Redefining our Animal Nature

The phrase ‘animal nature’ can conjure uneasy images and connotations in our minds. We may think of our animal nature as a primitive part of ourselves that lurks underneath all that is noble and celebrated – our intellect, tools of reasoning, sense of refinement. We can blame our animal nature when we act – as humans so often do – with little regard for the moral and ethical consequences. When two drunk blokes fight outside the pub. When a woman is sexually assaulted. When someone murders another person in a fit of unspeakable and uncharacteristic rage. Indeed, as many scholars of Charles Darwin note, some of the evolutionary theorist’s main ideas, although scientifically accepted, have been largely ignored by us as a matter of convenience. One of the primary notions being that humans have inherited instinctive behaviours from mammals that emerge under certain conditions.

Perhaps a rethink of the term and its meaning for us as a species is due. Perhaps the term animal nature doesn’t just speak of wild, immoderated tendencies, but can and should be redefined in the current context of ecological disaster which is unfolding before and around us. Perhaps it is through connecting with the more favourable aspects of our animal nature that can help us to conceive of our often disconnected relationship with the natural world, and therefore make active steps to redress some of the greatest errors of our primacy – our collective underestimation (and subsequent degradation) of the living world of flora and fauna that sustains us.

For centuries we have felt bolstered by our sophisticated capabilities when compared with the inhabitants of the animal kingdom – a place where we have mostly perceived our membership as having lapsed somewhere along the evolutionary line. However, some of our most enlightened thinkers now understand that our fate as a species very much hinges on our nurturing the sustainability and welfare of animals and natural environment. There are examples of this reciprocal relationship everywhere. As detailed in The Conversation, in a piece titled ‘Why human suffering and animal welfare are the one issue’, humans and animals “are in this together”. The author gives the pertinent example of our current antibiotic resistance, reminding us that much of the cause of this dangerous resistance is due to the fact that factory farmed animals that we readily consume are routinely given antibiotics, not necessarily due to illness, but to stave off the likely chance they will contract disease in their unnatural, cramped living conditions.

Factory farming is just one issue which raises continues to raise questions about human health, animal welfare and its effect on the environment due to land clearing and greenhouse gas emissions. It is this realisation of a triad relationship between people, animals and the environment that has led some researchers to conclude that we may benefit from reconceptualising humanity’s place in the grander scheme.

Joanne Vining, Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, asks an interesting question in her paper, The connection to other animals and caring for nature: “Is there a relationship between caring for a non-human animal, for a species, and for an ecosystem?” She then posits: “If so, this relationship may be a key to encouraging resource conservation and environmental protection.”

Vining points to many potential (and as yet, largely undiscovered) reasons a human connection to animals may lead to a connection with the broader environment. One such theory is that the bond between humans and animals is often an emotive one. We love our pets as members of our families; we care for their wellbeing; by extension, we care deeply about their daily requirement to explore, sniff, play and be in nature. In this way, it is possible that by using the human tendency to anthropomorphise our domestic pets, logically we could feel this way about non domestic animals, and use this as a transition to protecting and connecting with the environment, the home of the species we so care for. As she writes:

If intimate association with animals is in fact an attempt to reconnect with our natural world, then it may be possible to heal the human-nature split and approach the world in a spirit of cooperation and conservation.”

Crucially, Vining declares that further research is needed to determine if indeed there is a discernible link between caring for animals, entire species, and in turn the environment more broadly:  “One of the most important questions for conservation psychology is how caring can be promoted and whether caring for animals can generalise to caring for species and in turn to ecosystems.”

Paul Waldau, a longtime thinker in the realm of animal protection, believes that “a serious discussion of animal rights and their relevance to environmental/conservation/ecological concerns is part of a peace-constituted path essential to human health and thriving.” Interestingly, Waldau has observed that among many groups of environmentalists, there has been a long running tendency to believe that animal rights and environmental protection are ultimately distinct issues, and thus, focus their time and limited finances campaigning on the fate of the environment, forsaking animal protection (a theory which could be similarly applied to animal rights groups who do not feel they have the time or energy to campaign on environmental issues). Waldau’s perception is that one cause cannot exist without the other, that animal welfare, environmental sustainability and conservation, and human health, is in many respects, one in the same issue. This of course does not mean that charities must take on more than they can, or cannot be specific in their missions; it does however point to the potential benefits of a philosophical, holistic perspective.

Waldau theorises that it is through the cultivation of our own ethical concerns for other living beings, that leads to a more enriched experience of our humanity.

He writes: “When humans experience others – it matters not whether these ‘others’ are human or members of some other species – paradoxically this experience of getting beyond the self allows humans to become as fully human as we can be, that is, human in the context of a biologically rich world full of other interesting living beings.”

So, how might we connect with our animal nature, and become, as Waldau says, fully human? How do we redefine the meaning of animal nature and apply it to our current state of duality – a time when we, as a species, have never been more equipped and resource rich to operate in the most ethical way possible, and yet, a time when we largely ignore our shared membership in the exclusive club of cohabitants of Planet Earth?

Perhaps it is as simple and wonderful as bonding with animals who live in our home, and, if we are feeling more daring, to explore our relationships with non-domestic creatures, whether that’s patting a horse or watching a caterpillar crawl. And with crossed fingers, we may strive to allow this bonding to bolster our wider sense of belonging and cohesion with our shared natural habitat, one that is crying out for our attention, appreciation and affection.