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The Pitfalls of Denying Our Animal Nature

An interview with "How to Be Animal" author Melanie Challenger.

Key points

  • There is a resistance to looking at evolutionary origins of our morality and ethics.
  • Our morality is constrained by the fact that we are carnivores.
  • The dark side of exceptionalism is our ability to dehumanize one another.
  • Denying our animal side robs us of the opportunity to know how to bring out the best in ourselves.

Melanie Challenger researches and writes on natural and environmental history, and the relationship of humans to the living world. She is the author of How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to be Human, On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature, and a poetry collection, Galatea, which was short-listed for the Felix Dennis Best First Collection Prize. She hosts the podcast "Enter the Psychosphere" about diverse intelligence, mind, and consciousness. We spoke from Challenger's home in the U.K. about what is lost when we deny our animal nature.

Mark Matousek: One of the more provocative statements in your book is, “We mustn’t allow the moral nature of human beings to be an animal thing.” What kind of reaction have you had to that?

Melanie Challenger: From the Middle Ages onwards, we’ve been threatened by the idea that we are animals because of where we want to place our moral foundations. It’s muddy and the edges are blurred because morality doesn’t exist in any straightforward way. This is true from both religious and secular perspectives. Nature, after all, is “red in tooth and claw.”

To answer your question, I had a little blowback, but I’ve also had some very positive interfaith conversations. I’ve tried to be respectful toward people with deep faith; and to be supportive and inclusive. It’s actually been those with secular viewpoints where I’ve had tense conversations. There is a resistance to looking at the evolutionary origins of our morality and ethics. Part of that is due to the high level of exploitation of non-human animals. I think it’s fair to say we have a vested interest in human exceptionalism.

MM: You say the only way to avoid the spread of moral compassion to other animals is to come up with a radical lie.

MC: I’ve lived rurally for a very long time and I’m surrounded by people who hunt, farm, and slaughter animals. I’ve also worked with scientists who use animals experimentally in their labs. I needed to try to make sense—in terms of moral philosophy—of what we think it is that draws the line between us and all other species. Is it dignity? Free will? Personhood?

It turns out these are simply useful ideas that justify a bias. You can understand where they’re coming from, but again, it isn’t a neat line that makes sense of doing unpleasant things to other species. Our past ideas about women and people of different races relied on false ideas that then hardened into prejudice and justification. Similar things are happening with non-human animals, but it’s more complicated because of the high level of utilization of other species and the fact that we are predatory. Our morality is constrained by the fact that we are carnivores. We kill to absorb energy and to wear clothes, but we also kill for pleasure. That makes us a complicated moral animal.

MM: Let’s talk about the roots of personhood. Where does this notion of being exceptional come from?

MC: Personhood is profoundly important to our negotiations with the world, and therefore to our survival, but we run into problems with being persons. The historical idea is that the mind and body must be made of separate essences—a substance dualism of “me” being carried around by my body. That is part of where the exceptionalism comes from. However, chimpanzees and other mammals have some sense of self and of each other. They also have complex relationships. So why do they have no legal personhood and we do?

Philosophers like Descartes promoted this complicated mind-body dualism and we haven’t moved on from that, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Darwin started us on genetic and behavioral science, yet we still haven’t quite accepted the fact that we are not the only “persons” out there.

MM: Do you think fear of death is driving this exceptionalism?

MC: Broadly speaking, the dark side of exceptionalism is our ability to dehumanize one another. How does one make sense of compassionate moral creatures with perfect faculties creating the Holocaust by convincing themselves that Jews weren’t human? This also happened with the African slave trade. In my research, I realized that it’s not really dehumanization but dementalization.

We strip others of mind by denying their agency, feelings, and sentience. We devalue it to create a different kind of relationship with a fellow human being. Are we not doing similar things by exploiting animals through the mechanism of slaughterhouses?

This drive for exceptionalism kicks in when we increase the preference for our in-group by thinking we are smarter and have better ideas. You see this in tribal groups everywhere, whether that is the local chess group or football team; anywhere there is a tendency to over-humanize one another. This is a deep mechanism as it’s related to threats. Human beings are a social group-living animal because that has its survival advantage. We feel good when we’re close to one another. If you get a horrifying diagnosis and you’re close to a family member, or even just a group member, you’ll cope better. This is called social immunity.

In response to your question, the biggest threat that we face is death. It’s hardly surprising that when facing threats of any kind—but particularly existential threats—we reinforce this idea of the group. You can see where the very business of being alive predisposes us towards human exceptionalism.

MM: Do you think denying our animal side reduces our quality of life, our ability to connect with others, or our joy?

MC: Over time, we’ve moved to a stage where there’s a lack of understanding about all that’s positive that flows from being an animal because we don’t have that much continuity with them. Abstract ideas still have an effect on our physical actions in the world, but our biology is incredibly fundamental. So yes, the most immediate and obvious way denying our animal side matters is that it robs us of the opportunity to know how to bring out the best in ourselves.

Touching one another is deeply mammalian. From early infancy to an encounter with a predator, mammals huddle with a close member of their group or kin for comfort and to regain homeostasis. And of course, our bodily health affects our mental health.

If we understood the particular type of hierarchical primate that we are, it would empower us to make sense of things that we can’t see. By understanding their biological sexual natures better, I think it would help young people make better moral decisions and ethical decisions. We could advise young people to know what their bodies are doing, to not be frightened of the changes, but to also gain some self-control, and understand that they’re going to be more impulsive. Being armed with good, common sense would be a positive step forward and even increase joy.

MM: In denying our animal nature, we also cut ourselves off from the body’s intelligence.

MC: We fear that biology is going to be reductive or essentialist in some way. But you’re not going to find that there’s a less intelligent race, for instance. The science is never going to find that. Focusing on biology does mean, however, that we have to value and lift up many of the life forms that live alongside us.

MM: You say we’re the only animals that are partly not natural. We’re animals when we embrace and we give birth, but not when we make vows. We’re animals when we bite into a piece of meat, but not in our workplaces. We’re animals on the operating table, but not in a court of law. How can we begin to better bridge this contradiction?

MC: Believing we are this special human gives us the right to dominion, the right to do what we will either to another human being or to another life form. Accepting that fundamentally we are animals, doesn’t give us that nor does our biology give us that. So we have to falsify reality by being partly not natural in order to justify that special human type of outlook. Letting go of that widens the moral circle. We would have to renegotiate our relationship to many other species and rethink the kinds of relationships that we can and should be having.

This might bring certain ways of life to an end, but it’s important to remember that ways of life never die. Usually what happens is that the actual physical industry dies. This has happened thousands of times throughout history.

MM: Lastly, you said that as danger increases we escape more into technology as an extension of the mind.

MC: Transhumanism fascinates me because it has a valedictory idea about our progress as a species and the upward trajectory of technology. Yet the idea that we’re all mind and can merge with a machine to become superhuman and live forever ultimately comes from those dualistic fears we’ve talked about. Using technology to support the best of our biology would be great, but using it to escape what we fear about our biology is going to end badly.

Ultimately, what makes for a good life for most of us is having a good relationship with ourselves, with those around us, and with our history.

This interview was condensed and edited by Rena Graham.

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