Alexander Fiske-Harrison was born in London in 1976, the youngest of three brothers. They grew up between London and rural East Anglia. His eldest brother Byron was an Army officer. His middle brother, Jules William Fiske Harrison, was, according to The Times, “a famously skilled and fearless skier” and the Daily Telegraph, “a formidable athlete on the slopes.” He was killed in a skiing accident in Zermatt, Switzerland in 1988.
Alexander was educated at the Universities of Oxford and London, beginning in Biological Sciences after a lifelong fascination with animals, having joined the World Wildlife Fund (as it then was) in 1988, aged 11, and Greenpeace in 1994, aged 16. He has remained a member of the former for three decades.
He studied under Dr Malcolm Coe, who in those days divided his time between the Department of Zoology at Oxford University and Tsavo National Park in Kenya, specialising in elephant ecology.
Alexander went on to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics, specialising in political theory and the philosophy of Kant and Wittgenstein, studying under Dr John Kenyon (who, via his own tutor, Dr Jonathan Bennett, can claim a direct line of teaching all the way back to Kant himself.)
At the London School of Economics and Political Science he studied as a postgraduate at the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, his thesis on the possibility of revising the laws of classical logic in the light of quantum theory in physics. He returned to philosophy of biology and consciousness, studying under Professor David Papineau at King’s College, London, before leaving academia (with Master of Science and Master of Arts degrees.)
Having written as an undergraduate for the Oxford University student newspaper The Word, he first published on the philosophy of Hume and Kant in The Times Literary Supplement in 1997, aged 21, and then in The Times soon after. He has since written for those publications many times, as well as the Sunday Times, The Independent, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, GQ, The Spectator, The American Spectator, Prospect and Frieze magazines. He has also written in Spanish for ABC and El Norte de Castilla. He has been profiled in The Times, The New York Times, Condé Nast’s Tatler, ¡Hola! magazine in Spain. He has been interviewed on the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, and presented on the Discovery Channel for Bear Grylls.
His first long feature was after serving as a judge on the Loebner Prize 2000, the largest international contest of Artificial Intelligence. He wrote the commentary essay on that and the philosophy of AI, Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein for The TLS. His conclusions were technical but wide-ranging,
“The truth of the matter is hard to come by. Sufficiently good simulations of humans will inevitably come, and when they do, we may end up with no choice but to concede to their consciousness. One of the problems of consciousness is that we “identified” people and certain animals as conscious long before we “knew” (in the linguistic sense) they were so. Now scientific enquiry begs us to name our conditions for identifying something as conscious, and the trouble is that we do not really have any…. Wittgenstein hit this nail on the head with the comment, “My attitude towards him was an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.” For if it was mere opinion, or a piece of ordinary knowledge, it could be disconfirmed, which our thoughts on the consciousness of others can not… “
Continuing the theme of non-human intelligence he visited Georgia State University’s Language Research Centre in Atlanta to spend time with Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the bonobo Kanzi and the other great apes housed there. He wrote about his experience, the philosophy and the science of ape language research and its bearing on animal welfare in a cover-page essay for the FT ‘Weekend’, concluding that,
“It is only by fully grasping the intellectual capacities of the apes that we will be able to provide them with even rudimentary welfare standards.
[For] the great danger now is that great apes are kept alive merely to prevent the species going extinct, housed for generations in a prison-like environment that could produce mental deterioration leading to full mental disorder.”
Back when still an undergraduate student, Fiske-Harrison had been a winner of the Oxford New Writing Prize 1998 with his stage play The Death Of An Atheist, which was performed at the Wadham Theatre. He had also acted in Cuppers, the Oxford University Drama Society’s annual festival, in W. B. Yeat’s The Only Jealousy Of Emer, directed by his friend Hugh Dancy.
From 2004-2005 he attended one of New York’s most famous ‘Method’ acting schools, the Stella Adler Conservatory, when its greatest alumnus, Marlon Brando, was chairman. Alexander’s professional debut as an actor was in the Jacobean play The Second Maiden’s Tragedy at the Hackney Empire in London. His West End debut, as actor and playwright, was The Pendulum in 2008. Michael Billington, writing in The Guardian, awarded it three stars and said:
“Fiske-Harrison has clearly done his homework. The author himself plays the disintegrating hero with the right poker-backed irascibility;…it is refreshing to find a new play that gets away from bedsit angst… one comes away with the sensation of having seen an accomplished historical play.”
He has also acted in independent film and theatre in the US, Germany and Italy
In 2008, Prospect magazine published an essay of Fiske-Harrison’s about Spanish bullfighting, drawing on his studies in animal behaviour, moral philosophy, drama and the half dozen bullfights he had witnessed over the years. Noting that fighting bulls also enter the food chain after death and live three times as long, on average, as meat cattle, and are reared wild, he concluded that,
“There is something ironic about British families sitting down to watch wildebeests eviscerated by lions on Big Cat Diary after a nice joint of roast beef while deploring their Spanish cousins when they are sitting down to watch a bullfight.”
Inspired to apply the immersive techniques he had first learned in acting to writing – he has been called a ‘Method writer’ both on radio (BBC) and in print (The Independent) – Fiske-Harrison moved to Spain in late 2008 to investigate the subject further. He wrote up his research on his blog, ‘The Last Arena: In Search Of The Spanish Bullfight‘.
He turned this into a book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, which was published in the UK on May 26th, 2011 by Profile Books. A critical and commercial success, The Times called him “the bullfighter-philosopher” and it was shortlisted for ‘The Bookie Prize’, the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award – “the world’s oldest and richest sports writing prize” – five months later.
His ethical conclusions on the topic were complex. The Daily Mail said that although Alexander “develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it,” the Financial Times said, “it’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting,” and the Literary Review concluded: “The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”
He has since lectured on the subject at the University of Seville, for the Foundation of Taurine Studies at the Royal Maestranza of Seville, at the University of Oxford, Eton College, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and alongside the Ambassador of Spain, to an audience including British Members of Parliament.
He has run with the bulls in town across Spain for several years the editor and co-author of the 2014 eBook guide to ‘running the bulls’, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. The only official guide in the English language, it has a foreword by the Mayor of Pamplona and contributions from John Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Beatrice Welles and great American and Spanish bull-runners including Joe Distler, Bill Hillmann, Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Josechu Lopez and photos from senior European Pressphoto Agency photographer and 50-year Pamplona veteran Jim Hollander and award-winning Spanish photographer Nicolás Haro.
Revisiting the notion of ‘The Method’, he was consultant on the BAFTA nominated and Academy Award long-listed 2015 documentary on Marlon Brando, Listen To Me Marlon, directed by Stevan Riley for Universal Pictures.
He is currently working in Romania on a book on wolves and dogs and their interactions and common evolutionary heritage with humans, provisionally titled The Land Of Wolves. His blog on his progress is at www.thelandofwolves.com. He can be emailed via firstname.lastname@example.org.