Stupid Human Tricks

How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human by melanie challenger. new york: penguin books. 272 pages. $17.

The cover of How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human

ACCORDING TO MELANIE CHALLENGER’S How to Be Animal, there are termites that, when infected with fungal spores, vibrate in order to alert others of the contagion. “Termites from the same colony then box the individual in,” she writes, “so that they can’t infect other members.” I read this passage nine months into the United States’ murderous refusal to contain the novel coronavirus, when at least 320,000 people had died, but self-quarantine was still a mere suggestion. The latest outrageous news story was that a man exhibiting textbook COVID-19 symptoms (on account of his COVID-19 infection) boarded a cross-country commercial flight, had an episode of acute respiratory failure after the plane had taken off, and was pronounced dead shortly after an emergency landing. Days later, the airline still hadn’t notified passengers who were exposed. I wondered: Would we fare better if we were bugs?

Those particular termites are not the only ones that have clever social measures to mitigate disease. Some insect colonies build their nests with antifungal materials, and others designate colony members to clean food. Infected individuals communicate their condition, like the termites do, and in some cases voluntarily distance themselves from others. Certain species of ants engage in what scientists delightfully call “undertaking behavior”: they remove and bury corpses, and occasionally create graveyards. Humans do those things, too, but doesn’t it seem better, more wondrous, perhaps even more intelligent and less sentimental when insects do it?

For many humans, the answer is no. How to Be Animal begins with the premise that our collective self-regard depends on the idea that we are superior to every other type of being. This fiction is predicated on a denial of other animals’ inner complexity, or at least a belief that it can’t approximate, let alone surpass, our own. (Sophisticated computers or extraterrestrials might best us, sure, but insects?) Humans, of course, are animals, yet for centuries we’ve indulged the hope—and its concomitant scientific and religious theorizing—that maybe we actually aren’t. We are “an animal that doesn’t want to be an animal,” Challenger writes, one who doesn’t “know the right way to behave towards life. . . . In part because we can’t decide how other life forms matter or even if they do.” We tell ourselves we’re special not because we’re animal, but in spite of it, and therefore we “see our body as an animal that can be killed for the benefit of our minds.” This stokes our propensity to see nonhuman animal bodies—and plenty of other human ones, too—as expendable. As Challenger observes, “our fear of being animal” may cause us “to hammer out a more frightening world.” Delivered in the wake of 2020, this is a significant threat.

Challenger’s book is a dizzyingly ambitious attempt to correct this destructive logic by examining its genesis, and I don’t mean “dizzying” figuratively. How to Be Animal induces the type of vertigo I experienced as a child while pondering where I was before I was born, if I could exist without a body, and what it would be like to have never existed at all. The book aims to convince readers that our earthbound, embodied existences are precious and absolute. “We already are what we should be,” fragile form and all; there is no “extra element” that keeps us safe from the fate of other animals. To accept this insight, one must interrupt the defensive thoughts that guard against reckoning with individual mortality and collective extinction. The freedom from such panicked dissembling about the inevitable is sublime: it elicits tragic and terrified joy. How awesome to witness a force so powerful, and how petrifying to have no control over it.

Ann Craven, Yellow Canary (Stepping Out on Orange), 2019, oil on linen, 14 x 10”.
Ann Craven, Yellow Canary (Stepping Out on Orange), 2019, oil on linen, 14 x 10”. Courtesy the artist and Karma, New York

To reorient her audience, Challenger must first dismantle the conviction that “human experience has a meaning and value that is lacking in the rigid lives of other animals.” Humans are exceptional animals, as are platypuses and mantis shrimp, but we reach for something grander in the lies we tell ourselves: that a piece of us is immortal, that we are the pinnacle of evolution’s progress, that “there’s only one kind of thinking, and only humans can do it.” But evolution is not linear and “doesn’t involve a direction,” which means it’s impossible for any species to reach its culmination. (Darwin understood the temptation to err here—Challenger describes his note to self “not to use the words ‘higher’ or ‘lower’” in discussions about evolution.) Furthermore, “no evidence from the natural world has arrived to support our [exalted] view of ourselves,” Challenger writes. “By and large, quite the opposite has happened.” Other animals continually mock our self-deceptions by proving that they can do much of what we do, as well as a dazzling multitude of things we can’t, like fly or breathe underwater. Wild birds know each other’s names. Elephants don’t just use tools but make them. Chimps have short-term memories far better than ours. Bacteria are capable of learning and can anticipate future conditions.

For the most part, we’re undaunted by these revelations; the goalposts can always be moved. “Each scientific or intellectual threat to our singular status,” Challenger writes, “has been followed by . . . renewed efforts to ground the basis of our separation from the rest of life.” In 2006, for instance, when biologists Nigel R. Franks and Tom Richardson showed that ants could teach one another, their conclusions received plenty of pushback. Some scientists argued that ants might be communicating, but were not properly teaching if held to a new, stricter standard. “Pleas for changes in the definition of teaching,” Franks and Richardson later wrote, with admirable mildness, “seem to be tracking our own understanding of what is special when humans teach, i.e., what it is to be a human pedagogue.”

