Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar – How To Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human

Briana Pobiner:

All right. Hello, everyone. I'm Briana Pobiner, and I'm a paleoanthropologist from the National Museum of Natural History. I'm a brown haired woman wearing a red colored shirt in front of a blurry background. And on screen is a photo of our guest, Melanie Challenger, and the date and title of tonight's event, How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human. Thank you all for joining us. As people continue to trickle in, I'll go through our standard housekeeping notes for those who are new to our programs. First, closed captions are available by clicking the arrow next to the CC button on the Zoom toolbar. We'll open up for audience Q&A after the conversation, but feel free to submit your questions at any time in the Q&A box on the Zoom toolbar. The Q&A goes by quickly, so please help us answer as many questions as possible by submitting your questions as you have them. And if your question is for someone specific, please let us know when you submit it.

All right, so let's get started. Tonight's featured speaker is environmental philosopher and author Melanie Challenger. Melanie's research and writing focuses on natural and environmental history and the relationship of humans to the living world. Initially, she worked in creative arts, in classical music and literature. In philosophy, her interests are across environmental ethics and philosophy of biology. Melanie's most recent book and the subject of tonight's program, "How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human," is available for purchase at a 10% discount by going to our local partner bookseller Politics and Prose's website. You can find a link to that in the Q&A box. Melanie is joining us from the Jurassic Yorkshire coast of England. And so, without further ado, it's my pleasure to welcome Melanie Challenger to the screen.

Melanie Challenger:

Hello, everybody. Thank you so much, Briana. It's wonderful to be here. So I'm going to start with the opening lines in my book. How we're going to do this, we're going to have sort of 15, 20 minutes. So I'm going to try and give you a condensed version of the book, a sort of whistlestop tour of the book. And the book is already a sort of condensed version of huge, huge topics. So you'll have to bear with me when I reduce its bite size even further, but I'm going to start with the opening premise because actually, believe it or not, these opening lines took me months to distill and come to.

Briana Pobiner:

Melanie, did want to share your screen while you're doing this?

Melanie Challenger:

I'm going to share my screen momentarily because I'm just going to put out a little warning before I share it.

Briana Pobiner:

Got it. Got it. Thank you. Okay.

Melanie Challenger:

So this is the book and the opening lines are, "The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn't think it's an animal and the future is being imagined by an animal that doesn't want to be an animal. This matters." So How to Be Animal is really looking at the struggle that we have, the unique struggle that we have in being an animal that's very aware of its condition and what follows from that. Now death is going to be quite a big part of this. And so the first slide that I'm going to show you is a death image. So I just to be absolutely respectful of anybody who might have had a bereavement, just a warning that that's what the first slide will be just in case anyone's uncomfortable now, but I'm going to share that now. Okay. So this is where I sort of started in trying to make sense of the relationship that we have with being an animal. And the story starts in some ways with intuitions about what happens, what kind of creature that we are and what happens to us when we die.

So the image that I'm showing here is from a memento mori. So in the Victorian age, as soon as sort of photography emerges kind of in the 1820s, it was used very quickly by the recently bereaved to capture an image of their loved ones. So in this image, we have a mother and a father with their child who's recently died. And what's extraordinary about this image is that because of the long exposure we see that the living beings are blurry and the person who comes into vivid reality is, in fact, the dead young woman in the middle. When I think back to when my grandmother died, for instance, and I went to see her, that's something that really strikes us when we first encounter someone who died. My grandmother was the first person that I saw who was close to me, who'd died and what strikes me and will strike many people in this situation is that someone seems smaller in death because we're not moving because we stay incredibly still. So the same thing that we're seeing in this picture.

And it's these sorts of intuitions and responses to death that people have been aware of for thousands of years. And the question that follows from this is what is it that has gone? It's very intuitive to us that there is some sort of life essence that has disappeared. And this in fact is what we see throughout history that we try to make sense of what's to an animal and a human. We see that we have this biological body, this body that gives birth, that bleeds, that breathes, that seems to be continuous with the other life forms around us and yet we seem so very different. And throughout history, what we see is that there's this idea, and this is in multiple cultures, that we are somehow split between a human part and an animal part, a biological part and a non-biological part. So what I really started to look at were the problems that flow from this. And I'm going to go into that in slightly more detail.

