Our Animal Condition

On Being Animal, part 1

What does it mean that we are human?

We’ve been asking what it means to be human for millennia. But lately we’ve been learning that a better question to investigate, if we want to understand ourselves, might be: what does it mean that we are animal?

Poets, philosophers, and scientists have long explored “the human condition.” What about the mammal condition? The warm-blooded condition? The vertebrate condition? It's a worthy and important question, What are the distinctive attributes of our species? But to understand what it means to be the sort of being that we are requires equal attention to other questions: What are the distinctive attributes of our genus? What are the distinctive attributes of our order? Of our class? Of our phylum?

Our animality is more important than our humanity. By that I mean: the parts of ourselves that we have in common with other species tells us more about what we are than the thin sliver of our genome that distinguishes homo sapiens from its near relatives.

Research has been closing the perceived gap between human animals and other animals -- and that gap has been closing from both directions. We've learned a lot in the last fifty years about primates, mammals, birds, reptiles, and all vertebrates. So far we've found that the most unequivocal test of self-consciousness has been passed by humans, chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, elephants, and European magpies. But all vertebrates, at least, think, solve problems, learn, and feel. They all experience fear and gladness, anxiety and comfort. Mammals and birds are particularly complex and nuanced in the ways that they exhibit these qualities, but all animals want to live, and to flourish. It's worth looking into these findings and what we've been learning about a great many animals. I shall focus today, however, not on how we've closed the gap by learning more about nonhuman animals, but how we've closed the gap by learning more about human animals.

In particular, we now know: intentions don’t cause our action. Brain processes outside of your control or awareness already decided what you were going to do BEFORE the conscious intention formed. You think you do things because you meant to. Actually, that feeling of “meaning to” is an after-the-fact illusion. Neural signals for motion precede the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds (.3 to .5 seconds).

Why do our brains create this illusion of conscious intentional control? The brain’s decision-making circuitry, unconscious and out of your control as it is, does learn and change from experience and in order to do that, it needs to distinguish between actions that are “mine” and those that just happen. That feeling of conscious intent you have is just your brain putting an “I did that” stamp on its memory of an episode – so that it can learn from its experience.

We can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhuman animals are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or, if they are, so are we.

Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain experiments further confirm that the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing is an after-the-fact fabrication. The right brain can process input and arrive at decisions that we carry out – but only the left brain has language centers. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. My story about myself as intentional, purposeful, and rational is fabricated later to rationalize that behavior. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion we live in.

Knowing about the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work, can help us begin to befriend our animality, our selves. We were made, as a number of species have been, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of ourselves find their greatest comfort and ease.

Today, many of us, like me, find ourselves sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element.

David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.”

Mary Oliver tells us we find our truest place in and through the sounds – and sights and smell and feel – of animals and the wild: “You do not have to be good,” she says. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of abstract and symbolic language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. But, a couple things about that:

Number 1, these features that are more developed in a human brain are only a small part of who I am.

Number 2, great as they are, those functions cause problems – aside from the delusion of intentional control. The forebrain that envisions the future is prone to obsessive worrying about that future. Recalling and reconnecting with our animality can help with that anxiety. It can bring us what Wendell Berry called the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief."

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This is part 1 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 2: The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History
Part 3: We Don't Have to Choose

Text has been adapted from this sermon:

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