. Charles Darwin is resting on a bamboo armchair in the backyard of his Down House at Kent, with his dog beside him. One or more women must have been strolling around, leaving an open parasol behind. Suddenly a slight breeze blows, the parasol moves, and the dog starts growling. The stillness of the picturesque landscape is instantly shattered and from the English countryside we are suddenly thrown into the jungle:
The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences, is perhaps illustrated by a little fact which I once noticed: my dog, a full grown and very sensible animal, was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and no stranger had a right to be on his territory.
While sitting in his garden, Darwin might have been ruminating on his recent reading of descriptions of animist religions in “primitive societies” by nineteenth-century British anthropologists, such as Edward Tylor, Herbert Spencer, and John Lubbock, all of whom are cited in the scientist’s footnotes in the same section as the story of the dog. In the ethnographic accounts collected in such narratives, it is not parasols, but trees, bamboo shoots, and seashells that sway, hiss, or whistle, eliciting the defensive reactions of the fearful “savages.” Such auditory illusions were considered by Covent Garden anthropologists to be the very origins of animistic beliefs—a perfect aural supplement to Darwin’s own anthropological observation in his garden.
It is as if the dog’s growl crossed a line between different topographies: animal and human, “savage” and civilized, textual and real. Darwin himself attempts to anthropomorphize his dog: “full grown and very sensible” as well as capable of rationalizing the agency of movement. The dog, in turn, momentarily animalizes Darwin’s mind, causing his thoughts to swerve and forcing him to identify reason as, essentially, an animal defense. The dog no longer represents a domestic animal but a radically disruptive form of animality. Its growling is similar to a pre-linguistic sign, such as mumbling, trying (and failing) to fully articulate a reaction.
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