second, human, half of the equation, the comforting part, but when you put your hand overthat and consider only the first, it’s a little startling: God cares deeply about the sparrows. Not just that, He cares about them individually. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?”Jesus says. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” Sparrows are an importantanimal for Jesus. In the so-called
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
, a boy Jesus, playing in mud by the river, fashions twelve sparrows out of clay—again the number is mentioned—until a fellow Jew, happening to pass, rebukes him for breaking the Sabbath laws (against “smoothing,”perhaps), at which point Jesus claps and says, “Go!”, and the sparrows fly away chirping. They are not, He says, forgotten. So God
them, bears them in mind. Stranger still, Hecares about their deaths. In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them willfall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch,and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creationsense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the
liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29. Thepassage may make no sense anyway. The sparrow population shows little sign of divineministrations: two years ago the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds placed housesparrows on its “Red List” of globally threatened species. Charles Darwin supposedly said thatthe suffering of the lower animals throughout time was more than he could bear to think of.That feels, if slightly neurotic, more scrupulously observed.
he modern conversation on animal consciousness proceeds, with the rest of theEnlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (andapprovingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat withoutpleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was
—windup toys, like the Renaissanceprotorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues”that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants. This ishow it was with animals, Descartes held. We look at them—they seem so full of depth, so likeus, but it’s an illusion. Everything they do can be attached by causal chain to some process,some natural event. Picture two kittens next to each other, watching a cat toy fly around, theirheads making precisely the same movements at precisely the same time, as if choreographed,two little fleshy machines made of nerves and electricity, obeying their mechanical mandate.Descartes’ view drew immediate controversy. Writers such as the naturalist John Ray, in
TheWisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation
(1691), protested on behalf of “thecommon sense of mankind” that if “beasts were
or machines, they could have nosense, or perception of pleasure, or pain…which is contrary to the doleful significations they make when beaten, or tormented.” A view with which most of us can sympathize, but one thatrests to a regrettable extent on naked anthropomorphism—their screams
ours, andso must mean the same thing.