Excerpt: How to Be Animal

Melanie Challenger explores the conflict between humanity and the animal in her new book, How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to be Human

  • Mar 24, 2021
  • 752 words
  • 4 minutes
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What does it mean to be human? How does the evolutions of humans, originally animals ourselves, define how we experience being human today? What ties do we still have to our animal nature. Author Melanie Challenger looks at those questions through a new lens in her new book How to be Animal: A New History of What it Means to be Human. How to Be Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal.

Read an excerpt below:

On the one hand it’s obvious to most of us that we are animals. When asked, people are convinced this must be true. Yet we’re still told society must be approached as if we’re not. For millennia we’ve viewed ourselves as separate from all other creatures. The thought that we belong to the same physical world as the rest of life on Earth is one that successive generations of people have found impossible to accept.

The Maasai are the chosen people of the demigod Enkai, who blesses them with the cows he passes down through a kind of cosmic rip. In some Chinese myths, a goddess named Nü Wa becomes lonely after the death of the cosmic being P’an Ku. She gathers mud from the edges of a pond and forms it into a human. She likes the little dancing men and women so much that she peoples the world with them. Thanks to the poet Hesiod, we have been handed down ancient stories of the emergence of the volatile and jealous gods. Out of this flawed universe humans arrive, stubbed from clay. But Prometheus gifts us the ability to stand upright and command fire.

What myths do so well is to give us a condensed reality. Instead of thrashing out ideas and wasting time and energy on the nitty-gritty, myths offer a simple symbolic shorthand for who we are and our relationship to the world. In the twenty-first century the myths of modern societies tell us we’re not animals. Our enormous skills give us unique value among all other life and justify the harms we do. We don’t cause injury or destruction because we’re animals but because we have reason. We flourish at the expense of the rest of life because flourishing is a human right.

Of course, there’ve always been thinkers who’ve rebelled. In the older traditions of humans who lived among wild animals, there was usually the belief in some special phantasmal aspect of us. Yet humans weren’t alone in possessing essences of this kind. All of the living world was bound by spiritual force. Even at the onset of the Western belief in human uniqueness, Aristotle’s mysterious student Dicaearchus claims in his Corinthian discourse that there is no such thing as the soul. The word ‘animal’ should also be used with caution, he says, as there’s no animating force, no separate, soul-like property in living creatures. The sensations and experiences of life drench animal bodies at every level. They can’t be cored from the flesh like the pit of a peach. But his view – in many ways the most interesting – has proved the least popular.

But there’s also an irrational kernel inside us, a fear of being animal that was the price of becoming a person. As we became self-conscious, our personal view floodlit what can be a danger to our bodies and laid bare the inescapable danger of death. We’ve become the conundrum of an animal that doesn’t want an animal’s body. What was survival has re-emerged, by a long, curious path, as psychological imperative. Other animals don’t have to justify themselves to themselves. But humans seek what might give their lives a meaning that no other animal possesses. If we don’t belong to the rest of nature, its dangers can’t reach us.

But rather than reassure us, this strategy has left us reliant on a falsehood. The myth of human exceptionalism is as unsettling as it is irrational. The idea of our superiority runs with mercenary and sometimes aggressive features of our psychology. Being animal is a kind of syndrome for us, a peculiar combination of symptoms, emotions and opinions. It’s something we deny, manipulate as a weapon and seek to escape. At other times, being animal is given as a reason for our actions and, as often, the excuse for them. And so our lives are spent quietly haunted by the truth of a connection to nature we can barely admit. In our dream of uniqueness, we forever dance on the hot coals of a landscape that disquiets us.


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