Animals are key to understanding what makes us human. True humanity is perhaps not possible in the absence of animals. Living with animals is a uniquely human trait, since no other mammals live intimately with other species. It probably developed over millions of years – about 2.6 million years according to Shipman’s estimate. However, we are in danger of losing this important link with animals. Animals are seemingly becoming less important to the very essence of being human. For instance, introductions to philosophy usually devote much time to defining humans by differentiating them from animals. Following classical philosophers, some of the differences between humans and animals that are emphasized include higher intelligence, human consciousness, language and morals.
However, in an increasingly techno-scientific oriented world, humans tend to become post-human, and it may just be the animal connection that can help restore our humanity. Many philosophers have, rightly, criticized this will to immortality through technology and see mortality as part of what it means to be human, but the role played by animals has seldom surfaced in thinking about what makes us human. Humans have almost always existed in some connection with animals: We adopt them, feed them, nurture them, play with them, use them and eat them. We think with animals. The connection between humans and animals has in large measure defined who we are. If philosophers have ignored this connection then it seems that something about their personal and professional development must be changed. Ensuring that our philosophers have had contact with animals, and had time to develop relationships with them, should be a priority.
In the 20th century, the philosopher Albert Schweitzer introduced the adage ‘I am life that wants to live among other forms of life that want to live’. The universal moral command, he felt, was that we should live and let live. This introduced an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life, of ecological frailty and of the inevitable disaster that will follow the careless destruction of nature. Nature and culture must move closer together to regain ecological harmony.
Schweitzer and the ecologists influenced by him made us aware that if we forget the importance of non-human life, we imperil the possibility of human life. But, perhaps more importantly, forgetting our connection with animals might also mean forgetting part of what is good about being human. As we now increasingly distance ourselves from animals, we are subtly changing the nature of human life and, potentially, alienating ourselves from many of the things that make our lives good and fulfilling. What if the real danger is not that we destabilize ecosystems, resulting in loss of life? What if the real danger for us is that we strip human life of its meaning, even before we get to that point?
The more recent idea of distributed identity proposed by Wesley Wildman follows the same tenor, defining human identity as distributed in a variety of neurological, biological, social, and ecological systems. Part of our identity includes nonhuman life, and this extends beyond our domesticated pets to all forms of life. We are part of the whole, and this relationship extends even to the microbial world. It is misleading to think of human beings as a distinct species independent of environmental factors such as the microbial ocean. Therefore, without understanding our connection to animal life, we cannot truly understand who we are. And if we forget who we are, how can we know what we should do? How can we know what is good and bad for us? Unless we first study animals, there is no point in studying ourselves.
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