But the overarching idea is that we arrive at this point now where value assumptions would be baked into those intuitions about what living beings are, about what it is that separates life from death, about this strangeness, between being biological and yet seeming to have this life essence that's different. That develops through time into this idea that we have a superior human half and we have this mortal body, this biological part that is somehow lesser. And that's left us with a very difficult relationship with being alive because we end up with the idea that somehow our bodies and our feelings are a lesser kind of part of our life than this special human life part that's seen as separate. So I have a picture. This is actually me with my son. I think this is Samuel when he was born and you can see it's very similar to the macaques who are cuddled up together.

And yet that part of our lives is that very, very deeply biological part of our lives, at the point in time that we've arrived at now, has been sort of pushed from sight, that very animal part of our lives that we share with other organisms. So I'll look at where my kind of research took me. So thinking back to those intuitions about what it is to be a human, what living beings are, but particularly what human beings are, we see these intuitions about life. Initially we can kind of see them threading into animism. So this is the idea that actually this body spirit dualism, this idea that we are made up of two substances, the substance that might have flown from the dead person or that was gone, or that comes into the living person. This is a separate substance to the physical sort of animal part of us. But in animism, which we find in indigenous world views or we can infer in all perhaps of the original worldviews, human worldviews, animism was the belief that the spiritual essence of life, the life force if you like, was everywhere in nature.

We see that again in Aristotle and sort of early Greek thinkers who were at the birth of kind of philosophy. As the natural philosopher started to try to make sense, again, of what we are, we arrive at this idea that, okay, still sort of vestiges of animism. We have this idea of the vegetal soul and the animal soul and the human soul. So we start to have this slight sense of hierarchy, but we still have classical thinkers making sense of what life is by seeing life as sort of split between a spiritual part and a physical part. And then over time, particularly with the emergence of monotheism, those sorts of early ideas to make sense of the different kinds of beings that appear to be and what seemed to separate humans out from the rest of the living world, slowly turned from this sort of separate soul kinds, if you like, that Aristotle and others contemplated, into a stratified ranked kind of soul.

So we get the idea, you can see here, the great chain of being, the idea that man is at the top of a great chain of being or humans just under the angels and just underneath God. And eventually we start to have this toing and froing of the idea, well, is this spiritual side, is it found in any other living thing, or all of the other animals just animals with no special soul like or spiritual component? And that's sort of where we arrive at, where this notion that actually only humans have a soul arrives, particularly in medieval thinking. Now this gets complicated further, again, this old intuition that we completely make sense of that we do seem to be split between a mental substance or a living substance of some kind, a spiritual substance of some kind, and a physical substance, the animal part of us. Once we start getting into the Enlightenment and the emergence of science sort of wrestling a bit with the older authority of religion, we get this kind of strange migration of the spiritual part solely into our minds.

So the emphasis at this stage starts to be about the kind of cognition that we have. We sort of develop a soulful-like mind, if you like. So the soul is no longer all the way through the body, it's in the mind. And this, when we start to define what human beings are, we think about human beings as being their mental phenomena. So what we can think and reason and our free will, all of these cognitive capacities. Descartes is the person that we really sort of push forward as the man who puts substance dualism on the map. So this idea that we have the mechanical part of us, and then we have the spiritual part of us and the body is split between mind and body in this kind of way. But actually these sorts of ideas had been debated for hundreds of years. And once we arrived at the great sort of systematizing philosophers like Locke and Kant, we are really getting into the nitty gritty of value assumptions.

So what is it that makes human beings important and preeminent in the rest of the order of nature? And it all comes down to the soul. And interestingly, it comes down to the idea that the mind could be removed from this animal body of ours and placed into, you could have a sort of mind transplant if you like. So prefiguring the scientific, the sci-fi idea of the uploaded mind, we have these thought experiments among these Enlightenment philosophies that you could transport our mind and replace it into a different body and the body wouldn't really matter very much. All that really matters is the mind and it is this special, exceptional mind that we have from which all of the rest of human value flows, that it's this, that makes us special. It's this that makes us the moral and the rational creature on earth, and then along comes Darwin. So now we're sort of 70 to 100 years after these thinkers.

