On Being Animal (revised)

Compelling Question

Here are two questions:
Question 1: What does it mean to be human?
Question 2: What does it mean to be animal?
Question 1 is clearly a question about us -- who we are, what kind of being. Question 2 might or might not be about you and me. If we are not used to thinking of ourselves as animals, our first impression of Question 2 might be that it is equivalent to "What does it mean to be some other (than human) animal?" Even if we understand that both questions are asking about us, that both are seeking self-understanding by way of understanding the characteristics and qualities of a category of which we are a member, Question 1 might seem compelling while Question 2 seemed trivial. A generation ago, that's how it seemed to me: the first question compelling, urgent even, and the second question a bit silly.

Questions that seize our interests and imaginations may grow less compelling over time while other questions grow more so. This happens in the history of thought through the centuries, as well as in individual lives. A professor I once had for a history of philosophy class put it to us this way on the last day of class (as best as memory serves): “As we’ve seen, the big questions in philosophy have changed from century to century. All the old questions, though, are still unanswered. Western civilization didn’t answer them, it just moved on. In philosophy, progress comes not from answering questions, but from getting over them.”

Question 1 has attracted a lot of attention over the centuries. As a philosophy major and graduate student in the 1970s and 80s, I remember the question made me feel in the presence of something vital and important. The question seemed to matter because whatever it was that was unique to our species would therefore be a precious and sacred thing, something to cultivate. If reason is what makes us human, then we ought to try hard to be rational in all things. If use of ethical principles is the defining feature, then those principles take on grand significance. Or if humor and laughter make us human, then it behooves us to laugh. Presumably, whatever is uniquely human is something of which we humans should want to have more, or should, at least, vigilantly guard our store – lest some horrible result occur, called “forfeiting one’s humanity,” or “becoming inhuman.”

“What does it mean to be human?” inspired thinkers and activists to valuable work. As recently as 2001, an anthology of essays appeared titled, What Does It Mean To Be Human? Contributors, including the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Arias, and about 90 others, reflect, says the publisher’s description, "on our shared human condition and attempt to define a core set of human values in our rapidly changing society." Quite a grand project! While many of the short essays are insightful and beautiful, the announced project, a mere decade later, rings overreaching and dated. The titular question of the book may be one that we are beginning to get over. It’s too early to tell, yet possibly this anthology was a last hurrah for a way of thinking that was already on its way out, the contributors almost all over age 60 at the time of publication.

While this notion of “our shared human condition” once evoked a powerful and promising appeal, a vision of solidarity and cooperation and common cause – and perhaps for many readers, still does – for me, the notion has lost its panache. Once I was enthralled by this really interesting “condition” -- both the burden and the glory of my species. I don't think it ever entered my mind then to wonder about such things as, say, “the equine condition” or “the raccoon condition.” Now I find “our shared human condition” no longer seems more salient than “our shared animal condition.” Nor am I alone. There is a cultural shift afoot -- if not at hand. The general change in attitudes toward animals was reflected in a column by Sarah van Gelder:
Out of these contradictions, a relationship with animals that is both new, and very old, is emerging. We are questioning practices that treat animals as commodities, relationships with animals that are more like those of indigenous peoples -- seeing animals as fellow creatures living alongside us in complex interdependent ecosystems.
Question 1 is still around, but these days it invites quite a different sort of response. Today, an internet search for “What does it mean to be human?” turns up a predominance of material on human evolution – how our species’ traits and behaviors evolved over millions of years as our ancestors adapted to dramatic environmental change. Questions about how our evolution made us have been growing more compelling, while less compelling now is earnest investigation into “our shared human condition” aiming to articulate core human values to be the foundation for universal justice and peace. Where once we sought to identify what separates us from other animals, now we seek ever more detailed accounts of what unites us -- the breadth and depth of what human and nonhuman animals share. We emerged from a process of gradually distinguishing ourselves as an animal, not from animals – a process essentially similar to the way that, say, the kestrel and the peregrine falcon came to be distinguished.

