The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How to Be Animal: An Antidote to Our Self-Expatriation from Nature

How to Be Animal: An Antidote to Our Self-Expatriation from Nature

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” Mary Oliver wrote in one of her finest poems. And yet in an age when we have come to see ourselves as disembodied intellects channeled by machines, we seem to have forgotten that there is a soft animal of the body, that it purrs with agency in every aspect of our lived experience, from hunger to love; we seem to have forgotten that our intelligence is not the crowning curio of nature but just one particular accoutrement of one particular animal, while all about us are creatures “aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

In How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human (public library), poet turned environmental historian and philosopher of science Melanie Challenger traces our slow self-alienation from our own nature and invites an urgent recalibration of the organizing principles by which we perceive, respond to, and reverence the world.

Art by Guridi from The Day I Became a Bird

She writes:

We live behind a hidden membrane through which — at any moment — one of us may tumble to find ourselves on the other side. Opening our eyes, we face the truth of what we are, a thinking and feeling colony of energy and matter wrapped in precious flesh that prickles when it’s cold or in love. We are a creature of organic substance and electricity that can be eaten, injured and dissipated back into the enigmatic physics of the universe. The truth is that being human is being animal. This is a difficult thing to admit if we are raised on a belief in our distinction.

Echoing Loren Eiseley’s insistence that “nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness [and] each one of us… repeats that miracle,” she adds:

We know not only that the Earth is not the centre of the universe but that we are not the centre of life. Instead, we are an animal that finds itself aware of being an animal bound into the dark tissues of time and energy. The human species is an integrated part of the life on our planet, not an exceptional creation by itself… If a kind of magic quickens the sinews of living things, then humans simply possess a share in a sacred cosmos.

Art by Isabelle Simler from The Blue Hour

Observing that the numinous cosmogony of hunter-gatherer cultures did not survive the transition to large agricultural societies, which turned nature from kin to resource, Challenger examines the origin of our destructive delusion of exceptionalism:

History shows us that knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to enlightenment but only to the search for a different source of light. Each scientific or intellectual threat to our singular status has been followed by a fracturing of existing beliefs and renewed efforts to ground the basis of our separation from the rest of life. One solution was to redirect the emphasis on to becoming human. Solace could be found in the possibility that, as Thomas Huxley put it, we may be “from them” but we are not “of them.” This has been repeated in different forms ever since. It’s common to hear that while science tells us that we are animals subject to the same laws as other organisms, humans are “uniquely unique.” In this way, scientists swallow Darwinism but remain immune to its effects.

A century after Henry Beston wrote of other animals that “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Challenger considers how we grew so blind to the dazzling gifts of our kin and so antagonistic of our very kinship in an epoch when we have come to identify more with our machines than with our fellow creatures:

If we no longer see into the lives of other animals, it’s not because they don’t have minds or we can’t. It’s because we don’t want to. Yet now we’re told that everything should make way for humankind’s greatest invention: artificial intelligence. This is a far more dangerous delusion than anything dreamed up in a church. In this cult of freedom, nothing much is said of the consequences for the eight million or so species that live alongside us. Little is said for the passing of all the intelligence found in flesh and bone, feather and fang.

Illustration by by JooHee Yoon from Beastly Verse

At the crux of our self-permission to so elevate ourselves is not only our faulty measure of intelligence but the deeper tendency to reduce the measure of consciousness, of vitality, of creaturely worth to the measure of intelligence. With an eye to the relatively nascent finding that consciousness arose in the body before the brain, Challenger writes:

It’s only when we forget that our conscious experience is a feature of our bodies that we stumble when we see it at work… That our subjective consciousness is a physical phenomenon that can be interrupted by everything from diet and disease to depression only reaffirms that we are an animal… Our sense of self is a purposeful extension of the needs of our bodies… Consciousness is just a convenient word that stands for a global function that emerges from but extends beyond our immediate anatomy. The person we build our lives around is a consequence of the body, a detonation of senses and interpretations, the meaningful content of the central nervous system.

Nowhere is this embodied consciousness more palpable than in our experience of music, the physiology of which we are only just beginning to understand. In a passage that calls to mind Richard Powers’s lovely and wistful observation that “the use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body,” Challenger writes:

For a long time, researchers hoped to find a “music bit” of the brain to explain what seemed a peculiarly human behaviour. No such luck. In a recent study across Chinese and American participants, at least thirteen overarching emotions were activated by music, many of which rely on different aspects of our biology. The great waves of sadness and joy, exhilaration and pleasure we experience when we listen to music pull from multiple aspects of being an animal. Not only that, but they don’t just unfold in the brain or rely on our sense of self. They’re modulated by organic chemicals and processes that act like filigrees of feeling, tied throughout the body in a net of impossible complexity… Music depends on us being animal… Listening to music has more to do with the scent of honey or the pleasure of reproducing or of being healthy in a plentiful landscape than it does with a mathematical algorithm. For that matter, responding to music, whether it’s Mozart or Lady Gaga, has more to do with the experiences of whales deep in the Atlantic Ocean than it does with the computer through which we might be listening.

Art by Sophie Blackall from If You Come to Earth

At the heart of our aversion to being animal is precisely this awful knowledge that we do have a body for only a short time — that we live our lives in entropy’s shadow, inclining toward oblivion from the moment we are born, inhabiting a sliver of spacetime as transient miracles of sinew and sentience. But while our mortality may be what gives meaning to our lives, it is also the primal terror that makes us wish to transcend the temporality of our animal flesh. Noting our irrational “fear of being animal that was the price of becoming a person,” Challenger writes:

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.

This self-expatriation from nature is what Denise Levertov captured in her haunting poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” But while it was easier to justify in prior eras of religious dogma and Cartesian dualism, it emerges as an increasingly pitiable delusion at a time when we know that dolphins are our evolutionary cousins and we share 98% of our genetic material with a piece of broccoli. Challenger writes:

We now understand that the condition of a species is an almost magical weaving of time, a contemporary reality and a saga of metamorphosis. In this vision there’s no evidence of the hard border between us and other animals of which we dream. Genes offer only change, mutation, disease and entanglement. Our physical form is porous, taking in scents, parasites, and even assimilating the DNA of other organisms. There’s very little about us that suggests persistence. Our bodies are sublime, rebellious colonies of cells and our minds are floating, chameleon-like processes. This doesn’t mean that we should see human life as meaningless. Thinking we are exceptional is different from thinking our lives have meaning. There’s every reason to believe that our sense of significance is something we can’t do without. But the weighing of human significance is less a fact of the world than a facet of our psychology. Where the difficulty lies is not in recognising ourselves as distinct creatures but in the ways our psychology builds its distinction.


It’s time we told ourselves a new story of revolutionary simplicity: if we matter, so does everything else.

Couple How to Be Animal with the poetic naturalist Sy Montgomery on what thirteen non-human animals taught her about being fully human, then revisit The Fragile Species — Lewis Thomas’s forgotten masterpiece about how to live with ourselves and each other, which remains one of my all-time favorite books.

Published July 10, 2023




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