Plus, we have Darwin and, again, not just Darwin, Alfred Wallace and the other thinkers at this time, [inaudible 00:14:28], the kind of the thinkers who were all working around deep history, if you like, starting to push at the edges, James Hutton and other researchers who were threatening the idea of biblical time for starters. So looking at understanding the earth in large stretches of time and that deeper geological understanding of the world, plus the discoveries of clearly extinct animals, which people found very difficult to accept, but once that sort of evidence started accumulating, we eventually, through all of these different researchers, arrive at Darwin who gives us our first, ahead of discoveries like the gene, we arrive at a mechanism that can explain the emergence of life and also of course creates continuity between us and all of the other animals and indeed life forms around us.

And Darwin was very aware of what this meant for this slowly building exceptionalist idea that we weren't actually really animals, that we were this soulful or rational creature, and that our biology didn't really matter very much. And it was deeply threatening to people. I mean, in some ways it continues to be deeply threatening to people today, but a solution sort of arrived to the moral troubles that followed from this idea that actually we might be more biological and more related and more animals than we were comfortable admitting, and this was in archeological evidence of early human cultural activity because the human revolution, so this emerged sort of probably 30, 40, 50 years after Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, we get this idea that, "Okay, we might be continuous with the other animals, but look, we are the only cultural animal and our cultures emerged probably in Europe and very recently, and that's what makes us unique."

"That's what makes us special. It's our abstraction, our symbolic mind, and our ability to produce art." And this sort of wove into humanism as well, the idea that we are on this progressive journey as a species, and that we are slowly moving towards the sort of realization, or perfection, if you like, as a species. Now, in my work, I took that big sort of historical background, if you like, which is the kind of intellectual history of the idea of human exceptionalism. And I became very interested in whether there might be good reasons for why we would feel that way. Now it's very evident to me that human beings are exceptional, but exceptional doesn't mean superior. "Exceptional" means that we might have very particular moral duties that we would owe to one another and needs for our own flourishing, but that still doesn't mean superior and it certainly doesn't mean that we suddenly are not an animal or that our animal being doesn't matte r or that the other lives of other animals don't matter.

So where might those sorts of exceptionalist ideas have come from? So going back to the idea of death that I opened with, there's a whole range of very interesting research. I can only give you a very sort of beggared version at the moment. It came out of the work of Ernest Becker, who was a psychologist who published The Denial of Death in the 1970s. And he was arguing that a lot of what we see in modern human society and behaviors and cultures emerge from this refusal to accept, and this awareness that we're going to die and this inability to accept it and attempt to buffer ourselves from it. So there was this whole field of research called "terror management theory" that started to look at sort of making death aware to people or sort of mortality salience. In psychology experiments, what would this lead to? And from that, lots of data started to emerge showing that people favored exceptionalist ideas and they preferred, and uniqueness ideas, and particularly that they sort of sought reassurance within their in group opposed to an out group.

But that also they reacted negatively against signals of animality because these would prompt us to be aware that we're going to die. So that could include breastfeeding, for instance. That could include menstruation that could include sort of aspects of nudity, just lots of different things that show us our animal nature, we could end up feeling like we wanted to hide them from sight or having responses to them that followed from the fact that they prompted us to be aware of our death. Now I became, I think [inaudible 00:20:19], but I became more interested in just the way that threats in our environment. So existential threats of any kind from pathogens to dangers to loss of status, how those sorts of fears that follow from simply being an animal. So the kinds of threats that all animals face particularly affect us and human beings are a social animal, so we thrive. We don't just survive. We thrive in a group and huge amounts of our behavior and, our social cognition come from the fact that we are this group living highly, highly, highly social animal.

And as a consequence, when we have threats in our environment, we buffer ourselves within a group. And what seems to have happened for us is that one of those groups is this animal group. This, sorry, this human group, this idea that we are human and we are separate from animal. And that reassures us from the aspects of life that we find, of animal life that we find threatening. But this also ties into, just sits nicely with the intuition that we have, that we are our thinking part of ourselves, that we are some thing trapped inside this animal body. And what we've arrived at now is the ability to start to engineer what it is to be human. So we find these new versions of these very old stories emerging now, where people are talking about being able to engineer ourselves, to actually take out our minds and enable them to live forever in machines. And there are genuine research attempts to try and see if we can synthesize minds so that they won't have to die, so that they won't have to live inside this animal any longer.