The task of self-understanding before us since Socrates urged, “know thyself,” is to bring awareness and presence to all of what and who we are. We are now better situated to see that this means not merely attending to our human nature, but to our animal nature. To know ourselves, we must address Question 2.

Our Animal Nature

To get a sense of myself, to arrive at self-understanding, to feel my place and purpose in this universe, it is not, after all, terribly helpful to know what separates me from other species. It is, instead, helpful to know what connects me with other species. This is not to deny that there are differences. There are some things we humans are really good at: like communicating learning and preserving it so we can build on it. We’re not the only ones that do that, but we are really good at it. Other things, humans are not so good at. Other species have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs live in a world of smells that we can but dimly imagine, and bats and dolphins live in a world of echolocation that we imagine, if at all, even more dimly. There are various differences between any two species. Quite a large part of what I am, however, lies in the connections and similarities I have with all mammals, with all warm-blooded animals, with all vertebrates.

I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills. I know myself by grasping the inheritance I share with the gorilla, gazelle, goose, and gopher tortoise. My world is taken in through eyes and ears that work pretty much like theirs do. Many of them live in, and are guided by, a world of smells that I am mostly oblivious to – but not entirely. The fast-track connection between the olfactory and memory is something my brain also has. I hunger as they do, I am susceptible to the same the fight-or-flight adrenaline surges.

I do have a thin neocortex layer on top of the older paleomammalian system (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system of emotions) and even older reptilian system (brainstem and cerebellum), yet I remain largely driven by those brain systems that all mammals have – and even those that all vertebrates have. The cognitive processes of the neocortex govern me much less than the neocortex likes to believe. Indeed, perhaps the neocortex’s greatest glory, ironically, is that it has, over the many millennia since its emergence, developed the means to investigate itself and reveal its own relative insignificance.

Conscious Thinking Is Not In Charge

Millennia of assumed differences between humans and other animals have been crumbling under recent research. Roughly speaking, the assumption has been that nonhuman animals are basically machines, their behavior merely conditioned responses, while humans are more than that: free, capable of exercising intention and forming responses that transcend conditioning. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), for instance, influentially declared that nonhuman animals were complex organic machines without the immaterial mind or soul that only humans have. Research has been steadily closing the gap. Studies have noticed, or elicited, elaborate and intentional behavior in various species. Other studies come at the gap from the other direction: revealing that humans are not nearly as intentional as we think we are.

The Libet Experiments. In 1983, Benjamin Libet and others at the University of California, San Francisco, published the striking results of their experiments. In the study, participants were asked to voluntarily flex their wrist at a time of their choosing. Libet found that the neural signals for motion preceded the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds. “Put simply, the brain prepared a movement before a subject consciously decided to move!” Conscious intentions to move aren’t what cause our movements. This begs the question: why do our brains bother to create for us this illusion of conscious intentional control? Janet Kwasniak suggests that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action.” She suggests that “this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened. The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened,” the effects on my wiring are different. What we call “volition” is a perception of our own behavior rather than a generator of it. The illusion of intention (or, more precisely, the illusion that intentions precede and determine action), then, is a by-product of the systems that all animal brains have for learning from experience.

It remains an open question how many other species might also generate such an illusion as a by-product of learning. Whatever the answer to that question might be, we can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhumans are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or we are too – and our vaunted human exceptionalism amounts, at most, to a unique capacity to be deluded.

The Gazzaniga Experiments. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga flashed two different images at the same time into the subject’s visual field. One image was in the part of the field that could only be seen by the left visual cortex, and the other only by the right visual cortex. The right brain saw a picture of snow covering a house and car. The left brain, at the same instant, saw a picture of a chicken claw. Gazzaniga then asked the subjects what they saw. The left brain has the language centers, so the left brain can articulate what it saw. “I saw a chicken claw,” reported the subjects. So instead of asking for words, Gazzaniga then presented an array of pictures and asked subjects to point to what they saw. Subjects’ right hands (controlled by their left brains) pointed to the picture of the chicken claw that the left brain saw. At the same time, subjects’ left hands (controlled by their right brains) pointed to the picture of the snow-covered scene that the right brain saw.

