Saturday, January 13, 2007

An animal and proud of it

If there were bumper stickers with that message, some of us might stick them on our cars.

But not many, apparently. The evidence suggests that most humans are embarrassed by their animal natures.

Americans, especially, seem eager to affirm that we are more than the cousins of chimps. In growing numbers, we embrace religious and secular gurus who proffer escape from our animal destinies -- mind over matter, "inner selves," channeling, the Rapture.

In the most extreme manifestations of anti-animal sentiment, we have Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate cultists waiting to be plucked by God or aliens from this world of flesh and blood into some higher, non-metabolizing existence.

"There is no death." That is the primary message of the preachers and gurus. All you need to do is tithe or buy their books and tapes.

Thousands of years ago, stones, brooks and trees were thought to have immortal spirits. By Renaissance times, in the Western tradition, the souls of non-human objects and creatures had been mostly dispensed with, but humans still clung tenaciously to their own imperishable spirits. The poet John Donne wrote, "I am a little world made cunningly/ of elements and an angelic sprite." His "elements" were admittedly temporary, but his "angelic sprite" would live forever.

The problem with Donne's formula is that four centuries of scientific investigation have revealed not the slightest hint of a sprite that can exist independently of our animal bodies - no vital spirits, no disembodied life force, no angelic souls. Everything scientists have learned about life and consciousness places Homo sapiens squarely and inextricably within the animal kingdom.

We are buds on a flourishing tree of life, sharing branches and trunk with our bestial cousins. We share most of our DNA with other primates, and a lot of our DNA with bugs and barnacles. "We are biological and our souls cannot fly free," writes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, summarizing what science has taught us about ourselves. He adds: "This is the essential first hypothesis for any consideration of the human condition."

We are animals, yes, but we are animals who have evolved the capacity to create music, art, poetry, science. We explore the universe, unravel the secrets of the DNA, and stand with awe before the majesty and mystery of creation.

An animal and proud of it.