Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn’t think it’s an animal. And the future is being imagined by an animal that doesn’t want to be an animal. This matters. From the first flakes chipped from stone in the hands of walking apes at least several million years ago, history has arrived at a hairless primate with technologies that can alter the molecules of life.
These days, humans are agents of evolution with far greater powers than sexual selection or selective breeding. Thanks to breakthroughs in genomics and gene-editing technologies, the biology of animals, including humans, can be rewritten in various ways. We have created rodents with humanised livers or brains partly composed of human cells. We’ve made salmon that grow to our timetable. Scientists can sculpt DNA to drive lethal mutations throughout a whole population of wild animals.
Meanwhile, the rest of the living world is in crisis. In our oceans, our forests, our deserts and our plains, many other species are declining at unprecedented rates. In geological terms, we’re an Ice Age, a huge metamorphic force. Our cities and industries have left their imprint in the soil, in the cells of deep-sea creatures, in the distant particles of the atmosphere. The trouble is we don’t know the right way to behave towards life. This uncertainty exists in part because we can’t decide how other life forms matter or even if they do.
All that humans have tended to agree on is that we are somehow exceptional. Humans have lived for centuries as if we’re not animals. There’s something extra about us that has unique value, whether it’s rationality or consciousness. For religious societies, humans aren’t animals but creatures with a soul. Supporters of secular creeds like humanism make much of their liberation from superstition. Yet the majority rely on species membership as if it is a magical boundary.
This move has always been beset by problems. But, as time has passed, it has become harder to justify. Most of us act according to intuitions or principles that human needs outrank those of any other living thing. But when we try to isolate something in the human animal and turn it into a person or a moral agent or a soul, we create difficulties for ourselves. We can end up with the mistaken belief that there is something non-biological about us that is ultimately good or important. And that has taken us to a point where some of us seek to live forever or enhance our minds or become machines.
None of this is to say that there aren’t clear differences between us and everything else. Our conscious encounter with the world is a breathtaking fact of how life can evolve. We chat together about abstract concepts and chip images of ourselves out of rock. Like the beauty that a murmuration of starlings possesses, our experience seems to be more than the sum of our parts. From childhood onwards, we have a sense of identity, a kaleidoscope of memories. The sorts of skills and knowledge we bring into play in living and reproducing include the ability to fantasise and deceive, control certain urges and imagine the future. Through a blend of senses, emotions, hidden impulses and intimate narrative, we dream and we anticipate.
The human mind is an amazing natural phenomenon. Yet our kind of intelligence – having a subjective consciousness, among other things–does more than just enrich our experience of life. It provides far greater flexibility in our behaviour than might be possible without it, most especially with each other. Little wonder then that we have spent much of history asserting that human experience has a meaning and value that is lacking in the rigid lives of other animals. Surely there is something about us that can’t be reduced to simple animal stuff? Some might say that stripped of culture we become more obviously akin to the other creatures on Earth, relying on wits and body to get the energy to remain alive. Many works of art have aimed to teach that lesson, needling the imagination with the image of a human at the mercy of the forces of the natural world. But even so, we recognise that this individual has a potential for awareness that is unique in what we know–so far–of life in the universe. Here we have it. The exhilarating oddness of being something so obviously related to everything around us, and yet so convincingly different.
From HOW TO BE ANIMAL by Melanie Challenger, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Melanie Challenger.