Chris Parish

Chris Parish

Being Animal – The Dignity of Kinship

Scientism versus Wonder

I’ve always felt a kinship with the living world ever since I was a very young boy. I still vividly remember my first attempt at composing a sentence to accompany my crayon drawing in kindergarten, and it was predictably about wildlife. I can even recall the effort of pursing my lips as I struggled to form and spell these strange squiggles called words. 

“I fot i sor a baas nest in the shed” was my final result and the start of my writing career.

As I grew older, my love of all things living, together with the vague aim of being like my hero, David Attenborough, choicelessly led me to pursue studying zoology at university. This however, turned out to be a huge disillusionment, since the zoology department seemed to have no interest, wonder or curiosity whatsoever about Life – which I had naively thought would have been central. Instead it was all about worthy scientific endeavour, while I felt my love for Life being crushed by the Machine. Leaving university, I took off for India to meditate, and on a quest for an alternative worldview to my Western heritage. But that’s another strand of my story.

For many years, it’s always struck me as peculiar how Western thought and philosophy always seems to assume that humans are completely separate from other animals and from the rest of the living world. From this unquestioned assumption, a lot of Western philosophy then attempts to speculate about the nature of reality, meaning, knowledge and morality etc. This orientation can be traced way back to the ancient Greeks. 

Human Exceptionalism

The great religions have generally taken a similar tack, viewing only human beings as having real value on this planet, while the animals, plants and living systems are regarded as merely a backdrop to be exploited as needed, all divinely sanctioned by the Creator Him/Herself. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all share some version of this view. The way that Western thinkers of the Platonic-Christian tradition have always attempted to make sense of human life in isolation from everything we are inherently part of, has long struck me as very problematic as well as solipsistic. I’ve often wondered why this anthropocentric view is so rarely questioned; it’s also  inaccurate and frankly arrogant. We are not the centre of the world and we urgently need to shift to a more inclusive ecocentric outlook which is in better accord with reality.

Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection transformed the life sciences and profoundly shook up Victorian views. Yet, although Darwin’s proposition that all species of life have descended from a common ancestor is now generally accepted and considered a fundamental concept in science,  the implications of this have been – and still are – strangely resisted. For it means that we are all animals.  We moderns seem to have an unconscious resistance to letting in the simple and wondrous fact that we are all inextricably and intimately part of a vast family and there is no special line anywhere, which could demarcate ourselves from “the dumb beasts”.  

God Almighty was largely dispensed with in modern times and replaced by the creed of secular humanism. The sacred was banished as mere superstition, yet the old order was essentially unchanged: man, the crown of creation, remains sovereign in our modern brave new world. And that’s essentially where we still are.

Two friends of mine..

Yes, we human animals possess extraordinary cognitive abilities and powers of reasoning, this particular facility being much better developed than in other animals. This has enabled us to create the most marvellous technology and all manner of innovation. Yet our overriding domination by this aspect of our makeup, by the left hemisphere of our brain, paying narrow beam, sharply focussed attention to the world in order to manipulate it, has left us severely lopsided, lacking depth and increasingly unable to appreciate other important dimensions of life.

Although clearly there are other factors involved, this lack of balance has reached such a state of affairs that in a recent survey of UK adults, 80% went as far as to say that they felt that their lives were meaningless. For a very different perspective, consider this quote from philosopher John Grays’, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life

“Cats do not need to examine their lives, because they do not doubt that life is worth living. Human self-consciousness has produced the perpetual unrest that philosophy has vainly tried to cure.”

We are not the Centre of the World

In our modern world however, any hint of questioning  human exceptionalism immediately brings up criticisms of being anti-human, of being misanthropic – or more commonly these days – of being an animal rights extremist. The influential American poet of the mid 20th Century, Robinson Jeffers, coined the term ‘inhumanism’: the view that humankind is too self-centred and indifferent to the ‘astonishing beauty of things.’ He felt that we should ‘uncentre’ ourselves. This view predictably did not go down so well in his time.

Jeffers said, “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident as the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, in her, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility, sees our original philosophical sin as the notion that animals are “dumb beasts… automata without a subjective view of the world”. Yet this is while the latest scientific research shows just the opposite: that many animals experience emotions like compassion and grief, feel pain subjectively, and show complex social learning and agency.

Once we recognise there’s no easy demarcation between human sentience and that of animals, Nussbaum says that, “we can hardly be unchanged in our ethical thinking”. In fact, how can we have any comprehensive ethical outlook, while we exclude the vast majority of our fellow beings from the picture? For example, how can we accept the ubiquity of factory farming whereby two out of three animals are reared in this degrading and cruel way (over 50 billion animals per year) in conditions which are scarcely better than concentration camps?

We are not the centre of the world. I would even suggest that we can’t be human in the fullest sense without embracing the more-than-human world of which we are an inextricable and intimate part.

Orangutan, Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Human

“Along with the other animals, the stones, the trees, and the clouds, we ourselves are characters within a huge story that is visibly unfolding all around us, participants within the vast imagination, or Dreaming, of the world.” David Abram

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