But meanwhile, this is Nour Kteily who looks at dehumanization and he uses this kind of ape to human progressive measure, because so this idea is so intuitive and so entrenched in people's minds now that he can actually use it as a measure in his research. This progressive idea that separates us out from our animal life is very problematic when we now live with the anthroposophy, when we are the animal that is destroying other animals. It's incredibly difficult to know how we should value other animals when we struggle so much with accepting that we are animals ourselves. And not only that, but we're sort of on our way to trying to engineer all the of being that we don't like and even perhaps to escape being animals altogether.

And so where I sort of end up in the end in the book, and as I said, this is a wild whistle stop tour, but where I end up is in looking at, if we have this deep awareness of what it is to be immortal, fleshy being that that is related to the other beings around us, and that we'll have to face threats and dangers and ultimately death, and if we find that frightening and we offer ourselves with this slightly false idea that we're somehow not an animal and that we can somehow escape this, where does it leave all of the wonderful things that follow from being an animal? In particular, for instance, you think back to the philosophers like Locke and Canton, they were so focused on our moral capacity.

They paid so little attention to the fact that our moral capacity in part builds on maternal, in particular maternal child bonds, but parent infant, parent bonds, and all of the physicality of that, all of the kind of neurochemical endocrine, sort of the wet, messy animal stuff that creates those positive states that we come to call love, that creates the attention to care that we come to call compassion and empathy. These things are actually deeply animal things, and we owe a lot to our animal heritage, and yet they're completely pushed from sight when we talk about morality.

But I started to look at whether there are ways of gaming our biology, so that we bring out those bonding parts of our mind, those affiliative parts of our mind from which morality emerges and whether if we could develop a better relationship with being animal and be less fearful and have a greater sense of pride in what it is to be an organism, whether or not that would on the one hand, ease our fears a bit, but also provide us with one of the best tools we might have to develop a better relationship with the rest of the living world. So that was a really racked quick version of my book, but we can open it out into a wider conversation, I hope.

Briana Pobiner:

Wonderful. Thank you, Melanie. So as a reminder to the audience, please feel free to ask your questions in the Q&A box, which is at the bottom of your screen at any time. We're keeping track of questions and we'll get to as many as we can after this part of the conversation. So I want to start off by asking, how do you use your medium or your various mediums to connect with your audience and is your work primarily for the sake of intellectual pursuit for research for the sake of research, or do you hope to provoke any change in human behavior with your work?

Melanie Challenger:

Yeah, that's a really good question. So I started work in the creative arts originally, so I started English literature and language at university, and I was actually training in music. So I was fully immersed in the arts and I still work in classical music and literature today, but really early on, I was very interested in doing work using creative skills for a sort of social action, for a social purpose. And while that was sort of trundling along, my interest in environmental history initially started to really develop. And that was just really an intellectual inquiry for me. So I was born in the generation who had to come to terms with the various environmental crises. I'm sure that people today, young people today, kind of feel like it's just fallen on their shoulders, but actually for many of us, we've been worrying and thinking about this for a long time. And in fact, my first book, which was sort of 12 years ago or plus now, was called On Extinction.

And that was very much a young person's sort of environmental history, trying to make sense of the crises that we were born into. So there was that sort of journey, which became my intellectual work, very, very quickly developed a more active kind of moral component to it. But for a long time, I really have just been gathering evidence. So I really have just been doing intellectual work for a very, very long time, but in the last probably five years, that has kicked more into what I would now call moral philosophy, sort of environmental philosophy as a branch of that in which I do quite a lot of active work within ethics and increasingly in bioethics where I do direct practical application of philosophical ideas to real world problems. And so I suppose I always have that ethical part of me, the sort of a moral philosopher part in my mind with the book.

The book is an open-hearted intellectual inquiry, but I do hope that people don't emerge from the other side of it the same people that they were going in. It is supposed to have, hopefully, a positive effect on people. And I hope enable people to have a more loving relationship with the rest of the living world.

Briana Pobiner:

So actually let me piggyback on the end of that and ask you my next question. How has your work influenced your own relationship with nature?

Melanie Challenger:

Oh my God. Massively. I think I radicalized myself. I keep on joking with my friends about this. So I was always incredibly sensitive to the rest of nature, like all kids are. I think all kids come into the world like that, don't they? And then we have to unlearn our love for the rest of the living world. But initially, so I write about this in On Extinction, initially I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up in a really human environment and my grandmother knew so much about the natural world, but I was of the generation where a lot of that natural knowledge had been lost and we were really living in kind of manufactured human sort of constructed worlds. And so at first really a lot of what my work did for me when I was just fascinated and concerned about what kind of creature we were and how we had this dysfunctional relationship with the rest of nature. As I sort of studied that environmental history, of course, a lot of that became my own journey to just color in the world again and to increase my own natural knowledge.

