Most of us automatically make a huge distinction between people – ‘us’ – and animals – ‘them’ – but is that really justifiable? When we look at the question instead of taking the answer for granted, the gap shrinks dramatically.
First, we are compelled to realise that we are animals, big monkeys in fact, so the distinction is between ‘people’ and ‘other animals’. That step may seem small now but it split England right down the middle 150 years ago when Darwin published his Origin of Species.
Second, the more we learn about other animals, the more we find that they possess abilities which we believed were uniquely human. Tool use? Yes – not only apes, but crows, dolphins and many other species (see wired.com). Language? We’re not sure about dolphins and whales because we don’t understand them, but several apes have been taught human sign language and used it fluently. Learning and culture? Yes, young orangutans need to learn foraging skills from older members of their family or they won’t survive in the wild- see orangutan.org. (This, sadly, has been a problem with releasing captive-reared orphans back into the jungle.)
Self-awareness, a sense of individuality, was long thought to be uniquely human but that, too, has been undermined. The ‘mirror test’ (wikipedia), which looks for evidence that an animal recognises itself in a mirror, has been passed by several species.
Now some researchers have gone a step further and shown that chimpanzees can learn simple computer games which rely on the player’s ability to anticipate the effect of his actions on his surroundings (physorg.com).
So we are not so special after all.
Why does all this matter to me in terms of the environment? Simply that the more we see ourselves as separate from the natural world, the freer we feel to exploit it, to harm it and to ignore it. If we acknowledge every living thing in the world as our kin, on the other hand, we will tend to live according to our kinship obligations.
‘Us’ is a loose concept which we understand according to context – ‘my immediate family’, ‘our team’, ‘the company we work for’, or ‘all Australians’ – but it is a powerful one.
When all people are ‘us’, not ‘them’, we will acknowledge and (hopefully) fight for their rights.
When we realise at a gut level that harming any animal harms ‘us’, we will take more care of the living world.
And that may save us.