The New York Times is fond of running “big idea” opinion essays claiming that humans are just another animal in the forest — and, sometimes, that plants are persons too.
This Sunday’s example involved a writer, Maxim Loskutoff, recounting the time he and his girlfriend were threatened by a grizzly bear while hiking in Montana — a terrifying experience that taught him a lesson. From “The Beast in Me“:
It was a strange epiphany. To be human today is to deny our animal nature, though it’s always there, as the earth remains round beneath our feet even when it feels flat. I had always been an animal, and would always be one, but it wasn’t until I was prey, my own fur standing on end and certain base-level decisions being made in milliseconds (in a part of my mind that often takes 10 minutes to choose toothpaste in the grocery store), that the meat-and-bone reality settled over me. I was smaller and slower than the bear. My claws were no match for hers. And almost every part of me was edible.
Of course we are animals biologically. But so what? Flies, oysters, and most plankton are too. That identifier — in the biological sense — does not have significant import outside of the biological sciences.
But the human/animal dichotomy has a much deeper meaning. Morally, we are a species apart. We are unique, exceptional.
Loskutoff’s life matters more than the threatening grizzly bear’s — which was why a ranger with a very big gun ran up to save the couple, willing to kill the bear if that proved necessary. If the writer was just “prey,” why not let natural selection take its course?
And here comes the deep thinking part:
Of course there are aspects of our communal society — caring for the old, the domestication of livestock, the cultivation of crops — that link us to only a few other species, and other aspects, such as the written word, that link us to none as yet discovered, but in no place but our own minds have we truly transcended our animal brethren. . . . As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”
That is ridiculous on its face as we are the only species in the known universe that spins “webs of significance.” Only we create meaning and purpose, from which springs moral agency — the knowledge that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and we should do “right” — another aspect of human exceptionalism. No animal (in the moral sense off the term) does any of that.
Loskutoff’s conclusion is predictable for columns of this genre:
Yet there is something of the experience with the bear that remains inside me, a gift from my moment of pure terror. It’s the knowledge of my animal self. That instinctive, frightened, clear-eyed creature beneath my clothes. And it brought with it the reassuring sense of being part of the natural world, rather than separated from it, as we so often feel ourselves to be. My humanity, one cell in the great, breathing locomotion spreading from sunlight to leaves to root stems to bugs to birds to bears.
I reject that we are merely “one cell in the great, breathing locomotion” of the rest of life on this planet. We are both part of the natural world and self-separated and intentionally apart from it — to the point that we are able to substantially mold nature to meet to our needs and desires.
And with that exceptional moral status comes not only our unique value, but responsibilities to (among others) care properly for the environment and to treat animals humanely — duties that arise simply and merely because we are human.
Animals, in contrast, are amoral. They owe us and each other nothing. After all, that bear would have done nothing “wrong” if she had torn Loskutoff apart for dinner, no matter the agony caused. She would have just been acting like a hungry bear.
That’s a distinction with a world of difference.