The Book of the Creatures

When we forget how to read nature, we forget how to read ourselves.

Peter Mommsen
Peter Mommsen is a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional community movement based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine, and author of Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold. Mommsen lives in upstate New York with his wife Wilma and their three children.

Dogs evolved “expressive eyebrows” to trigger feelings of affection in humans, according to a 2019 study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that in the thirty thousand years since dogs separated from wolves and began consorting with us, their faces have changed so that their eyes “appear larger and more infant-like” and are capable of mimicking human expressions. When they look at us, we feel the same tenderness as when we’re face-to-face with a young child. Put more cynically, dogs have managed to hack into our most primal emotion.

Is it then instinctive manipulation when my Brittany hound gazes at me with his sad and eager eyes? No doubt, but that’s not the whole story. By analyzing hormone levels, the same study showed that dogs feel a pleasurable rush when their masters show them affection. Their masters feel the same, thanks to the same chemical, oxytocin. Evidently, we have learned to communicate as fellow creatures who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

People in earlier centuries took the joy we feel in other living things at face value, as a pointer to a theological truth. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all,” wrote the Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Frances Alexander in her well-known 1848 hymn. With childlike sweetness, the hymn sums up a core belief shared by most religions. Flowers, birds, humans, stars: we are all creatures, the handwork of a Creator. “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” declares the first sentence of Genesis, which then sums up the creation story with the affirmation: “And it was very good.”

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