BECOMING A BEAST
I am a human. At least in the sense that both of my parents were human.
This has certain consequences. I cannot, for instance, make children with a fox. I have to come to terms with that.
But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.
It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.
There are two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis. If you insist on seeing them as blandly historical, they are wholly incompatible with each other. In the first, man was created last. In the second, he was created first. But both tells us enlightening things about our family relations with the animals.
In the first Genesis account, man was created, along with all the terrestrial animals, on the sixth day. That’s an intimate sort of shared ancestry. We have the same birthday.
In the second Genesis account, the animals were created specifically to provide companionship for Adam. It was not good for him to be alone. But God’s strategy failed: the animals didn’t provide company that was quite good enough, and so Eve was created as well. Adam was happy to see her. “At last!,” he exclaims. It is an exclamation that we’ve all either uttered or hope one day to utter. There is a loneliness that a cat cannot assuage. But that doesn’t mean that God’s plan completely misfired – that animals are utterly hopeless companions. We know that’s not true. The market for dog biscuits is vast.
Adam named all the mammals and the birds – so forging a connection with them which went to the root of what both they and he were. His very first words were the names. We are shaped by the things we say and the labels we give. So Adam was shaped by his interaction with the animals. That interaction and that shaping are simple historical facts. We’ve grown up as a species with animals as our nursery teachers. They taught us to walk, steadying us, hand in hoof, as we tottered. And the names – which implied control – shaped the animals too. That shaping also is an obvious and often (at least for the animals) disastrous fact. We share with the animals not only genetic ancestry and an enormous proportion of DNA, but history. We’ve all been to the same school. It’s perhaps not surprising that we know some of the same languages.
Being a Beast
Profile Books 2016