When – and how – did animal nature become human nature?
All species are unique, with characteristics and behaviors that set them apart from other species. It would also seem that each species has a way of knowing that is unique to that species. This way of knowing may lie beyond human understanding; we cannot fully comprehend how a tree senses and perceives its surroundings, or how an ant does for that matter. It is hubris to say that either a tree or an ant does not have some way of relating to the world around it. Yet, humans have gone a step further, with thought, consciousness, and emotions moving us into the creation of cultures and technology.
Yes, we are undoubtedly “animal” for we reproduce, eat, die, and our DNA is barely different from other mammals. Yet, we are not of animal nature; Homo sapiens have become something different. Some, such as French philosopher and priest Teilhard de Chardin, have argued that human consciousness and spirit are an evolutionary stage – we made a leap in the evolutionary process, and now are separate from the other animals.
Is it possible that as Homo sapiens took this step, people were aware of the slide away from the rest of the living beings on this planet? In his book The Wayfinders, Wade Davis writes of the Paleolithic Dordogne Cave paintings in France, noting that one man who studied the caves – Clayton Eshleman – believes they reflect an attempt at reconciliation with the animal world, that “the art pays homage to that moment when human beings through consciousness, separated themselves from the animal realm, emerging as the unique entity that we now know ourselves to be.” The paintings may have been an ode to the animal world, a nostalgic glance backwards to a previous and lost belonging.
When I sat down to write this blog, I paused for quite some time, held up by my own thought: why does it matter? Of what importance is this question of the evolution from animal to human nature? My concern arose because I’d just read an email about the Reimagine Western Landscapes Symposium that will bring together scientists, ranchers, conservationists, writers, and poets to articulate a vision for conservation in the West. Here, subcultures of the United States culture will convene to consider a hopeful future for western landscapes. Here is a productive project working towards a more just and sustainable future. People doing productive things, and I am considering “How did animal nature become human nature?”
Why do such questions matter? Evolution is not kind to species that develop in destructive ways and the extinction of Homo sapiens is not out of the question. Unfortunately, we are taking an extreme amount of non-human life down with us as we spiral in a direction that seems not all too good. Perhaps if we understand how humans evolved to the point we are now, with our cultures and subcultures, we can better articulate a vision for the future. Perhaps if we think about what it means to be human, the ethical responsibilities inherent in the creatures we have become, we might make better decisions. We may also begin to appreciate that other species’ ways of knowing shouldn’t be disregarded, simply because we can’t empathize with it. That’s a long stretch from Paleolithic cave paintings, but for those reasons, the question resonates.
And it’s interesting to note that humans created the cave paintings over a stretch of 20,000 years; just where will we be 20,000 years from now?