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Animals Like Us:
The Search for
A Species Identity
by Dr. Steven Best
"The human spirit is not dead. It lives on in secret. I have come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind." --Dr. Albert Schweitzer
Animals have always been central to human lives, in the best and worst ways. To begin with the obvious, we are animals and so we exist in a continuum with the nonhuman animals who are our evolutionary ancestors. We share physiology, genetics, and key behaviors; arguably, fundamental aspects of our ethics and family structures come from primates. So we are of the animals, not above them as presumed by the Western psychosis.
Throughout history, animals have been key to human beings not only as resources for food or clothing, but also religiously, spiritually, and philosophically. Animals are crucial figures in human mythologies: they are the stuff of animistic conceptions of the universe, gods and goddesses, totemic icons, and spirit guides. On the whole, they have brought the cosmos alive and made the earth something less than a barren, lonely planet. The existential solitude of humans on the earth without animal companions is one of the fascinating themes explored in Philip K. Dick's sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which very loosely was the basis for the screenplay for the 1982 film Blade Runner). Thoreau's statement, "In wildness is the preservation of the world," should be understood not only in the literal sense of maintaining the natural world and its life forms from being devoured by technocapitalism, but also in the philosophical sense that our humanity depends on sustaining an intimate relationship with nature.
"For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love." -- Pythagoras
In areas of the world such as India, of course, animals still have spiritual significance, and Eastern religions do not sharply separate human and nonhuman animals. But the historically dominant interpretation of the Christian religion has constructed an ontological cleavage, and in the Western world, animals have been treated mainly as objects of exploitation, profit-making, and even targets upon which to release pathological forms of hatred and aggression, making cruelty a magnifier of human identity. Thus, we have related to animals primarily in two ways: as sacred beings akin to us and as instrumental resources apart from us.
Because of a long history of speciesism and capitalism, I hazard to guess that most people in the Western world today have no caring or spiritual--in the best pagan sense of that term to mean connectedness and respect--relation with animals or nature as a whole. Instrumental outlooks frame the view of the world, such that trees are timber, cows are hamburgers, and dogs are security systems tied to a backyard chain.
But when human beings replace a caring relationship to animals with an exploitative relationship, they too suffer, more than they ever realize. As a consequence of animal slaughter and abuse, human beings bring more violence into their families and communities; their health deteriorates; and they severely degrade the natural environmental--squandering valuable resources such as food, water, and land in a grossly inefficient system of food production; destroying grasslands, riverbeds, and rainforests; polluting water systems; and heating up the planet through global warming.
But more happens. Human beings become morally impaired and spiritually handicapped. They need animals and the natural world for their psychological growth. Ecological philosopher Paul Shepard has explored the importance of the relation between human and nonhuman life. He claims that concrete relationships with animals were crucial for the healthy psychological development of human beings as individuals and as a species. In works such as The Tender Carnivore and The Sacred Game, Shepard argues provocatively that as a consequence of human alienation from animals, a breach that began ten thousand years ago with the decline of hunting and gathering society and the emergence of agricultural society, human psychological growth became severely retarded, and the "ontogeny" of infant development no longer recapitulates the "phylogeny" of species evolution.
For Shepard, "the human mind needs [wild animals and plants in their natural habitats] in order to develop and work. Human intelligence is bound to the presence of animals." Instead, humanist ideologies arrogantly presume order and meaning are generated through history alone and define "progress" as proportional to the extent humanity untangles itself from the chaos of nature to create the empires of culture. Humans clearly have their own trajectory, but the only successful way to negotiate their identities is through a complex interplay with the "otherness" of animals. One of the most crucial failures of modern "education" and of psychological understanding itself is to recognize the need to ritually bond with wild nature during childhood and adolescence. The consequences of this skewed development unfold throughout the general landscape of human insanity.
"But if you have no relationship with the living things on this earth, you may lose whatever relationship you have with humanity." -- Krishnamurti
One need not embrace Shepard's atavistic call to return to the primitive past or his romanticization of hunting and gathering to probe his main question: What happens to the human psyche when people oppress and abuse animals? Among other things, human beings block channels of love and empathy, they inhibit capacities for care and compassion, and they thwart greater sources of identification that bring spiritual awakening and growth.
Human beings can survive without caring relations, but they cannot flourish. Humanity needs to give and to receive love and recognition. The fundamental quest in every human life not fixated on survival is for love and wholeness. Human beings cannot attain this through separation and alienation, and they must learn that their spiritual quest ultimately must be deepened beyond the human species into a connectedness with nonhuman animals and the natural world. For harmony with other humans in conditions of alienation from the natural world still leaves a huge existential vacuum and a looming socio-environmental catastrophe.
