Writing Essays – Seeing the New View in Carl Sagan’s Essay, The Abstraction of Beasts

If you’ll follow and learn this three-step method of analyzing published essays I show here, you’ll be able to understand published essays and write your own essays about them.

Carl Sagan has written an excellent essay, “The Abstraction of Beasts,” providing another strong illustration of the old view – new view pattern intuitively used in all published essays.

#1 – Usually in the first paragraph, an old view is stated that leads directly to a new view thesis, most often a reversal of the old view. The new view thesis is stated at the end of that paragraph or within the next paragraph or two or so, depending on the length of the essay.

You noticed, didn’t you, that Sagan immediately identifies the old view in the very first sentence of the first paragraph:

“Beasts abstract not,” announced John Locke, expressing mankind’s prevailing opinion throughout recorded history.

Hard to miss, right? But did you spot the new view thesis in his second paragraph? There, Sagan suggests his new view thesis reverse of the old view with two questions:

Could abstract thought be a matter not of kind but of degree? Could other animals be capable of abstract thought but more rarely or less deeply than humans?

Note that, although he’s suggesting a reverse of the old view, Sagan is saying, not of kind but of degree and but more rarely or less deeply than humans. So he’s suggesting that the reverse of Beasts abstract not is possible- that beasts actually do abstract – but perhaps not a complete reversal, not fully up to the level of human abstracting. Now read paragraphs three and four of the essay (begins, We have the impression that) and four (begins, There is, of course,). In that third paragraph-after restating in the first sentence the idea that animals are not very intelligent-Sagan asks a long question: But have we examined the possibility of animal intelligence carefully enough, or, as in Francois Truffaut’s poignant film “The Wild Child,” do we simply equate the absence of our style of expression of intelligence with the absence of intelligence?

The important part of that question is the very last part – or do we simply equate the absence of our style of expression of intelligence with the absence of intelligence?

To respond to that question, Sagan then provides a quote from Montaigne (who in 1580 published the first book ever on essays) that questions man’s ability to communicate, not animals’ ability to communicate. (Ignore the footnote in the essay, but read it later, okay?)

The first sentence of the fourth paragraph begins by reversing the first sentence of the third paragraph (animals are not very intelligent), or at least indicating that there’s an exception: There is, of course, a considerable body of anecdotal information suggesting chimpanzee intelligence.

With that beginning, you expected to find more about chimpanzee intelligence, right?

Now read paragraphs five (begins, Wallace concluded), six, and seven to see if you do find that out. Pay special attention to the last sentence of that seventh paragraph.

Paragraphs five, six, and seven do provide examples of animals showing some signs of intelligence: the baby orangutan, the chimpanzee genius, the two chimpanzees abusing the chicken, and the newborn chimp with the newborn baby being raised as equals in a human household. But at age three, the chimp could say only three words, with enormous difficulty, while the human child was happily babbling away.

Sagan then summarizes those examples by stating that chimps are only minimally competent with language, reasoning, and other higher mental functions, and he repeats the old view again: Beasts abstract not. That could be a signal the new view support is about to begin.

Now, in Sagan’s essay, read the next four paragraphs, starting with the paragraph beginning, But in thinking over these experiments and reading through the paragraph that starts with, There is by now.

In the first three of the next four paragraphs (beginning with, But in thinking over these experiments), Sagan points out how Beatrice and Robert Gardner had the brilliant idea of teaching chimpanzees a language they didn’t have to use with their mouths, the American sign language, Ameslan. Sagan doesn’t use enough keywords to let us know he’s getting back to the new view, but that’s just what he’s doing-and support does follow right away, starting with, There is by now.

#2 – Right after the new view thesis is stated, support for it begins with a story, an example, or reasoning.

And in the paragraph that begins, There is by now, Sagan generalizes that there’s a vast library of descriptions and films of chimpanzees using sign language, and then he narrows down his information to the fact that chimps are remarkably inventive in the construction of new words and phrases. In other words, chimpanzees are recorded on film-and in other ways-many times in the act of abstracting with Ameslan. (It would have been helpful if Sagan had come right out and used the keywords abstract or abstracting or abstractions, right?)

Then, despite not using introductions like for instance or for example for the next six paragraphs, Sagan gives specific examples of exact words and phrases of abstractions created and used by chimpanzees.

Take a good look at that by going back to the essay and reading from the paragraph starting, On seeing for the first time, all the way through the paragraph starting, Having learned the sign ‘open’ with a door. Then return here so we can round out our discussion on support for the new view thesis.

After all those examples of abstractions, the rest of the support for the new view thesis that beasts do abstract much like humans, includes-

  • Boyce Rensberger, the American reporter, talking Ameslan with Washoe, the chimp (Ameslan was Rensberger’s first language)
  • Chimpanzees & other primates learning other gestural languages
  • Signing primates compared with microcephalic humans
  • Chimps have parts of their left brain removed, resulting in loss of language capability, just as that removal does in humans
  • Primates passing on information from generation to generation
  • The mini-story of Helen Keller learning language
  • A quote from Charles Darwin about the effects of using language

#3 – The conclusion should briefly restate the new view thesis, summarize the thesis support from body paragraphs, and look to some future aspect of the new view.

In the fifth paragraph before the conclusion, which begins, The continued use, Sagan begins looking to the future.

Go and read that paragraph, and read through to the end of the essay.

In that paragraph, Sagan asks questions about what would happen if chimpanzees were to establish a tradition of sign language usage for a couple of hundred years – or even for a couple of thousand years, such as we humans have done with language. And he speculates that in a few thousand years chimpanzees might have myths and legends about the origins of their language, just as we have our legends of Prometheus about the origins of mankind’s language.

Then, in the very last paragraph of the essay, Sagan backs up and begins talking about the possibility that we humans may have systematically exterminated or killed nonhuman primates because they were competition for us, and so we cut off their progression toward a civilized, language-oriented future:

We may have been the agent of natural selection in suppressing the intellectual competition. I think we may have pushed back the frontiers of intelligence and language ability among the nonhuman primates until their intelligence became just indiscernible. In teaching gestural language to the chimpanzees, we are beginning a belated attempt to make amends.

Sagan’s conclusion is weak on restating the old view and on summarizing main points that support the new view thesis. But the last sentence of Sagan’s essay does suggest a future continuation of mankind’s current effort to teach sign language to chimpanzees with, We are beginning a belated attempt to make amends. If we are beginning, then that strongly suggests more to follow in the future.