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‘How to Be Animal’: The pitfalls of denying our animal nature

Accepting that fundamentally we are animals doesn’t give us the right to dominion. So we have to falsify reality by being partly not natural in order to justify that special human type of outlook. Letting go of that widens the moral circle.

MARK MATOUSEK: There is a resistance to looking at evolutionary origins of our morality and ethics. Our morality is constrained by the fact that we are carnivores. The dark side of exceptionalism is our ability to dehumanize one another. Denying our animal side robs us of the opportunity to know how to bring out the best in ourselves.

Melanie Challenger researches and writes on natural and environmental history, and the relationship of humans to the living world. She is the author of How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to be Human, On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature, and a poetry collection, Galatea, which was short-listed for the Felix Dennis Best First Collection Prize. She hosts the podcast “Enter the Psychosphere” about diverse intelligence, mind, and consciousness. We spoke from Challenger’s home in the U.K. about what is lost when we deny our animal nature…

MM: You say the only way to avoid the spread of moral compassion to other animals is to come up with a radical lie.

MC: I’ve lived rurally for a very long time and I’m surrounded by people who hunt, farm, and slaughter animals. I’ve also worked with scientists who use animals experimentally in their labs. I needed to try to make sense—in terms of moral philosophy—of what we think it is that draws the line between us and all other species. Is it dignity? Free will? Personhood?

It turns out these are simply useful ideas that justify a bias. You can understand where they’re coming from, but again, it isn’t a neat line that makes sense of doing unpleasant things to other species. Our past ideas about women and people of different races relied on false ideas that then hardened into prejudice and justification. Similar things are happening with non-human animals, but it’s more complicated because of the high level of utilization of other species and the fact that we are predatory. Our morality is constrained by the fact that we are carnivores. We kill to absorb energy and to wear clothes, but we also kill for pleasure. That makes us a complicated moral animal.

MM: Let’s talk about the roots of personhood. Where does this notion of being exceptional come from?

MC: Personhood is profoundly important to our negotiations with the world, and therefore to our survival, but we run into problems with being persons. The historical idea is that the mind and body must be made of separate essences — a substance dualism of “me” being carried around by my body. That is part of where the exceptionalism comes from. However, chimpanzees and other mammals have some sense of self and of each other. They also have complex relationships. So why do they have no legal personhood and we do?

Philosophers like Descartes promoted this complicated mind-body dualism and we haven’t moved on from that, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Darwin started us on genetic and behavioral science, yet we still haven’t quite accepted the fact that we are not the only “persons” out there…

MM: In denying our animal nature, we also cut ourselves off from the body’s intelligence.

MC: We fear that biology is going to be reductive or essentialist in some way. But you’re not going to find that there’s a less intelligent race, for instance. The science is never going to find that. Focusing on biology does mean, however, that we have to value and lift up many of the life forms that live alongside us.

MM: You say we’re the only animals that are partly not natural. We’re animals when we embrace and we give birth, but not when we make vows. We’re animals when we bite into a piece of meat, but not in our workplaces. We’re animals on the operating table, but not in a court of law. How can we begin to better bridge this contradiction?

MC: Believing we are this special human gives us the right to dominion, the right to do what we will either to another human being or to another life form. Accepting that fundamentally we are animals, doesn’t give us that nor does our biology give us that. So we have to falsify reality by being partly not natural in order to justify that special human type of outlook. Letting go of that widens the moral circle. We would have to renegotiate our relationship to many other species and rethink the kinds of relationships that we can and should be having.

This might bring certain ways of life to an end, but it’s important to remember that ways of life never die. Usually what happens is that the actual physical industry dies. This has happened thousands of times throughout history. SOURCE…


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