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A Publication of


From The Ark Number 189 - Winter 2001

Book Review

The Emperor’s Embrace: fatherhood in evolution
by Jeffrey Masson
UK: Vintage, 2000, 16.99 (hbk), 6.99 (ppbk).

Psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson is the animals’ friend.  His recent writing has a common theme: animals and humans are kindred spirits as so much of our emotional worlds overlap.  If you have read his When Elephants Weep: the emotional lives of animals, (with Susan McCarthy), and Dogs never Lie about Love: reflections on the emotional lives of dogs, you will know of Masson’s vitality, depth of research and urgency which make his writings compelling as well as educative.

The Emperor’s Embrace will not disappoint.  I found myself carried into the marvellous and incredible world of the planet’s best fathers.   The Emperor Penguin is tops in dedication and tenacity.  Read the book to learn the astounding facts of how the male penguins guard the egg in their pouch during the weeks of the deepest Antarctic winter, while the females are ‘offshore’ feeding.  Contrary to common knowledge, there is a male on this planet who gives birth?  Yes, just one: the sea horse.  And an excellent devoted father/mother he is.  Wolves and beavers are serious fathers, always available to protect and teach their offspring.  Prairie dogs are fun fathers, on duty to their cubs for insight as well as play.  Masson accounts the individuality of prairie dogs from the evidence of observers and scientists.

A few years ago, Masson found himself a father for the second time after a gap of twenty-odd years from his first fathering experience.  He wanted to do it better this time.  He looked into a diversity of fathering styles from the animal kingdom.

‘I am struck by the thought that when (childhood development) is accompanied and facilitated by play, it is easier, more natural, less defensive, or even traumatic.  Will this allow Ilan ( Masson’s toddler), when he is fully adult, to maintain a playful relation with me?’ (p.191)

Masson hopes that his research and writing will increase our respect for the animal kingdom.  He details the dedication of countless species of birds.   It seems that the species who form monogamous relationships for life are the best fathers and husbands: ‘ninety-two per cent of the eighty-six-hundred-odd species of bird are primarily monogamous.’ (p.155)  We have all had first-hand experience with the frenetic food gathering of both father and mother birds for their young. However, with flightless birds, like emu, ostrich, mallee fowl, rhea and kiwi it is the male alone who has the task of incubating the eggs and raising the chicks.  Species of geese and ducks take on this role, too.  One drake keeps the ducklings under his wings when danger comes.  Fish and frogs make fine fathers too.

‘While we watch other animals be good fathers to their children, it is with a jolt that we realise they do so without the.benefit of expert advice. They do what comes naturally to them.  Does fatherhood come naturally to human fathers?   I think it does, as long as there is no interference and our minds are not cluttered with harmful prejudices, among which is the mistaken idea in the popular imagination that no other animal is ever a good father.’ (p.206)

Of course, within the animal world there are bad fathers, too: lions, bears, langurs and most primates, and elephants are dangerous fathers - as some humans are.  Dogs are very careless (although Masson is of the opinion that dogs are excellent fathers to human pups).  The amount of time or the lack of time that fathers spend with their offspring is one yardstick by which we designate a father as good or bad.  Masson speaks of all those human fathers who wish that they had spent more time with their children when they are young.

‘Human fathers evolved, like many animal fathers, to care for and feed their partners and their children, to love and protect them, to stay with and not abandon them.  Too often our human arrogance has interfered with natural design to our detriment.’ (p.207)

Compelling reading always, one selection of good fathers is followed by the eternal question worrying men ‘Is this my child?’  Each chapter is well annotated with its references to scientific writings and there is a select biography referring us to five pages of further reading. Masson is a thorough researcher.

I recommend this book.  It is a delightful but informative read with a soul which rewards. Masson wants fathers to protect their children from cruelties and unkindnesses while instilling in them the ideal of practising compassion and care.

‘We can do this best by the examples of our own lives, caring for our children and other helpless creatures with intense devotion and joy at the wonder of the world we have evolved with to share with other creatures so much like us, and yet so enchantingly different.’ (p.212)

Alice Shore

Return to The Ark No. 189

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