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The Human Animal in Western Art and Science

From the lazy, fiddling grasshopper to the sneaky Big Bad Wolf, children’s stories and fables enchant us with their portrayals of animals who act like people. But the comparisons run both ways, as metaphors, stories, and images—as well as scientific theories—throughout history remind us that humans often act like animals, and that the line separating them is not as clear as we’d like to pretend.

Here Martin Kemp explores a stunning range of images and ideas to demonstrate just how deeply these underappreciated links between humans and other fauna are embedded in our culture. Tracing those interconnections among art, science, and literature, Kemp leads us on a dazzling tour of Western thought, from Aristotelian physiognomy and its influence on phrenology to the Great Chain of Being and Darwinian evolution. We learn about the racist anthropology underlying a familiar Degas sculpture, see paintings of a remarkably simian Judas, and watch Mowgli, the man-child from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, exhibit the behaviors of the beasts who raised him. Like a kaleidoscope, Kemp uses these stories to refract, reconfigure, and echo the essential truth that the way we think about animals inevitably inflects how we think about people, and vice versa.

Loaded with vivid illustrations and drawing on sources from Hesiod to La Fontaine, Leonardo to P. T. Barnum, The Human Animal in Western Art and Science is a fascinating, eye-opening reminder of our deep affinities with our fellow members of the animal kingdom.

320 pages | 187 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2007

Louise Smith Bross Lecture Series

Art: Art--General Studies

History of Science


“Working on a broad canvas, Martin Kemp explores the relationship of mankind to the animal world a perceived in the West since the Renaissance. The book demonstrates wide reading in science and its history, but its firm basis is in Kemp’s knowledge of the visual arts. His original and compelling use of visual evidence makes The Human Animal in Western Art and Science far more than just a beautiful coffee-table book.”

David M. Knight, Durham University

 "In The Human Animal in Western Art and Science, Martin Kemp displays

characteristic erudition and rigour. Anyone fascinated by humans and animals

will be enriched by his narrative."

Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature

“This fascinating and unprecedented study is a model of true interdisicplinarity, illuminating a strain of thought that has received little attention. It compellingly demonstrates how utterly central questions about the relationship between humans and animals have been and continue to be within larger philosophical debates. A significant contribution to the history of ideas.”

Rachael Ziady DeLue, Princeton University

"How much of the animal is there within us? Conversely, how much is human in animals? . . . Kemp answers these questions. Science, from Darwin to the latest neuroscience and genomics, has shown that there is no sharp animal–human divide, only a sliding scale. And in guiding us to this conclusion, Kemp’s six chapters deviate through an amusing and erudite visual history, drawing from art, philosophy, literature, film and other cultural media."

Alison Abbott | Nature

“Beginning with a lucid (and rather gruesomely illustrated) discussion of the four humours, which humans and animals were thought to share, Mr. Kemp moves through the centuries. Dürer, Cranach, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt may occupy pride of place, and rightly so, but many fascinating, lesser known figures appear as well. . . . Although Mr. Kemp is steeped in the works of the great masters of Western art, he has an endearing taste for kitsch that he draws on to enliven his discussion. . . . Through such images, high and low, Mr. Kemp illumines the shadowy interchanges between the realms of man and beast to show, yet again, that however parallel they may seem, they constantly intersect.”--Eric Ormsby, New York Sun

Eric Ormsby | New York Sun

“The animal and the human are not just allegorical companions; Darwin showed how close they really are. . . . Martin Kemp shows just how powerful the theme is, and how essential it is to Western traditions of art and science. The animal is used to reveal the human, the human to reveal the animal.”

Edward Rothstein | New York Times

"Wonderfully written, erudite, beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated. . . . The Human Animal would be important and absorbing even if it were only a contribution to intellectual history. . . . It is this, of course; but it is much more than this, if only because many of the ideas he explores are currently in the ascendant. . . . Kemp’s magisterial investigation of one of the fundamental metaphors pervading man’s thought about himself is consequently of immense inmportance."

Raymond Tallis | Brain

Table of Contents


     The Louise Smith Bross Lectures by John Bross
     Preface and Acknowledgements

     Introduction: Facing up to Ourselves


     1   Fixing the Signs
     2   Feelings and Faces


     3   From Meaning to Mechanism
     4   Fable and Fact: La Fontaine and Buffon


     5   Beastly Boys and Admirable Animals
     6   Our Animal Cousins
     7   Art and Atavism

     A Literary-Cinematic Postscript
     A Personal Footnote
     Further Reading

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