Stinson Beach, California, 1973. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum


The joy of being animal

Human exceptionalism is dead: for the sake of our own happiness and the planet we should embrace our true animal nature

by Melanie Challenger + BIO

Stinson Beach, California, 1973. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

When I visited my grandmother at the undertakers, an hour or so before her funeral, I was struck by how different death is from sleep. A sleeping individual shimmers with fractional movements. The dead seem to rest in paused animation, so still they look smaller than in life. It’s almost impossible not to feel as if something very like the soul is no longer present. Yet my grandmother had also died with Alzheimer’s. Even in life, something of who she was had begun to abandon her. And I wondered, as her memories vanished, had she become a little less herself, a little less human?

These end-of-life stages prick our imaginations. They confront us with some unsettling ideas. We don’t like to face the possibility that irreversible biological processes in our bodies can snuff out the stunning light of our individual experience. We prefer to deny our bodies altogether, and push away the dark tendrils of a living world we fear. The trouble for us is that this story – that we aren’t really our bodies but some special, separate ‘thing’ – has made a muddle of reality. Problems flow from the notion that we’re split between a superior human half and the inferior, mortal body of an animal. In short, we’ve come to believe that our bodies and their feelings are a lesser kind of existence. But what if we’re wrong? What if all parts of us, including our minds, are deeply biological, and our physical experiences are far more meaningful and richer than we’ve been willing to accept?

As far as we know, early hunter-gatherer animist societies saw spirit everywhere. All life possessed a special, non-physical essence. In European classical thought, many also believed that every living thing had a soul. But souls were graded. Humans were thought to have a superior soul within a hierarchy. By the time of theologians such as the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, this soulful view of life had retreated, leaving humans the only creature still in possession of an immortal one. As beings with a unique soul, we were more than mere animals. Our lives were set on a path to salvation. Life was now a great chain of being, with only the angels and God above us.

But, as the Middle Ages came to a close in the 16th century, a fresh, apparently rational form of exceptionalism began to spread. The origins for this shift lie in the thinking of René Descartes, who gave the world a new version of dualism. Descartes argued that thought is so different from the physical, machine-like substance of the body that we should see humans as having two parts: the thoughtful mind and the thoughtless, physical body. This was religion refocused through a rational lens. The division between humans and the rest of nature was no longer the soul – or, at least, not only the soul – but rather our intellectual capabilities: our reason, our moral sensibilities, our gifts for abstraction. He assumed, of course, that other animals don’t think.

Enlightenment figures such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant in the 17th and 18th centuries developed this further. According to them, it was the fruits of our intelligence that made us truly human. Through mental powers, humans live more meaningfully than other beings. In other words, we humans have a soulful mind. It was even suggested that we are our thoughts, and that these phantasmal mental aspects of humans are more important and even, daringly, separable from the impoverished biology that we share with other animals.

In many ways, Darwinism posed a threat to this intensifying vision of the human and our place in nature. Charles Darwin disrupted both the idea of a neat divide between humans and other forms of life, and also complicated the possibilities for mind-body dualism. If humans had evolved from earlier, ancestral primates, then our minds, too, must have emerged through ordinary, evolutionary processes with deep roots in nature. It’s easy to forget today just how shattering Darwinism was for a whole generation. Darwin himself wrote to his friend, the American botanist Asa Gray, to express his acute fear of seeing humans as a fully integrated part of a seemingly amoral natural world, where there’s ‘too much misery’. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find the redoubling of efforts to assert new forms of human redemption in the years after publication of On the Origin of Species (1859).

One such effort came in the form of the ‘human revolution’ – the idea that some kind of cognitive leap took place in the recent evolution of Homo sapiens that forever split us from other species. Another was in the 20th-century reworking of Enlightenment humanism that sought to find scientific proofs of human exception, and to argue that only these ultimately matter. Modern humanism promised to be about the ‘complete realisation of human personality’ in an onward march ‘to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets’. The history of global philosophy on humans and other animals might be mischievously summarised as a long study in mental bias.