So the first sort of phase of my life, I just really was learning, learning the plants again and learning the birds and so forth, but with How to Be Animal, because I spent so much time focusing on the ways in which we stopped seeing the agency and sentience and worlds around us when it suits us, I became hyper attentive to other beings, really, really, and also just actually really fell in love with even the really unpleasant things that I struggled with, like slugs. I've always really struggled with slugs. My son loves slugs, but I struggled with slugs, but everything I now see as having its own intrinsic value, no matter what it is, no matter what it might do to me. And I have found that incredibly rewarding as a state of relationship to be in. So yeah, it's totally changed me, I would say.

Briana Pobiner:

That doesn't sound surprising. Okay. So I have a question about one of the themes of your book, which I very much enjoyed reading. And so one of the themes of your book posits that the root of some of our fear of being animal just boils down to mortality. And so what role do you think that plays in our separation or wanting to separate ourselves between, wanting to create a separation between ourselves and the rest of life on earth?

Melanie Challenger:

One of the sort of thought experiments that I used to go on with myself with this is to sort of worry at the edges of our comfortable assumptions about the human world. So for instance, so much of what we take for granted in the way we give meaning to our lives, in our moral and legal systems, our philosophical ideas, follow from the particular life cycle that we have. So if we were an organism, for instance, that died after it had given birth to its children, like some certain kinds of arachnids, let's say, we might have a very different relationship and concept of death than the one that we have. Were we to have been herbivores rather than omnivores that had predatory aspects to their lives, we might have had a very different moral system with regard to the rest of life on earth. We forget how much of what we are hasn't just come into the world fully formed from our minds, our abstract minds. It actually comes from the particular life cycle that we have.

So death matters to us because of the kind. We're a long lived organism. We are hierarchical primates. So status matters and being old and frail matters to us if we're a primate. All of these sorts of things really affect us. So there's that first. But then, the reality is that all life is trying to persist. And so all animals and organisms will avoid death up until the point when it has become necessary. And so what happens for us, of course, is that we're completely cognizant of it. We have this time traveling mind, we're totally awake, can imagine our deaths every day of the week, if we want to. And that makes it uniquely disturbing to us. And I think even though we see much individual variation in how we respond to death and we see much cultural variation through time in the responses to death, I don't think it's a controversy to say that people are fearful of death and that they buffer themselves from what they find fearful.

So, yeah, I think it's the fact that we are being animal means that we have to die has been huge throughout human history as soon as you had a mind that was aware of it in the way that we are. This may be pre homo sapiens, of course, but soon as you have a primate that that understands it's going to die in the way that we do, it's been huge.

Briana Pobiner:

So speaking of pre Homo sapiens, as a paleoanthropologist, I'm really interested in is there any way we can get into the minds of other species of human that are now extinct? And so there was a time actually, there were many times when more than one species of human shared the planet, even with our own. So I'm wondering, how do you think our relationship with nature or with our own humanity might be different if, let's say, Neanderthals were still around?

Melanie Challenger:

That's something that I say to people a lot when we talk about human uniqueness, because that's another of those things that we take for granted. We forget that one of the reasons we're exceptional is precisely because we're alone. It's really unusual to be a species on your own, really bizarre, desperately lonely for us. There ought to be other humans and it's something I actually spend hours and hours thinking about and hours and hours reading about. And to be honest, I just don't think we have any satisfying answers and I'm always wary of the confidence. In fact I was reading a paper only today that we're talking about Neanderthals and arguing that we shouldn't assume that humans are, modern homo sapiens, are implicated in the demise of Neanderthals, because they were already sort of in a critical state. Similar sorts of arguments have been made about mammoth populations because they appeared to be heading towards a bit of an extinction vortex where they were really vulnerable population.

Melanie Challenger:

Sure. But human beings almost certainly were implicated in bringing the mammoths down once it was in a stage of vulnerability. And one has to ask questions about how other clearly intelligent primates and humans, no less, are not here. It's a great sorrow to me that there aren't any other humans, but you just imagine what it might have been like are we to have a different human species living alongside us. George Church has discussed the possibility of bringing the Neanderthals back using cloning technologies. It would blow people's minds. And I think that shows us, it gives us a glimpse of just how entrenched human exceptionalism is, but also how potentially threatening or disturbing we would find it, whether to be another human mind living alongside us distinct, different, but tangibly human.