Though Challenger’s points have obvious pertinence to animal-liberationist arguments, she doesn’t linger on them. For How to Be Animal, the more pressing problem is the blithe regularity with which we excise other humans in the quest to nail down “our” superlative qualities. “While humans have tended to have an idea of humanity as special,” Challenger writes, ominously and accurately, “they have not always agreed on who gets to be human.”

Nonhuman animals may have more “uniquely” human attributes than “babies, corpses, or those in comas,” as well as the severely disabled. But rather than expand our compassion and prompt reconsideration, our failed classification of what “human” means provides cover for the abuse of vulnerable populations. The Supreme Court still hasn’t overturned Buck v. Bell, the 1927 eugenicist finding in favor of upholding a state’s right to sterilize anyone deemed “reproductively undesirable.” “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in his majority opinion. This is but one drop in an ocean of proof that, as Challenger puts it, “the idea of being human has mostly been about belonging to a group and not to a species.”

Given the horrific ways this reality currently manifests—for example, the hysterectomies allegedly forced on ICE detainees—Challenger’s preoccupation with corporate tech-projected futures, which come up regularly in the book, can strike a strange note. She’s understandably galled by “flesh deniers” who debate the potential of self-awareness in AI while refusing to “see the potential of consciousness in other life forms surrounding us.” But she perhaps sends a mixed message by dwelling on fantasies of nanobots and immortal computerized selves. If her thesis that humans are unalterably terrestrial and ineluctably embodied is true, why fear this expensive folly, which is doomed to fail? “What those beguiled by enhancement dreams refuse to acknowledge are the bodies that are left behind,” she writes. But if it’s not possible to download consciousness, or restore a cryogenically frozen brain to “life,” what would they be left behind from? To whatever extent futurists succeed in developing new tools for profit, exploitation, and oppression, it will be a difference of flavor, not kind.

Ostensibly, Challenger attends to the potential colonization of Mars more than the ongoing effects of colonization on Earth because posthumanist fantasies of extracting “our personal perspective like an oyster from its shuck” illustrate where the notion of human exceptionalism leads: “We have to kill the idea of ourselves in order to undertake the research that will save us.” When what makes us human is incorporeal (like a soul or, the secular version, a mind), the planet becomes disposable and our bodies superfluous. But I’d surmise that rich megalomaniacs like Larry Page and Dmitry Itskov, who grasp for even more power with their forays into so-called life extension, are whom she’d most like her work to rebuke. She wants to highlight the absurdity of seeing “minds in pieces of machinery and code but no longer . . . [in] a mouse or a humpback whale,” and, in doing so, correct those who pride themselves on rationality while adopting such an illogical attitude. It is a Sisyphean task.

A human’s notion—any human’s notion—of objectivity and reason is highly suspect by evolutionary design, which promotes selective empathy as a way of making us better predators and more cunning social operators. The capacity to divine what other individuals may think, feel, and do is indispensable for intra- and interspecific success, but “there are limits on our willingness to see into the lives of others, most especially if we want to use or attack them.” Any insight is sieved through the screen of our desire, whether it is to help, hurt, or deceive. As Challenger frames it, “all that we do, we do as animals. But we justify it as humans” with “the intuition of an animal whose greatest interests lie with its own kind.” This dissonance yields profound dysfunction, as the whole of How to Be Animal attests. It has led us to describe our bodies, our planet, and our fellow creatures as both inimical and extraneous.

Challenger emphasizes that we, as individuals, are not as discrete as we believe ourselves to be. “Our physical form is porous,“ constituted by cells that are living beings in their own right, and “the self-reflecting part of ourselves [is] a range of processes sheathed in our animal bodies.” These invocations of motion and mutability are also invocations of the transitory, the fleeting, the ephemeral—and, that most dreaded state, impermanence. Climate-crisis writing often positions this era as one in which humans can either choose endurance or extinction, but, for Challenger, extinction is a given. There is no time line on which each and every human being doesn’t die.

I was soothed last year when I surrendered to the same conclusion. Before I did, I’d felt emotionally paralyzed by the ghastliness of what we were so determinedly rushing toward—a life of drought, fire, starvation, and unmitigated suffering. Acceptance of our unavoidable demise didn’t alleviate my angst about using plastic or most politicians’ amenability to fracking, but it gave me some peace of mind. That wasn’t because I abdicated the responsibility to behave . . . well, responsibly. On the contrary, I found that moral urgency came from admitting my own evanescence, and the ephemeral nature of all my labors. It made me more critical of half measures and better able to articulate why I do what I do, without utilizing dubious appeals to legacy or deferred progress.

What How to Be Animal brings forth so beautifully is that impermanence is not a state confirmed by death. It’s not that I exist until I’m dead, it’s that my sense of an “I” is never concrete but arrives continuously, like waves lapping a beach. To say we are impermanent is almost misleading. We are impermanence itself, a consciousness that flickers like a flame never fully formed, “the temporary watchers of a life force that somehow knows what to do in our absence” and in the absence that is our presence, too.

Charlotte Shane is a cofounder of TigerBee Press.