This is the title of my new book that is just about to be published by Bloomsbury. Some people are bothered by the title. “How can humans learn about good and evil from animals?” they ask. These are usually people who believe that humans are unique, the very crown of creation. To them I quote Nietzsche: We do not consider animals moral beings. But do you suppose animals regard us as moral beings?
I have been struck at how often humans call other humans beasts when they want to convey that they are without any moral values: The Russian writer Eugenia Ginzburg, in her classic book Into the Whirlwind about the horrendous prisons in the Gulag, writes: “I have often thought about the tragedy of those by whose agency the purge of 1937 was carried out… Step by step as they followed their routine directives, they traveled all the way from the human condition to that of beasts.”
How is it, then, I ask, that in the 20th century alone, humans have killed 200 million of our own kind, while as far as anyone has been able to determine, no orca has ever killed another orca in the wild? If this fact does not cause you to shiver, I don’t know what will. But it’s not only other humans we kill. We kill huge numbers of the animals we think of as “beasts”—the apex predators— such as the big cats, wolves, orcas, bears, sharks, and crocodiles. Humans kill one hundred million sharks every year, mostly for their fins, throwing the sharks back into the water to drown in agony. Yet despite what we may think, these “beasts” hardly ever kill humans.
How have we become so divorced from the natural world? What allows humans to torture, go to war, hunt for pleasure, abuse small children, attempt genocide, and perpetrate so many other acts that seem unique to our species, absent from the animal world, the same world we attempt to paint as uniquely violent (“nature red in tooth and claw”)?
Could any topic be more important? In the past, I have tried to show that animals have the same complex emotions we have. But now I am taking this further: why do we have these murderous impulses that other animals lack? We have enemies. Animals don’t have enemies. We hate. Animals don’t. Of course other apex predators hunt for food– they have no choice. No animal in the wild gets to choose its diet. But they don’t hunt for the sheer pleasure of killing. They don’t create scenes where they must exact vengeance. Why do we then? Usually when we compare ourselves to animals, in our own minds we come out better. I think that this has been a fundamental mistake, one that prevents us from learning something important, in fact something that could possibly save our species. For it does seem that we are headed—as Elizabeth Kolbert says in her new book—for the sixth great extinction, one that we have brought upon ourselves. No other animal has ever even come close to this. Can we learn something from animals in time to help us stop?
You can buy my book by clicking on the picture of the book.