Perhaps it is human nature to rank things. We rank cities and states and countries. We have the best restaurants and best movies; we even have best friends. And when it comes to our relationships with animals we share this planet with, there is a fair amount of ranking there as well, with the human animal emerging on top. Always on top.
In How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, Melanie Challenger tactfully dismantles the pervasive myth that the human animal is more evolved than all other animals. In doing so, Challenger has created a book that will go a long way in reconnecting ourselves with our animal selves and, hopefully, becoming better versions of ourselves.
Early on Challenger writes: “The truth is that being human is being animal. This is a difficult thing to admit if we are raised on a belief in our distinction.”
Indeed, most of us have been raised to believe humans are more evolved than other creatures. And this belief helps us rationalize the extreme cruelty and disregard we inflict upon the world’s animals. Which is no doubt why we cling so tightly to this world view of superiority.
But Challenger does an excellent job of deconstructing this world view, by taking the reader on a journey through history, anthropology, biology and neuroscience. She points out that Darwin himself was careful not to use words like higher or lower to imply that any species was better than the other. Or that evolution necessarily moves in one direction.
This “tree of life” that has been inculcated into us was not Darwin’s intention at all. Challenger writes:
We convince ourselves that our beliefs have little to do with the rest of the living world. After all, animals don’t have minds or intentions like ours. Yet relying on this old idea saddles us with a moral system that is inconsistent to a fault. And the inconsistency is beginning to show.
What’s troubling these days is not just our dysfunctional relationship with animals and nature as a whole, but the eagerness by which we ascribe intelligence to computers while withholding it from animals. We treat Siri and Alexa with more respect than we do the birds outside our window who exhibit far more intelligence every hour of the day.
And then we have a handful of billionaires who think we (they) should colonize the solar system and, while they’re at it, extend human life a few hundred years. Challenger diagnoses the symptoms of this disease, a mind in conflict with itself and an unhealthy fear of death and dying. Perhaps because death reminds us, even the most wealthy of us, that we are more animal than not. Just as Hamlet wrestled with his mortality when he held Yorick’s skull, we wrestle with it (or desperately try to avoid it) today. But there are a new urgency today, with the planet in crisis and billions of animal lives in the balance. Our behaviors need to change, which minds our minds need to evolve.
Our value systems place constraints on our behavior. To help us to stop over-utilizing our planet in a way that is detrimental to life as a whole, we may need to light on the feelings, sensations, intelligence and intentions of the other lives around us. And, as we see into these lives, there’s nothing to stop us extending intrinsic value to them. Perhaps intrinsic value is only a human concept. Or perhaps it’s the way an animal comes to care for another animal without conditions.
Challenger has given us a book that not only breaks down old myths but paves the way to a more compassionate, more optimistic future. One in which our minds and bodies are no longer in conflict. One in which we no longer have to try to explain to our children why our pet dogs and cats deserve love and care but pigs and cows and chickens deserve not one once of empathy. Children don’t understand this, nor should they be required to.
It is time to move on, to evolve. We owe it to our children. We owe it to ourselves. And we owe it to the animals.
How To Be Animal
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).