Consider for a moment how animals add immeasurable value to one's life. I myself have 11 cats, and each one gives me a unique gift every day, a smile and subtle joy well worth the destruction they wreak on my furniture. It is worth pondering whether one can think of a time in one's life when learning, healing, growth, or awareness came through the assistance of an animal rather than a human. Two years ago, filmmakers James LaVeck and Jenny Stein made a powerful documentary film, The Witness, which shows how a Bronx construction worker named Eddie Lama underwent a spiritual transformation through the gift of love given to him by a cat. The same experience happened to the late animal rights activist Henry Spira, prompting his shift from a human rights to an animal rights activist. Significantly, both men loathed cats before a particular individual feline won their hearts and transformed their consciousness.
In this case, as happens so often, the "angel of grace" came in the form of a whiskered being, not a god or human sage. But lest we conclude that the lessons come only from the beings our society privileges--cats and dogs--writers like Karen Davis and Lorri Bauston remind us that farmed animals like chickens, sheep, pigs, and cattle--arbitrarily positioned outside the boundary of moral and legal concerns--are every bit as much complex individuals who can touch and transform our lives, and these authors tell profound stories indeed of their encounters with wonderful winged or hoofed beings.
"Animals of the planet are in desperate peril. Without free animal life I believe we lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen." -- Alice Walker
Animals can play various crucial roles in our lives, including being profound teachers and healers. We think we teach animals things, but we forget the most important thing is what they teach us, if we allow them. Animals can teach us patience, happiness, courage, simple joys, and love--unconditional love. When we learn to love beyond the human barrier, when we grasp our fundamental similarities with nonhuman animals, we become aware of the deep unity of all life. This realization is the basis for a profound awakening and it is exhilarating in its liberation from the psychosis of dualism. The enlightenment of Buddha involved precisely his intuitive grasp of the unity of life, and that the suffering of all living beings merited our compassion.
The teaching we receive from animals is also healing. It is well-known that they can reach violent, autistic, or asocial children in a way humans cannot; that having companion animals helps to lower stress and blood pressure and elevate levels of happiness; that animals can speed healing in the sick and make the difference between life and death in the elderly.
Most importantly, animals can heal our broken connections to nature. As science shows, reality is whole, not broken; separation is not the true mode of being or a sustainable or viable existence. In one sense, connection to animals is more important than connection to human beings, because animals bring us closer to the natural world. We can never experience true wholeness and the interconnectedness of life until we transcend the limitations of our species boundaries and grasp our fundamental interconnectedness with other beings and the whole of nature. The awakening to connectedness and compassion is central to moral and spiritual development because it takes us beyond the prison of the Ego and even species perspective into a larger realm of life and identification. Compassion is a way of knowing, unmediated by distinctions of any kind.
"Where there is disharmony in the world, death follows." -- ancient Navajo saying.
We might someday attain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a "worldhouse," a global community of peace and justice. But until we radically alter our relations to our nonhuman companions in the journey of evolution, King's worldhouse will remain a vast, bloody slaughterhouse operated by a stunted and violent humanity. Kingšs dream would be a nightmare, not only for the tens of billions of animals butchered each year for gluttonous human consumption (certainly in the advanced sectors of the globe organized around fast food empires), but also for the human world itself, as it remains plagued by a vast array of social and environmental problems that perplex and bewilder the minds stranded in myopic humanist paradigms wherein the importance of nonhuman nature for human social life remains a mystery.
Animals are central to the solution to the riddle of human history, to its evolutionary trajectory, overall coherence, and ultimate possibilities. The future of this history depends not only on the rejection of global capitalism in favor of planetary justice, but also on the emergence of a new sensibility that devolves around animal rights, environmental ethics, and reverence for life. Instead of embarking on the current disastrous project of remaking nature through genetic engineering, we ought to be developing the far more sane and profound goal of remaking ourselves, in a fashion that restores the connection between humanity and humility, between economy and ecology, between the laws of society and the "laws" of nature.
"More humility is needed in our perspective. The combination of species rarity and individuality based on a highly specialized life cycle and exceedingly complex brain is new and dangerous and may not succeed; indeed its extinction is already threatening." -- Paul Shepard
This view I espouse is not opposed to technological intervention, only to the methods and mentalities that fail to promote the harmonization of the natural and social worlds. Besides, our interference with living processes has been so great that to simply stop now would abrogate our need to restore and repair the damage, such as through replanting the forests and reintroducing wolves to the wild. In a world of global warming, rainforest destruction, massive species extinction, and hyper-barbarism, the animals need us as much as we need them. But where interspecies dynamics are breaking down under the impact of driftnets, steel traps, gunfire, bulldozers, and knives and forks, our identities and very existence grows more precarious with each passing day.
Dr. Steven Best is associate professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Texas-El Paso. He has published numerous books and articles on the topics of social theory, cultural studies, science and technology, and postmodernism. His next book will be Moral Progress and Animal Rights: The Struggle For Human Evolution. Some of his writings are posted at utminers.utep.edu/best/.
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