There are two kinds of species in this world: Humans, and everything else.
We think we’re pretty special, don’t we? To paraphrase Gertrude Stein (poorly,) we’re aware we’re aware that we’re aware. We’re forever trying to pin down the thing above all else that differentiates us from every other life form that has ever existed.
For every scientist and philosopher, there’s a different answer. We have language! We look in mirrors! We invent gods! We are gods!
If you ask me (and no one is, I get it,) I’d say that, unlike any other species on the planet, we love sorting. We’re obsessed with it. Humans are basically the Sorting Hat of the animal kingdom. We sort and label and categorize like it’s our only job.
Now, every animal does this to an extent; it’s a survival mechanism. Friend or Foe? Food or Poison? Snake or that garden hose you left in the long grass?
But let me tell you why humans are EXTRA at this sorting thing. Male and female, black and white, Steelers fans and decent human beings. It may be an oversimplification, but our ability to name and classify has been a hit and a hindrance long before Linnaeus showed up to name all the things that ever were.
At the most fundamental level, if you asked anyone, is human. I’m a person, a homo sapien, and everything else is just not. There’s a solid line in our minds between ourselves and everything else that breathes, moves, reproduces and eats. There’s an even greater divide between us and the so-called inanimate: rocks, dirt, wind, sunshine.
But the world, especially the natural world, doesn’t fit in your little drawers with the p-touch labels. Everything is a continuum.
Which is why the title of David Abrams’ Becoming Animal is somewhat of a misnomer. Because if there’s anything at all Abrams emphasizes in his book, it’s that we are insuperably entwined with the natural world, only we’ve forgotten.
Like a disappointed grandparent, Abrams is dismayed at the proliferation of screens (Hey! Like the one I’m staring at now!) that is building a plasmic screen between us and our connection to the earth.
The book is meandering, musings on everything from skiing on fresh fallen snow in the Rockies to a journey among ravens and shapeshifters in the Himalayas. Something as prosaic as a shadow becomes infused with an otherness.
While not disputing anything that science has learned, Abrams has a healthy disdain for sciencism, that tendency, perhaps personified best by the Skinner-lovin’ behaviorists of mid-twentieth century. Abrams puts more credence in the myths of ancient and aboriginal peoples, which, while not being true, are more real, because they reflect our lived experience.
I don’t think that most scientists are the cold and distant observers of fact that Abrams tends to paint them as, that most of them are passionate and deeply connected to what they study. There can be wonder even in distilling our bodies down to it constituent parts. Carl Sagan did it when he famously wrote that “we are all made of star stuff.”
Personally, I think it’s wonderful that I can hold a rock from a stream in my hand and find commonality, that we can engage in a transfer of coolness and heat, that as much as I am touching the rock, the rock is touching me. It’s a less depressing version of Nietzsche’s famous quote about the abyss.
I think we all need a little less skepticism in our lives and a little more joy. A little less adherence to the “view from nowhere” that Abrams talks about when he describes the tendency to view ourselves and our minds as apart when we should really view ourselves as a part. A part of this insane and miraculous network of beings.
We are Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle all the time. We are forever changing the world around us and being changed by it. Being able to come up with quantum theory or sort your dogs into a Hogwarts House* doesn’t alter the fact that we are self-aware, big-brained animals, and it’s something to celebrate.
*In case you’re wondering, Aggie’s a Gryffindor and Charlotte is a Hufflefluff. Hufflepuff. Hufflefluff!