Does it matter if humans are animals or not?

Ultimately, we could debate language and definitions till the cows come home but does it matter? invites us to think about this in more depth:

We evolved within the community of life, and yet we humans often consider ourselves separate from nature. Are we unique? Is this distinction helpful? How do our ways of thinking of ourselves in relation to other life influence the identities we carry and actions we take? We invite you to share your reflections as we explore the relationship between humans and nature. Read a story, tell your own.

We are now entering, or are in, the sixth mass extinction event.  And unlike previous ones, this one is caused by the activities of humans.  Many plant and animal species have become extinct in just the last 50 years and many more are at risk.  We continue to endanger the natural world through habitat destruction, by alternating landscapes, by polluting water and by polluting the earth to name a few ways.  As an example, biodiversity in freshwater is estimated to have declined by 50% in the last twenty years.  Twenty years.  That’s 2/3rds of my life and it’s not even a dot on the timescales of the species that we are talking about.

Most people now accept that climate change is happening.  As I’m writing this, storm Irma has just hit Florida, swiftly on the back of hurricane Harvey.  There is so much we don’t know about climate change but we do know that weather patterns are changing.  Breeding patterns are changing.  Migration is affected.  Birds which stick to their migration times are arriving too late in their spring grounds and finding the food they rely on is gone.  Flowers have bloomed too early; the insects have emerged too soon and the birds must change too.  And those animals which depend on the birds?  They too must change and suddenly the world looks very different.

All the time that we cast ourselves in a superior role to animals, and to nature, we are distancing ourselves physically and psychologically and in turn it is easier not to consider what we are doing to the planet.  It’s easier to hurt something, to wipe out a species, if you don’t know it.  If you don’t know its name and if you don’t know anything about its way of life it is easier to destroy it.

As we’ve already seen, the way we talk about nature shapes our thoughts and feelings about nature and in turn shapes our actions.  We speak of having dominion over animals, we talk of the (monetary) value of nature and throughout this discussion are threads of colonialism, of occupation.  We lack respect for nature and this is reflected, and perpetuated, in how we speak of it.  We name things we value and we value the things we name.  This circular process keeps us trapped in a human centric world.  We cannot ever know the names of every living thing, but I do feel we need to make more of an effort.

A report from the Zoological Society of London found that British people have a better awareness of fantasy animals than the world’s most Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species.  88% of participants had heard of unicorns, 78 % had heard of the Gruffalo but only 20% had heard of the critically endangered axolotl salamander, 19% of the fascinating dugong and 22.5% of the fabulous echidna.  I keep returning to the idea that if we do not know something’s name, we cannot truly care about it, or know it.  How many animals and plants are going to disappear because their names are not high profile?

The naming of things also means we find it hard to place value on the unnameable.  The powerfully, wonderfully, enchanting experience of having a butterfly land on your hand or the awe and smallness you feel when you stand by the sea in a storm.  These things can be described, unsatisfactorily, but have no name and thus get overlooked in our culture where name means value.

Wordsworth, and many many others, have implored us to “let nature be your teacher”.  But for us to truly engage with nature as student, we first must remove ourselves from our perspective of superiority.  To learn, one must first humble oneself and acknowledge that the teacher has wisdom which you would benefit from.  How can we do this when we see ourselves as ruling nature?  And what magical lessons are we missing because of this?

We are part of a web of life, we share the same planet, but it is easier to be selfish and to use up resources thoughtlessly if we see nature as other, if we see animals as mattering less than we do.  As part of that complex web, we are intimately connected to nature.  Arne Naess, an environmental philosopher, said because of this, to act as if we are separate and to abuse and mistreat nature is tantamount to abusing ourselves.  Instead of thinking of nature and animals as something separate from us, what would happen if we acknowledged our common ancestry and treated the natural world like family.  What if we thought of wolves as our sisters, as chimps as our brothers?  Surely, we would treat our siblings very differently to how we treat animals today?  And surely that relationship would be fruitful for both sides?  If we were to treat nature as we’d like to be treated, we’d “use” animals only as needed and we would consider their welfare and wellbeing when making those decisions.

In Healing the Divide, the authors discusses the artificial wall built to isolate humans from nature.  This physical and linguistic separation has allowed humans to view ourselves as separate to, and as masters of, nature.  This allows us to use nature as a resource for our pleasure, not just essential use.  To view ourselves as part of nature, they argue, would mean knocking down these boundaries, allowing species to live without human interference.  It would help restore the ecosystems that we have destroyed and as such, it would pave the way for a world where humans are part of the web of life, the cycle of energy, rather than a destroyer of it.  The way of the past has clearly not worked and thus, to move into a healthy future, we need to change our way of thinking and being:

“Viewing ourselves as separate from nature has proved disastrous for both humans and nature.”
– Healing the divide


If you’re interested in how language shapes our thinking about the environment, nature, animals etc, then have a look at the free online course, Stories We Live By.

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