Having a humanlike mind has become a moral dividing line

Today, our thinking has shifted along with scientific evidence, incorporating the genetic insights of the past century. We now know we’re animals, related to all other life on our planet. We’ve also learned much about cognition, including the uneasy separation between instinct and intention, and the investment of the whole body in thought and action. As such, we might expect attitudes to have changed. But that isn’t the case. We still live with the belief that humans, in some essential way, aren’t really animals. We still cling to the possibility that there’s something extrabiological that delivers us from the troubling state of being an organism trapped by flesh and death. In the words of the philosopher Derek Parfit, ‘the body below the neck is not an essential part of us.’ Many of us still deny that human actions are the result of our animal being, instead maintaining that they’re the manifestation of reason. We think our world into being. And that’s sometimes true. The trouble comes when we think our thoughts are our being.

There are real-world consequences to these ideas. Having a humanlike mind has become a moral dividing line. In our courts, we determine what we can and can’t do to other sentient beings on the basis of the absence of a mind with features like ours. Those things that look too disturbingly body-centred, like impulse or agency, regardless of their outcomes or role in flourishing, are viewed as lower down on the moral scale. Meanwhile, the view that physical, animal properties (many of which we share with other species) have little significance has left us with the absurd idea that we can live without our bodies. So it is that we pursue biological enhancement in search of the true essence of our humanity. Some of the world’s largest biotech companies are developing not only artificial forms of intelligence but brain-machine interfaces in the hope that we might one day achieve superintelligence or even mental immortality by downloading our minds into a synthetic form. It follows that our bodies, our flesh and our feelings – from laughing with our friends to listening to music to cuddling our children – can be seen as a threat to this paradigm.

Why is this animal-denialism so entrenched in the human psyche, across cultures and millennia of time? The orthodox (if, still, speculative) story from evolutionary biology, as suggested by figures such as the American zoologist Richard Alexander in the 1970s, is that our subjective, imaginative mind has its origins in a bundle of adaptations for social cognition. As primates who lived in groups, our ancestors needed one another to survive; yet their social environment was also competitive, making the need patchy enough to empower the kind of cognition that gives us our sense of ‘me’. Add to that the need to gather insight into our own motivations and those of others, and to incorporate a rich, layered memory of experience, and we’re left with a staggering attention to internal states and external stimuli – the exact flavour of which consciousness researchers endlessly battle about. These many biological routes to attention gift us our selfhood.

Unfortunately for us, this self-salience has left us with the bizarre sensation that who we really are is some kind of floating mind, our identity a kind of thinking, or rather, a thinking about thinking, rather than the whole feeling, sensing, sometimes instinctual colony of cells that makes up the entire unit of our animal being. Our selfhood gives rise to the sensation that we’re a thing trapped inside a body. And we can speculate that several things flow from this. We have a heightened awareness of the threats we face as animals – not least an awareness that we’ll die one day. As W B Yeats put it in his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (1928), we are ‘fastened to a dying animal’. And, because we feel as if we’re somehow more than our bodies, we’re reassured that we can escape the frightening limits of our flesh. In other words, our sensation of mental distinctiveness becomes our hope for salvation.

But humans don’t only have selfhood – we also have insight into other selves. By making sound judgments about the internal states of others and communicating as we do, we have an extraordinary network of exchanges available to us. When the pathogen SARS-CoV-2 hit our societies causing havoc and heartbreak, we nonetheless had systems of communication, healthcare infrastructure, and methods for understanding the virus that would be impossible without the biological mechanisms that encourage us to work together for shared benefit. One of the glues of our cooperation is our ability to think into and make judgments about each other’s minds, experiences and intentions.

The ideas that bring us together have physical consequences

There’s still more evidence for the adaptive nature of cooperation in something we’ve come to call ‘social buffering’. This is the way that measurable stress can be reduced by proximity to a member of our community. Closeness and good relationships affect our wellbeing, modulating the release of stress hormones such as cortisol that can suppress our immune systems. A hug, the holding of a partner’s hands during a tough situation, access to our group in times of stress – all these create measurable effects on our health, and improve our ability to cope with the knocks of life. These benefits accumulate across a lifetime and have been found elsewhere among group-living animals, especially mammals.