Briana Pobiner:

So I'll ask my last question before we go to audience questions, thinking about sort of human uniqueness. And so, depending on how you talk to the specific traits, whether they're biological, behavioral, what have you, that define modern humans really remain uncertain, but why do you think it's still so important for us to try to define humanness or human uniqueness?

Melanie Challenger:

Well, we're fascinated by ourselves is a short answer. I mean, of course it matters. I mean, I'm a great consumer of all of the human uniqueness studies that are done. I get fascinated by all of it because when you just see it as a just so story, when you take that data and that research in an openhearted way, without these hidden sort of value frames in the background, when you are just seeing it as trying to understand how this extraordinary, and we are an amazing creature, this extraordinary journey that our own biology has been on. I'm not going to speak for the whole of the earth. All of these journeys are extraordinary, the different evolutionary pathways of the creatures on earth. Blue whales are extraordinary. All of these different sort of evolutionary pathways are amazing, but of course it's fascinating to understand how you end up with this sort of self-domesticated, extraordinary creature that is singing pop songs.

I mean, when staring at itself in the mirror, it is a fascinating story. And why would we not want to know that? I think when it's just with an open-hearted love and fascination, then it's great. But when it starts becoming a valedictory story that then justifies perhaps unjust actions within the world, that's when I get troubled. So it's when we bake in questionable value assumptions, that's when it bothers me.

Briana Pobiner:

Yeah, absolutely. That makes sense. Okay. We will take some questions from the audience before I start continuing on with my own line of questioning. So the first question is from Mary and the question is, "What do you see as the differences between humans and other animals? Are our thoughts fully determined by our biology or do we have minds capable of making decisions? Do we have free will?"

Melanie Challenger:

Oh great question, Mary, straight into the serious stuff. So there's been this, I'm not someone who likes a lack of subtlety. So there's been a bit of a tendency in recent kind of pop science to pull back from this assumption that we have a completely self-created universe, that free will, human universe that we have complete control over our behaviors because of neuroscience really actually, the sort of emerging data coming out of neuroscience and in particular, certain kinds of data on the intent to do something and the action and kind of whether or not there's this unconscious process before we do something. So do we really have free will? So this kind of Benjamin Libet's kind of work. Because of stuff like that, and also this desire to kind of pull back, to over-correct, if you like, from this idea that we are completely autonomous and can determine our own lives, there's been a tendency, I think, to go the other way to suggest that we don't really have any control, that free will's an illusion, these sorts of things, which I also think is nonsense.

I think human beings do have the ability to, I think we've evolved the ability to have some extra control levels over for our behaviors and our actions. We are influenced by ideas and that does influence our agency. So it does give us reasons to act in new and novel ways. So I think, that said, we certainly are still greatly influenced by whether we are really hungry that day or whether someone looks like us or doesn't look like us. For sure, there's all of that kind of biological stuff still happening. But there's no question that we do have those sorts of capacities. And there's also no question that we do have a cognitive niche, that's really what we have put, that evolution has given us. And for sure that gives us a whole suite of skills that are not necessarily unique to us, but highly developed in us or refined capacities. The thing that I always say is truly unique isn't things like language or even morality. What I find so unique about us is our capacity to build relationships with any other organism on the earth.

That is really kind, now, okay, you could say the bacteria does that, but it's not knowingly doing that. We have the ability to actually love anything from a python to a prairie vole to a spider to our dog. If you think about that, that's a really extraordinary kind of animal that can love all other animals. So that's what I think is absolutely unique about us the way that we have generalized, maternal child bond has been generalized to be put to service to loving anything on earth. And that's pretty remarkable.

Briana Pobiner:

That's lovely. Thank you. Okay. The next question is from Joanne. Joanne says, "While listening to you, I've been asking myself if I feel like an animal. I've been resisting having images of primal urges and uncontrollable emotions. What suggestions do you have to help me accept my animal nature?"

