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The joy of being animal

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06.04.2021

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,........

© Aeon


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