“The special privileges we have assigned ourselves” – How to be Animal by Melanie Challenger

IMG_2022-2-8-063506Melanie Challenger, researcher and environmental philosopher, is the author of On Extinction: How we Became Estranged from Nature. Now she has written a second book on the subject of humankind’s relationship with nature. This book, How to be Animal, is in a way an exploration of what social distancing has meant for the animal kingdom. As we currently distance ourselves from other members of our own species in order to avoid a deadly virus, it is interesting to think that we have already been doing it for centuries with all the other species on the planet. Psychologically, socially and even biologically we have gradually seen ourselves as more and more separate from other animals: a species apart and deserving of special consideration. This beautifully written book explores the reasons behind the special privileges we have assigned ourselves, and asks the question, do we really deserve them? What is wrong with being an animal in the first place?

There is a whole legacy within us, which is by definition animal. We are, in fact, living ‘inside a paradox’ in the sense that ‘it’s so blindly obvious that we’re animals and yet some part of us doesn’t believe it’. This is because for centuries we have seen ourselves as the chosen ones among the rest of creation. We have anchored these myths into the bedrock of religion right from the start and they are hard to pick apart. I casually mentioned to some friends how I’d been reading a book that suggests our perceived superiority to animals might not be correct. ‘But it is correct,’ they said. ‘We’ve gone to space, invented the Internet and we can solve equations faster than a primate.’ So it is likely that Author Melanie Challenger has her work cut out.

The trouble is, argues Ms Challenger, our separateness from other animals has been further reinforced by the idea that we alone have a soul. It’s true that some religions do perceive animals as having some sort of soul, but the general idea puts the soul in the unique realm of humankind exclusively. We have a sense of self; other animals do not. We have intrinsic value; they do not. We are moral beings; they are not.

This should sound off alarm bells for narcissism, but for some reason it doesn’t. Mistaken views on evolution only serve to reinforce our own ideas, partly because, despite the warning of Darwin about the branching out of evolution, we like to think of it as moving in an upward direction, a similar misconception to the once held assumption about the arrow of time before Quantum Mechanics took it all apart. Have you ever stood in front of that picture board on the evolution from primates to Homo Sapiens at the Natural History Museum, for example, and wondered why the picture is so linear? Why can’t it be more like a tree with many branches, of which Homo Sapiens is simply one? The trouble is, that this misconception about what we truly are has given us the Gatling gun and full set of ammunition that we needed to be able to destroy our environment with relative impunity. We now live in a world where ‘the flourishing of human persons is thought to be a moral act’. But are we as moral as we’d like to think we are? Do we really live up to our divine status as the rightful rulers of the animal kingdom?

We don’t need to read a book to know the answer to that one. But How to be Animal probes deep into these questions and gives us the science behind the answers. We need that science if we are to turn the page on our own arrogance and replace it with something more enduring. Only science has the power to effect real change.

But alongside the science there is more. This book has an anecdotal side, a personal touch besides the science. As the author describes her family’s search for rare orchids in a field, she comes across the bee orchid, a flower that ‘creates the image of a bee without the eyes to see it’. As Challenger shares her own discoveries and dwells on that particularly human fear of death, of ‘never waking up’ and ‘being gone forever’, perhaps there is a vital lesson here. If the distances between us can be broken down by shared experience, surely if we see ourselves as animal not human, something very valuable might be gained.

Any Cop?: ‘…a heady optimism that this is the best era in our history should, at the least, awaken our curiosity. What might come in the aftermath of our celebrations as we appraise what we have done to life on Earth?’

Lucille Turner

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