Gazzaniga then asked each hand to point to a picture of something that goes with the picture seen. The left brain saw a chicken claw, so subjects' right hands pointed to a picture of a chicken. Chicken claw goes with chicken. The right brain saw a snow-covered house and car, so subjects' left hands pointed to a shovel. Finally, Gazzaniga asked his subjects, "why is your left hand pointing to a shovel?" Now we’re in the language realm where only the left brain can express itself. If left-brain knew the truth, it could say, "I have no idea why my left hand is pointing to a shovel. It must be something you showed my right brain." Instead, the left brain instantly made up a plausible story. The patient said, without any hesitation, "Oh, that’s easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know.

Our story about ourselves as intentional, purposeful, and rational is made up after the fact. My neocortex and forebrain and language centers are really, really good at making up stories to rationalize whatever it is they notice I’m doing. But that’s not where the doing came from. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion I live in.

Befriending Our Animality

We cannot dispel, once and for all, the illusions of control, and the rationalizing stories of ourselves that our brains concoct. Knowing about the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work, can help us begin to befriend our animality, our selves. I am made, as many species are, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of me find their greatest comfort and ease. Human social systems eventually yielded our technological systems, and between the two, I often find myself sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element. David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.” Mary Oliver tells us we find our truest place in and through the sounds – and sights and smell and feel – of animals and the wild:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert for a hundred miles repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves . . .
High in the clean blue air, the wild geese are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.
Calls to you, like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. They are only a small part of who I am, and they are a part that causes problems. The forebrain that envisions the future can so easily start obsessively worrying about that future -- in contrast to the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." (Wendell Berry). The language centers, creating their own little world of story loops, can leave me oblivious to the nonlinguistic awareness of each moment.

At this point, there is a danger of merely recreating Cartesian dualism in naturalized form. That is, Descartes posited a dualism of immaterial mind and material body. For Descartes, the complex organic machine of the body determined most of human behavior and all of nonhuman behavior. The immaterial mind/soul unique to humans guided only a small part of what humans do, Descartes acknowledged, yet that immaterial mind was the crucial separator of humans from all other animals. When someone refers, as I did, to “the fine things” that a human neocortex, forebrain, and language centers do, they might be (mis)understood as having only “naturalized” Descartes – as replacing Descartes’ concept of a special immaterial mind with a concept of special material brain parts. The point that these brain parts are only a small part of what we are would then seem to parallel Descartes’ acknowledgment that the complex organic machine called “body” determines most of human behavior.

The understanding that will best facilitate befriending and coming into our animality goes beyond mere “naturalized Descartes.” The point, ultimately, is not only the point that our animality – the traits shared with other primates, other mammals, other vertebrates – is most of what we are. Rather, animality is all of what we are. After all, every species has a brain distinct, in some ways, from every other species. The distinct attributes of a human brain are as much animal attributes as the similarities we share with other species. The distinctions are matters of degree, not of kind – and the distinctions of degree are slight. Similar versions of the forebrain that imagines the future, the neocortex that cognizes, and Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas that comprehend language all exist in other species. The human versions are as animal as the nonhuman versions, and as animal as our bones and guts are.

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me -- "the soft animal of [my] body, lov[ing] what it loves" (Oliver) -- engenders a greater respect for my fellow beings who, with me, share the burdens and the glories of "the mammalian condition," "the warm-blooded condition," or "the vertebrate condition." Through a positive feedback cycle, heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, and greater respect for my fellow vertebrates heightens self-awareness.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that seeks to honor wildness as sacred. An earlier time described the material world as fallen, sinful, or, at best, crass. Then the scientific view has encouraged seeing the world as mechanical and inert. The emerging eco-spirituality connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world. Connecting to our own animality – attending to, honoring, and loving what in us is wild and unpredictable – is of a piece with connecting to our world.

