Thoughts & Things

How noble is the human-animal?

February 18, 2020

A vast number of people on this planet think that a human being is the crown of creation and this universe exists for man. At the peak of his powers, man considers that he is capable of directing the destiny of this planet. However, there is another minority who are more modest and think that man is just another animal endowed with a thinking mind but with no additional privileges and sharing the space with other animals.  What each of us thinks about the human role in this universe is very important. How noble is the human-animal? Answers to these questions are significant to understand our place in this universe and to imagine its future.  

 The human-animal

The story of human beings is the incredible story of a species which acquired the capacity to lord over all other species in a short span of time. There were a few things which gave man a unique advantage over all other species. They included i.e. capacity for an advanced language, an ability to make tools, an advanced brain all of which enabled him to conquer other species despite being inferior to many other animals in many physical attributes. This helped man to cooperate among themselves and his innate curiosity gave further fillip to his domination. As man moved from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled life with agriculture and domestication of plants and animals,  he further consolidated his position.  The unique power of reason and inquisitive mind helped man to climb further and the rest is history. The industrial man became the technological man and today he towers over all other species and remains the most lethal species armed to the teeth.  It was then obvious that man felt superior to all other species.    

 Having realised his unique power and ability to conquer, man went on to invent his stories where the hero was always the human being and he genuinely believed that he has a special place in the universe. In most of the creation stories, we get from myths and religions man has a special birth. In the biblical story of creation, man is the last creation and he is created in the image of God.  After creation, God blessed man,” Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.: have dominion over the fish of the sea , over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”(Genesis1:28)   While, Judeo- Christian/Islam religions especially gave man a very dominant position in the entire universe,  eastern religious thought perhaps did not accord that special status to man and advocated a more harmonious living with other animals and nature. Thus the story of the human-animal is the conquering of the earth as we see it today. However, the anthropocentric worldview was waiting to be jolted by many significant events.

The collapse of the anthropocentric world  

The first major jolt and the most powerful one against mankind’s hubris of a privileged birth happened in 1859,  the year in which Origin of Species was published by Charles Darwin.  The lowly origins of man was a bitter pill to swallow. The theory of evolution which has now been firmly established as a scientific reality drastically changed man’s exalted position and placed him in the company of all other species.  In the history of scientific progress,  few things rattled religions like the evolutionary theory which debunked the human uniqueness. Religions had no other way but to accommodate this in their teachings and interpretations. Of course, there is a minority which still clings to exotic creation myths.  

 Evolutionary theory very clearly established that man has neither special rights nor privileges on this planet. Either man accepts this or perish. Whether it is the believer who searches the grand narrative and meaning for his life within the contours of a religion or the irreligious man who is satisfied with his mortality and the meaning he creates for his life in this world, there is no dispute about the fact that man has to shed his hubris. To drive this point further, we must look at closely what the human-animal has done to the planet and man comes out as a species with a much-diminished stature. It was man who was responsible for sending thousands of other species to extinction. It is man who with his selfishness and rapacious appetite and greed continue to pollute the earth and making many parts of it uninhabitable. It is man who contaminates its rivers and plays havoc with earth’s forests.  Can the selfish human being which kills its own species for no reason and allows insane inequality and permits brutal domination and rivalry among the species itself claim much superiority over other animals? As Maugham says in his “ A Writers Notebook”,

“ Men, commonplace and ordinary, do not seem to me fit for the tremendous fact of eternal life . With their little passions , their little virtues and their little vices , they are well enough suited in the workday world ; but the conception of immortality  is much too vast for  beings cast on so small a scale.”   

Man has become an over evolved animal whose needs are far too large and numerous to fulfil without a great cost to nature. It is man who needs earth and not the other way. The big question is can the human-animal be tamed by the agencies entrusted with that task such as school or religion or culture or family? If it does not happen, what awaits is a bleak future. As British philosopher John Gray puts it,

“  Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared , many of the species it is bent of destroying will still be around , along with others that have yet to spring up. The earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”

 Common home and collective future

Endowed with a rational mind, man is aware of the gigantic task ahead.   Only a tiny minority perhaps think that all is well and the party can go on forever.  Compared to all times in the past, there is an increased awareness of the environmental risks we are facing now. In 2015, Pope Francis came out with an Encyclical titled Laudato Si or Care for our Common Home. That was a clarion call towards protecting this planet. It was perhaps the first time that a religious head came out with such a comprehensive document on the environment. Pope wrote in that,

We have come to see ourselves as earth’s  lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” .

At each passing day, we are called upon to introspect our behaviour here. The first step in establishing harmony with nature is to understand who we really are and accept it with all humility. Without addressing our selfishness, greed and myopic views we shall never be able to solve anything.  Whether it is the choice of diet or radical shifts in our usage of natural resources,  we have to live as if the earth is not inherited by us from anyone but borrowed from our children.  Among all the species, man is the most powerful one and hence the maximum onus on undoing the damage is also on him.  The question everyone can ask is, considering the track record of human beings on earth, whether they have any right to claim any nobility or superiority over other animals? Let the human-animal introspect that and launch a life of harmony with nature and compassion towards all other living beings. There are people who are already doing it and we need to increase their numbers.

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  • Reply
    Sumana Ghosh
    February 18, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    What an insight…though we know the need to act…but do not act…thinking the party will you rightly said !

    • Reply
      Boby George
      February 18, 2020 at 10:51 pm

      Just look around Indian cities and we will know where we are heading. But unfortunately, I am less optimistic about some concrete changes.

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