Book excerpt from How to be an Animal

Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy that feels worst, with benevolence that extends not only to other people but also to the most humble living being, with his god-like intellect, which is involved in the movements and constitution of the solar system has penetrated – with all these sublime powers – man still bears the indelible stamp of his lower origin in his body.
-Charles Darwin

T.The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn’t believe it is an animal. And the future is imagined by an animal that doesn’t want to be an animal. This is important. From the first flakes chopped out of stone in the hands of walking monkeys at least several million years ago, history has moved to a hairless primate using technologies that can alter the molecules of life.


Today humans are agents of evolution with far greater powers than sexual selection or selective breeding. Thanks to breakthroughs in genomics and gene editing technologies, the biology of animals, including humans, can be rewritten in a number of ways. We created rodents with humanized livers or brains made up in part of human cells. We made salmon that grows on our schedule. Scientists can shape DNA to create lethal mutations in entire wild animal populations.

Meanwhile, the rest of the living world is in crisis. In our oceans, forests, deserts and plains, many other species are declining at an unprecedented rate. Geologically, we are an ice age, a huge metamorphic force. Our cities and industries have left their mark on the ground, in the cells of deep-sea creatures, in the distant particles of the atmosphere. The problem is that we don’t know how to properly relate to life. Part of this uncertainty is because we cannot decide how other life forms are important or whether they do.

All people agreed on is that we are kind of extraordinary. People have lived for centuries as if we weren’t animals. There is something special about us that has a unique value, be it rationality or awareness. For religious societies, humans are not animals, but beings with a soul. Followers of secular creeds such as humanism do a large part of their liberation from superstition. The majority, however, rely on species affiliation as if it were a magical limit.

This step has always been fraught with problems. But over time it has become more difficult to justify this. Most of us act on intuitions or principles that exceed human needs of other living beings. But when we try to isolate something in the human animal and turn it into a person, moral agent, or soul, we create trouble for us. We can end up with the wrong belief that there is something non-biological about us that is ultimately good or important. And that has brought us to the point where some of us are trying to live forever or improve our minds or become machines.

None of this means that there are no clear differences between us and everything else. Our conscious encounter with the world is a breathtaking fact of how life can develop. We talk together about abstract concepts and chip pictures of ourselves from the rock. Like the beauty possessed by a starling murmur, our experience seems greater than the sum of our parts. From childhood we have a sense of identity, a kaleidoscope of memories. The skills and knowledge we use in living and reproducing include the ability to fantasize and deceive, control certain urges, and imagine the future. We dream and we anticipate through a mixture of senses, emotions, hidden impulses and intimate narration.

The human mind is an amazing natural phenomenon. However, our type of intelligence – including a subjective awareness – not only enriches our life experience. It offers far more flexibility in our behavior than would be possible without it, especially among ourselves. No wonder, then, that we have spent much of history claiming that human experience has a meaning and value that is lacking in the rigid lives of other animals. Surely there is something about us that cannot be reduced to simple animal things? Some might say that without culture we become more like other creatures on earth, relying on the mind and body to get the energy to stay alive. Many works of art aim to teach this lesson and to pin the imagination with the image of a human being at the mercy of the forces of the natural world. Nonetheless, we recognize that this individual has a potential of consciousness that is unique in what we know so far about life in the universe. Here we have it. The intoxicating weirdness of being something so obviously related to everything around us and yet so convincingly different.

Of HOW TO BE AN ANIMAL by Melanie Challenger, published by Penguin Books, a reprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Melanie Challenger.

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