Both ancient and medieval theology and modern science have told us that our senses are not to be trusted – that the true reality of gods, God, Platonic forms, or of quarks, quasars, and black holes was not to be grasped by the senses. Yet it is corporal sensations that offer us the enchantment of birdsong or the wonder of the moon. The ever-shifting reality in which our animality resides resists any finished theory, refuses the would-be tyranny of our concepts, and disallows the constraint of experience into expected categories. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more open to the nuances of the unexpected in experience.

On Being an Animal Who Decided Not to Eat Them

Inner tensions and cognitive dissonance characterize much of human relationships with other species. We treasure wildlife, yet almost all of us, me included, find it really hard to stop the sort of spending habits that we know are causing a wave of extinctions. Many of us are outraged by abuses of dogs and cats, yet we eat food that comes from an industry that keeps equally sensitive and intelligent animals crowded in atrocious confinement. The meat industry, in the US alone, each year, slaughters 35 million cows, 105 million pigs, and almost 9 billion chickens. People of good will have different opinions about this, different strategies for dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

The view I have come to is that the slaughtering is not the problem. Putting them out of the unremitting misery and pain to which factory farms consign these animals for all or most of their lives is the kindest thing we do for them. It’s not that they die that is the issue. We all die. It’s the life that matters. What those numbers mean to me is that every year the US meat industry is bringing 35 million more cows, 105 million more pigs, 9 billion more chickens into lives of constant agony. We know enough about cow and pig and chicken physiology to know that what is going on in them parallels what goes on in humans under conditions of extreme pain and stress. The conditions at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) constitute the biggest, harshest, most painful ongoing cruelty on the planet. Many people, perhaps, choose not to know the details because the cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, knowing the severity and massive scale of the suffering, and, on the other hand, knowing the ways one’s own eating habits contribute to it can be more than they can bear. The intensity of the suffering and the vast, vast scale of it can bring me to weep – when I’m not pushing it out of my mind.

My concern with the life rather than the death has a parallel in Unitarian theology and history. Four hundred years ago, Unitarians turned away from the prevailing European emphasis on Jesus’ death as the atonement for our sins. Sixteenth-century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus settled among our early Polish churches. His extensive works laid out a theology that told us, look to Jesus’ life, what he did, what he taught. It is the quality of his living that needs our attention, not his death. For the factory farmed animals today, I believe, it is the quality of their lives that needs our attention, not the fact of their death.

For me, then, deciding to be vegetarian has been a path toward greater self-awareness. When I no longer had to push certain knowledge out of my mind just in order to have lunch, then I was just a little bit more available to love and respect the creatures of my world. When my food choices no longer supported the harshest ongoing cruelty on the planet, then I was a tiny bit better able to respect and honor my whole self -- including the parts of me that are just like them: the pain receptors; the adrenaline, fear, and stress; the creature comforts, if they could get them; they all work in me as they do in them. Thus I was better able to be present to all the animal that I am.

We humans have for so long defined ourselves only as members of the category human. I have spoken of the value and necessity of recognizing and connecting more deeply to other categories: primate, mammal, warm-blooded, vertebrate. In this essay, I have stopped at vertebrate in order to focus on expanding our self-awareness and identification that far. It’s a start. Yet this delimitation, too, is finally false. Ultimately, what I am is also the crustaceans, the arachnids, the insects. In the end, each of us is also the oak trees, the algae, and the bacteria. In the end as in the beginning, we are the mountains and rivers, stones and dirt, air and clouds, moon and stars.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It remains to us to grasp that we are not part of this interdependent web. Each one of us is the whole thing.
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For the original "On Being Animal" post, click here.