Book Review: How To Be Animal, A New History of What it Means to Be Human

By Melanie Challenger, (Penguin Books, March, 2021)

To call someone an animal is considered a grave insult, but it is also the truth. We, the humans, we are all animals. It’s not something we like to admit, but if Melanie Challenger is correct in her thinking, embracing our animalness will help humanity better deal with new gene technologies combined with the imminent and ongoing perils of the natural world. Species are going extinct faster than we can keep track, and, being an animal species, we are not immune from the dangers. We are both victim and perpetrator of climate change.

Challenger is a bioethicist, and philosophy has its own language. Her arguments often seem repetitive because the questions are examined and reexamined from all different directions. Stick with it, because How To Be Animal provides us with some reasons to acknowledge and embrace our animalness. She starts at the beginning of our species with the vole-like mammal who emerged from the dark when the dinosaurs abruptly died during the Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction Event 66 million years ago.(Direct hits by asteroids favors teeny ground-dwellers.) From then on it was a slow crawl of one mutation and adaption after another until one branch of that vole produced the upright animal, homo sapiens, about 200,000 years ago. The Cognitive Revolution of speech and abstract thought didn’t arrive for another 130,000 years, if that. The physical body remained the same. An animal body.

Then it’s off to the races as Challenger delves into the nuts and bolts of that body, and the ethical conundrums brought about with our growing knowledge of DNA and gene-splitting. “If a skin cell now has the potential to be turned into a person, is it now as sacred as egg or sperm cell?” And what of chimeras, human-animal creations? They are no longer mythical, they are possible in a lab. All living things share the same basic genetic material, the code is just reorganized differently. If there was enough genetic manipulation non-human animals could start looking like us, and thinking like us. Or vice versa, all on a whim of some scientist in the basement. It’s a scary thought. And yet, “given that we already share half our genes with a banana, why should we protest against the insertion of some kind of amphibian gene that might give us an immune-system boost?”

Why indeed? We are already inserting all sorts of genes into plant and animal material to fight against disease and increase productivity. For a fee, anyone can have their beloved pet replaced with its genetic twin. Since we are animals, we too can be cloned, but should we? There is certainly no shortage of us now, but who knows what the future will bring? Challenger’s point is that now is the time to grapple with these issues. There are enormous implications for the future of life on this planet, so best to arm ourselves with the knowledge as is found in this deeply informative book.

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