But it’s a little more complicated for an animal like us. We use ideas to bring about the kinds of buffering responses created by our relationships. Where other social animals gain support by physical proximity to a relative or group-member, humans gain this through psychological proximity as well. In other words, the ideas that bring us together have physical consequences. This buffering is active for any worldview or ideology that facilitates group-belonging – and that might be something as innocuous as a local football team.

But there’s a little twist in this tale.

Evidence shows that social buffering often involves ranking the minds and skills of our own group (including the largest set, the Homo sapiens) as higher than those of others. Research by the Dutch psychologist Carsten De Dreu has revealed how some of the beliefs about the superior mental content of our own groups affect oxytocin, reinforcing our bonds with each other and increasing our commitment to the thoughts and feelings of our compatriots. Elsewhere, the work of the Italian psychologist Jeroen Vaes has demonstrated how fears and dangers prompt people to renew their group bonds, and this includes seeing group members as more human than those outside the group (with ‘more human’ measured as individuals with higher intelligence and greater signals of secondary emotions such as empathy or pride). In other words, we see the minds of our own group as superior to the minds of those on the outside, and when we want to reinforce that – especially, if we feel under threat – we increase our beliefs in the superior judgment of our own centre of belonging, and can denigrate anyone or anything that contradicts this. While that ‘group’ is often the culture or ideology with which we identify, for humans that group can also simply be us.

Intriguingly, recent studies have shown that the idea that we’re not really animals – and especially the idea that humans are hierarchically superior forms of life – is one of those profoundly reassuring ideas that we favour. Nour Kteily, a researcher at Northwestern University in Illinois, studies the ways that groups of people interact. He has developed the ‘ascent of man measure’, which exploits the progressive idea of humans rising to the top of a biological hierarchy. What he found is that stress or the presence of threats can prime us to favour human uniqueness. This generates a curious paradox, of course, if we view being animal as a threat in and of itself.

So why does this matter now? Nobody is denying that humans are exceptional. The concept of human uniqueness is only a problem when we deny the beauty and necessity both of our animal lives and the lives of other animals. No matter whether our origin stories tell us we’re possessors of spiritual properties or our courts tell us we’re ‘persons’ with dignity, we privilege the transcendent over the physical. The root word for ‘exception’ is the Latin excipere, which means ‘to take out’. We have always longed to be saved, to be ‘taken out’ from what we dislike or fear of our animal condition. But the pursuit of escape becomes more serious once we have powerful technologies to engineer and exploit biology.

These days, there is substantial investment in different technical routes to escape the limits or dangers of being animal, whether through DNA repair or stem-cell treatments or the transfer of more and more of ourselves to synthetic or machine forms. Google, Amazon and Elon Musk’s Neuralink are just three of the major corporations working in some of these areas. These are all part of a general trend to control and technologise more and more of our animal life. But, in seeking ways to enhance ourselves, people rarely acknowledge what we’d be leaving behind. As we start to use these new powers, it’s imperative that we dwell on what we stand to lose. The point here is not to argue that we ought to act as animals but rather that we are animals, and that a huge amount of the quality of our experience lies in a fully embodied animal life.

Some of the most important stages of life happen in the womb and in the early bonds with our carers in the weeks and months after birth. And the quality of those bonds and the wellbeing of our mothers can have lasting effects on us and the people we come to be. As the Israeli psychologist Ruth Feldman has written: ‘Later attachments … repurpose the basic machinery established by the mother-offspring bond during early “sensitive periods”.’ These crucial years in human development involve crosstalk between hormones, environment and touch that influence how the baby’s neural networks are organised. The central nervous system, the resilience to stress, all bear the marks of the early, deeply embodied years of our lives. When a parent and child embrace, the effects are staggering, regulating body temperature, heart rate and respiration. People in a temporary alliance, whether queer or straight, old or young, conservative or liberal, synch in ways that are measurable, from hormonal shifts to oscillations of the gamma and alpha rhythms of our brains, and these nourishing alliances reservice those first intimate, mammalian bonds.