Melanie Challenger:

Well, I think the first thing to accept about being animal is that, let's think about, I've been reading this book by a biologist called Jo Wimpenny and she takes the Aesop's fables and she sort of myth busts them. So it's really enjoyable book, if you are interested in sort of comparative cognition like I am. And I was thinking about, so she talks about how the wolf or the cunning fox or the particular carnivores and predators tend to be villainized in our fables and our myths. And actually all of our evidence now suggests that these animals are, well, not foxes so much, but certainly rules are very social and highly complex predators and carnivores, anyway, highly complex creatures, lions, the same is true, with all kinds of different relationships available to them and not ruthless killers at all. So I think we have to do the same thing with the human fable. So we tend to say, "Oh, you are being an animal." One aspect of dehumanization comes from seeing us as animals as lesser beings.

And there's some really interesting research from dehumanization that shows one of the ways that you can resolve dehumanization is not by dragging human beings, all human beings, down to being animals. It's by lifting animals up. So it's by seeing you can kind of soften the edges of what we're doing with dehumanization by seeing similarities between us and other animals, rather than bringing us down to that level. I think, so we've got these little mental tricks that we can play, but I think it's really important to remember that being animal is not about just being instinctive. It's not about being a brute biological determinist world. It's not essentialist. Biology's incredibly flexible, incredibly complex with masses of variation. Instinct can be really beautiful and makes behavior really effective in situations where you don't have to have all of the energy of higher cognitive thinking and higher cognitive capacities are also animal capacities. So I think it's just about having a more positive fleshed out view of what it is to be animal, rather than that kind of fatalistic negative idea about sort of the beastly animal instinctive, this sort of idea.

Briana Pobiner:

So this next question picks up on your mention of human instinct. So Barb has a question about nature versus nurture and sort of questioning human instinct and behavior. So Barb asks what you think and says, "I think animals recognize members of their own species versus members of other species like predators based on initial superficial observations, color patterns, smells, chirps, that's all a matter of survival." Barb wonders if part of the human brain retains this knee-jerk reaction in the context of meeting new people. Or is it nurtures? So her question continues, or is it nurture how a child is raised to be comfortable and accepting of people who are different from us? What are your thoughts?

Melanie Challenger:

Oh, these are really great questions. It's both, would be my response initially. So when I got really into the dehumanization literature and I would recommend everyone who was interested in this area to go and read the philosopher David Livingstone Smith actually has a new book out at the moment called Making Monsters where he looks a lot at the readiness that we have in our nature to perceive others, strangers, anyone that we see in our out group, because obviously, so we are social primates, but we live in small groups and we live in competitive groups and those are going to be porous. So you're going to have relationships with other human groups as far as can be told, trading, for instance, trading of reproductive resources, as well as trading of kind of physical resources will always happen, but it is also competitive. There's also competition.

And also pathogens, for instance, you share diseases within human groups and human groups that you never met before can have diseases that you don't have and there's just all sorts of complex stuff that goes on, that's there in our psychology. So we have these uncomfortable in group, out group, the readiness to have that kind of competitive in group, out group way of seeing things. And I agree as well, that will often be relying on even earlier stuff in terms of basic ways that organisms recognize kin, recognize mate, recognize predator, et cetera, really, really instinctive, very, very fast processed stuff. So what control can we have over that and how much can that get exploited? That's all there. That's the stuff. It doesn't make you a racist, but it's all there. And then what happens is it gets supercharged and channeled by our ideas.

And we can see this, if you do look at studies on dehumanization, you can see the extent to which all sorts of things can, environmental things, like threats and fears and stresses, for instance, can make people more prone to feel positively about the in group versus the out group, but that can all get altered by a greater knowledge of the out group, of getting to know someone, of having stereotyped ideas challenged. So we can see the extent to which it's flexible, because we could go through a process of taking someone who has quite strong sort of anti-hostile ideas and slowly through an educational process of sorts, through altering their ideas and their perceptions and their knowledge, we move them into a more, affiliative more positive, more in group kind of frame of mind. So it's both for sure, but I think it's important to understand the biology so that you are really responsible about the stories that you tell about others and that we understand one another and listen to one another in a way that encourages that inclusivity rather than that exclusivity.

Briana Pobiner:

So, okay. This next question is maybe broadening thinking about inclusivity even more. So this is a question from Linda who says, "Richard Powers has recommended your book. How does your research regarding mammals correspond to that of plants?"

