Book: How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human
Author: Melanie Challenger
New York, 2021
Reviewer: Patricia K.
Sporadically across history, more consistently for the last century, conscientious people have worked at dismantling human supremacy narratives other folks have shored up for millennia. At the hearts of such stories: belief that by virtue of dominance of other species, we human beings are the highest expression of intelligent life. Our superior qualities make us unlike anything else living. This supremacy entitles us to using whatever species we wish (including our own) to our benefit, in whatever way seems good.
You don’t need X-ray glasses to see through to this credo’s backbone: valuation of life—one’s own and others’—rooted in an ethic of hierarchy.
Such a manifest destiny would require authorization from higher ups. Indeed, the blessing of human dominance is traced through bloodlines of law-of-the-jungle, holier-that-you, or other authoritarian lineages, sometimes clear up to dieties’ nods of approval.
In How to Be Animal, Melanie Challenger challenges the legend. “The world is now dominated,” she says, “by an animal that doesn’t think it’s an animal.” This dissonance causes problems that can be summed up thusly: “[W]e 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.” Challenger quotes the American political scientist George Kateb’s take on the paradox: humans “are the only animal species that is not only animal, the only species that is partly not natural.” Challenger illuminates. “We are animals as we embrace and as our bloodied newborns slide from the bodies of women but not when we make vows…. We are animals on the operating table but not when we speak of justice. This split in the human condition…has left us with the impression that the human world is rich while the animal world is its pale shadow. And this has opened…to a worldview in which our flourishing is the ultimate good.”
Challenger seeks to correct the arc of such story lines with what to some will be an unpopular reality: human beings are one species among many; we, too, are animals. The dogma of human superiority to nature, she says, “has reached the end of its usefulness.”
Maybe. Many readers will find How to Be Animal’s assaults upon traditional Truth offensive. More importantly, they will find it easy to dismiss on grounds that their higher authorities do not give it the nod.
Nevertheless, in How to Be Animal, Challenger swings hard to demolish one pillar of human specialness after another. Even morality, she says, that human beings display as evidence that we’re better because we don’t act like animals, has roots stretching back into prehuman biology.
“But…but…animals don’t have language,” some will argue. Challenger points out how the curtain is being drawn back on languages of other animals.
“Okay, but what about art?” Along with other ancient artwork, Challenger references depressions made in rock surfaces dating back over 400,000 years that may well, according to some, be “among the first efforts made by animals to express themselves symbolically.”
“Okay, but humans use tools,” some argue. “That makes us really different from animals.” Nope, not that, neither. Besides being born with “tools” like teeth and claws, quills, venom, etc., many animals have been observed to use external tools.
The “humans use tools” differentiation is an important dividing line for those determined to brace the boundaries. Faced with evidence other animals use tools to secure their survival, many people will move to the next delineation: “There’s a huge difference between termite-sticks and a tower cranes—those complex wonders of human engineering you see atop skyscrapers.”
There it is again. Hierarchy. Some things, humans believe, are just more than others. And those more things, by virtue of their moreness, are better things than things that are less.
A seasoned reader will cringe at the predictable low points to which such thinking drags people. Challenger goes there. This same thinking issues marching orders when one group of people seeks to dominate another. When human aggressors wish to persuade allies to help them attack other humans, they strip away those others’ human status, reducing them to subhuman local vermin in need of extermination. Oppressors often present themselves as being only a little lower than angels, angels being about as non-animal as anything can get, despite sporting magnificent wings. Says Challenger, and rightly, “…while humans have tended to have an idea of humanity as special, they have not always agreed on who gets to be human.”
Even philosophies such as secular humanism go wrong, she argues. In their visions of human transcendence, secular humanists created a “twist on the soul,” permitting those who still want a place reserved for the best of mankind to create “their own version of heaven.” To Challenger, humanism is just another rationale for denying our animal conditions; its angles obstruct views into how to behave better towards non-human life.
Also, Challenger argues, our drive to wish away our animal qualities extends dangerously into technologies bent on correcting human biological imperfections—vulnerabilities to sickness, accidents of genetics, and death.
In other words, biotechnology includes a new take on eugenics. A real problem, one needing focused examination. But this part of Challenger’s discussion draws on charged language to spark meaningful discussion. To Challenger, life-extending technologies’ goals for overcoming our animal imperfections risk robbing us of the very ties we have with other animals that make life extraordinary, across species. They deny the us our animal body. As she relates how, on an outing, her children wanted to find a bee orchid, she confronts biotech’s dreams of immortality in a passage verging on poetry: “What part of the evolving plant dreams this false bee into existence, having never seen one? What are we to make of an unthinking process that creates the image of a bee without the eyes to see it? These are wonders. Evolution is a wonder. But nothing evolves if there’s only one set of motives…. If we design evolution by writing in our own intentions, we may discover the true horror of becoming a god.”
While I read the book through, I found myself thinking, “An interesting attempt to start an important conversation. But I’m not in the book’s audience.” Others may find her language—from scattered selected quotes to bright blazes of argument to emotional appeals—resonant and inspiring. To my eye, much of Challenger’s reasoning is intuitive and unsteadied. Other thinkers—the linguist Derek Bickerton, the philosopher Martin Buber with his critical I-It/I-Thou distinction—have laid firmer footings. Challenger’s language is often compelling, many points seem spot on, but her arguments look in a hurry to add rungs to a ladder before they’re well-formed or tightly fitted into their side rails. The section that raises alarms about bio-technologists’ goals to “fix” humans by stripping out problematic animal bits relies on heated language to do the work rather than nuanced critical development. All salvos are fired at the “other,” philosophers and -phies that Challenger feels elevate humanity to its throne as highest expression of life on Earth. This includes religion, with its hots for transcendence of a biologically messy world.
Even Challenger’s opening point, that humans are animals who don’t think they’re animals, misses interesting glints off facets of its own proposition. What animal does think it’s an animal? In my experience, none. If no animal thinks it’s an animal, where might pursuing that idea lead?
What if we grant basic rightness to Challenger’s argument that we are animals that don’t know “the right way to behave towards life.” Then how do we, as animals, renounce our predilection for hierarchy?
In offering answers, Challenger’s arguments seem to run in circles. When she briefly examines what “thresholds of value” we’ve created to grant other humans safety and well-being, she points to the “great conception leveller of ‘dignity.’” Dignity, she says, orients us to views of human life in any form or stage “as precious and worthy of respect.” But as demonstrated earlier in the book, ill-intentioned humans can raise to prominence their own ideas of who does and doesn’t have dignity. In featuring dignity as a good in itself, Challenger sets a low bar. Better-braced and more defensible social guardrails like the rule of law exist to defend not only dignity but a host of other, more thoroughly considered values that could protect other species more completely than awarding them dignity might.
After invoking dignity as an equalizing value, Challenger asserts, “Our proper place is with our fellow creatures” then repeats her call to find a better story line than human exceptionalism. This seems to overshoot the problem. One rebuttal to her call to assume our proper place is, well, that place may be in the company of other predators. Might that be the real problem? We’re super-predators, that, like fellow predators, see the world in hierarchical shadings? What if the conundrum needing solution isn’t that we’ve denied the common ground we share with animals but that we simply haven’t moved very far off it? Could an inquiry into whether other animals think of themselves as animals shed some light on our cock-of-the-walk attitudes? Might we so deeply share the animal condition of not knowing the right way to behave towards other life forms that we show ourselves to be, in fact, only the biggest fish, comfortably furnished among our fellow, less well-off fishes, octopuses, and starfishes, to their disadvantage?