Far from being solely the product of our brains and self-direction, then, humans are intimately affected by their whole physical being and its environment. Some devastating evidence for this comes from the children of Romania’s orphanages, who were abandoned with little physical or sensory affection by the cruelties and excesses of the country’s leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. This neglect left them with lifelong struggles, extending to language delays and visual-spatial disruption. These are painful reminders that our ability to flourish and express ourselves is profoundly influenced by the way our bodies are treated and valued in the earliest stages of our lifecycle.

Time online crowds out time spent in physical contact with others and in contact with the physical world

And that should matter to those who seek ways to define what’s important about human life. There’s the exciting possibility to some in the research and business community that we might soon exploit new biotechnologies such as the CRISPR gene and genome-editing tool, or have access to a kind of embryo ‘agriculture’ through frontier reproductive tools such as in-vitro gametogenesis (a technology that enables the switch from something like a skin cell into a stem cell), and thereby select the most disease-resistant or intelligence-scored embryos as our children. It’s of note, however, that the pursuit of this would disrupt and industrialise human life from its inception. In other words, we wouldn’t make our babies through sex, and nurturing might be done by engineering rather than by love and touch.

In less dramatic disruptions, we’re increasingly turning over our lives to our smartphones, with little attention paid to how our whole bodies influence who we become and how we thrive. The fact that children learn better through physical movement and gesture, including language acquisition, is ignored by those who want to operationalise teaching online. The research community is troublingly divided on how time online affects our mental and physical wellbeing. Studies from equally reputable sources announce that social media doesn’t affect mental health at the same time as another provides convincing evidence that it does. But a little common sense is useful here. What we can say for sure is that time online crowds out time spent in physical contact with others and in contact with the physical world. Only a belief that our animal lives are somehow less important than our mental lives can allow us to minimise what that reduction of our physical experience might mean.

And this is to say nothing of what our denigration of being animal means for the other animals. We have spent thousands of years arguing that we’re the moral overlords of our world. That’s looking harder to justify now that we’re the agents of extinction and pollution. For centuries, we have tamped down these contradictions. But it’s no longer possible to ignore the long shadow we cast. Mammal sizes have been shrinking on our watch, and are now the smallest they’ve been since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Our planet’s biomass of mammals now breaks down into a mere 4 per cent wild species, around 30 per cent humans, and the rest are animals we produce for food.

Of course, as we explore our animal being, we’re confronted by the inconvenient possibility that these animals that are disappearing have worlds of experience that ought to press on our moral circuitry far harder than we’ve allowed up to now. Life on Earth is full of diverse forms of intelligence and purpose. We’re only at the beginning of scientific discoveries about the way memory and intentions grip animal bodies from tip to claw. Eventually, we’re going to have to reckon with the true complexity of the other lives that surround us. The more we learn about other animals, the more we recognise other experiences that ought to matter if, by this logic, our own do.

It might well be in the rallying of our own bodily resources that our greatest opportunities lie. When we reconsider all that we gain by being animals, we’re confronted by some powerful resources for positive change. Just think of the gobsmacking beauty of bonding. If you have a dog beside you as you read this, bend down, look into her eyes, and stroke her. Via the hypothalamus inside your body, oxytocin will get to work, and dopamine – organic chemicals implicated in animal bonding – and, before you know it, you’ll be feeling good, even in the dark times of a pandemic. And, as it happens, so will your dog, who will experience a similar physical response to the bond between you both. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus of all mammals. In other words, our bodies might well be our best and most effective tool in the effort to strike a new balance between humans and the rest of the living world. If we can tip ourselves more into a bonding frame of mind, we might find it easier to recognise the beauty and intelligence that we’re hellbent on destroying. By accepting that we’re animals too, we create the opportunity to think about how we might play to the strengths of our evolutionary legacies in ways that we all stand to gain from. If we can build a better relationship with our own reality and, indeed, a better relationship with other animals, we’ll be on the road to recovery.