Melanie Challenger:

Oh, yeah. Richard, I don't know Richard personally. I have corresponded with him, but absolutely loved his book, so I'm not going to lie. I was completely delighted when he recommended it and liked it, kind of best kind of peer review, but plants. So How to Be Animal obviously is very, very focused on purely on the animal world. But what I'm working on at the moment is much more. The next book that I'm writing is a story really of the emergence of agency and intelligence. So that is involving stopping at the kind of Cambrian explosion onwards, really focusing on the emergence of animals and in particular kind of the Jurassic sort of stages of when the mammals are going to get going after then. I'm going much earlier now to look at where intelligence and agency have emerged.

And plants are a huge part of that because we got this explosion now in our understanding of plant perception and whether or not we're trying to understand how plants are behaving and the story really of biology as it stands at the moment has been one of greater and greater complexity that we've tended to go in with a quite a narrow model, quite a narrow set of ideas. And we've had a really high threshold for the data, for the proof. And what's tended to happen over time is that we are finding more complex behaviors, more shared behaviors, but up to now that's really been focused. It sort of started on humans. And then we started to look at domesticates, so all the animals that we live with, like companion animals, a lot. So lots of dog cognition work, lots of stuff on primates. And that started to trickle down into seeing consciousness and sentience in fish.

And now we're going through the plant revolution, the so called vegetal turn where people are starting to see much more complex behaviors than we'd ever imagined in plants. So I'm really just in the beginning of that journey. And I lived in a forest, 9,000 acre forest until only very recently, and my son is absolutely obsessed with trees because he's just grown up surrounded by them and he sees trees in a very individual way. So he's been a great source of learning for me, but it's fascinating to see the vegetal turn and I'm just at the beginning of making sense of how we understand. I think we need probably different language for understanding what we are seeing in the behaviors of plants.

Briana Pobiner:

Fascinating. So we have time for one last quick question. I'm sorry for all of the questions, the great questions we haven't had a chance to ask, but LT asks, "What kind of education is available to bring together the two sides of our human aspect?" And I guess perhaps if viewers are interested in learning more about bringing together these two sides, is there something you would recommend that they read or they watch?

Melanie Challenger:

To bring together the human animal side?

Briana Pobiner:

I think so. Yeah.

Melanie Challenger:

I think the thing that we can watch is probably other animals. So I know that sounds like a bit of a cheeky answer. I mean, I would certainly recommend going back to people like Ernest Becker. There are brilliant philosophers like Mary Midgley who have been really great on this kind of subject. There's lots of amazing science out there, but I think, for me, it's through very close attention. I'll give you an example. I was just sat waiting for my husband to come and pick me up from the rail station. And I was watching the behavior of this ant and it was trying to find its way over the boulders and it would stop and it was carrying food and it would stop when it couldn't kind of get up there and it would leave the food and then it would go off and find a route and then it would come back and pick it up. Now this is a tiny creature with far, far fewer neurons than we have in its mind.

That is staggering if you stop and pay attention to it, that life has found a way for this tiny little entity to figure its way around this kind of manmade pile of boulders that's just getting in its way. I think we just need to sit and watch with some humility. And there is so much resources to come from just that.

Briana Pobiner:

I think that's a wonderful way to wrap things up and a great message to send. So that's really all the time we have for the program tonight. So please join me in thanking tonight's featured speaker, Melanie Challenger, and I'd also like to give a special thanks to those who made today's program possible, our donors, volunteers and viewers like you and all our partners who help us reach, educate and empower millions of people around the world today and every day. We thank you. If you enjoyed tonight events and are interested in learning about our other programs including more about the arts and sciences, you can check out the link in the Q&A and the events listed on your screen. You'll also, when the program ends, see a link to a survey. We hope you'll take a moment to respond. We're very interested in your input. Thanks again, and we hope to see you next time.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with author Melanie Challenger aired October 13, 2021. Watch a recording in the player above.


"How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to Be Human," by environmental philosopher Melanie Challenger, takes a new approach on the story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our psychology is a profound struggle with being animal. Challenger examines how technology influences our sense of our own animal nature and our relationship with other species with whom we share this fragile planet. 


In this conversation with moderator Briana Pobiner, paleoanthropologist and educator at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Challenger explores the wide-ranging ways this mindset affects our lives, tracing it from the origins of Homo sapiens through the age of the Internet, and on to futures of AI and human–machine interface. 

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