What would it be like to be eaten by a large predator? It’s something that, living in canyon country, which is also mountain lion territory, I sometimes find myself wondering. We humans are, after all, basically a prey species.
Occasionally, on a sandy trail, I’ll come across the paw prints of a cougar who must have walked this same trail the night before. Or signs of what may have been a scuffle between the deer and that same animal who was out shopping for dinner.
Thinking of myself as the deer, I imagine the terror and the adrenaline as I fight back. And then, when I know I’m losing, and as the endorphins start to kick in and the pain begins to lessen, and as I feel the hot breath of the big cat on my face, I imagine giving myself over to her. And, as I start to lose consciousness, I feel myself becoming a part of her and even being at one with her.
At least that’s how I imagine it. First the terror, then the merging, so that it’s no longer me and her as separate beings, each fighting for life, but more like being part of each other in a symbiotic relationship that’s developed over millions of years.
While we like to think of ourselves today as Planet Earth’s top predator, that’s not what we really are. For millennia before we became the modern humans we are today, our ancestors were a prey species. And today we’re more like what anthropologist Robert Sussman calls “an empowered prey species.” When you think about that, it explains a lot about our very ambivalent relationship toward our fellow animals and the natural world. However much we work to empower ourselves, we never overcome the sense of vulnerability that we’ve inherited as a prey species.
It’s no surprise, then, that however much we work to empower ourselves, we never overcome the sense of vulnerability that we’ve inherited as a prey species. The more we do to reassure ourselves that we can have “dominion” over the Earth and its creatures, the more it all tends to backfire. And the more we try to separate ourselves from nature and our own nature, the more separated we feel and the greater the anxiety that comes with this sense of separation.
Is there any way of being able to accept who and what we really are as just one among all the millions of other species with whom we share the planet? And could an acceptance of this bring us some relief from the chronic anxiety we experience and all the aggression to which that anxiety gives rise?
I recently had a conversation with Boria Sax, author of many books and scholarly papers about our relationship to the other animals and how we might see ourselves in a more harmonious relationship with the rest of nature.
Michael Mountain: You talk about how being human is almost equated with vulnerability.
Boria Sax: When we talk about somebody being “very human”, we’re describing a combination of striving and fragility. Roget’s International Thesaurus actually gives “weakness” and “frailty” as near synonyms for ‘humanness’. If you trace the use of the word “human”, you find that it doesn’t refer so much to a species as it does to an experience. And the experience is primarily of transience. Along with our human arrogance, and deeply bound up with it, there have always been feelings of extreme human vulnerability, even inferiority, with respect to other creatures.
There’s a passage by Pliny the Elder, who wrote in the first century of the Common Era, that “other animals know their own natures: some use speed, others swift flight, and yet others swimming. Man, however, knows nothing unless by learning: neither how to speak nor how to walk nor how to eat. In a word, the only thing he knows instinctively is how to weep.”
And Pliny adds that “man alone of living creatures has been given grief, on him alone has that luxury been bestowed in countless forms and through every single limb.”
M.M.: So much for our much vaunted human exceptionalism!
B.S.: Yes, the drive to dominance is a product of human frailty. And in this effort to overcome the sense of vulnerability, we’ve made ourselves more vulnerable than ever before. We may have a sense of safety on a more day-to-day level – we’re less likely to die as infants, and we’re comparatively safe from things like plague and natural disasters – but on a larger scale we’re much more vulnerable than we’ve ever been before, because of the possibility of ecological catastrophe or nuclear bombs.
Deep down, I think we’re all absolutely terrified, and how could we not be? It’s just such a crazy unpredictable world.
M.M.: The other thing that our modern civilization imbues in us is a belief in the importance – even the sanctity – of our own individuality.
B.S.: We humans have a particular sense of the individual self and of the individual consciousness. But I imagine – and this is just speculation – that among the other animals, their sense of themselves is much more fluid.
“I imagine that among the other animals, their sense of themselves is much more fluid.”In our modern Western culture, we divide consciousness into units based on discontinuities in the physical world. Each consciousness is connected with a separate, individual body and an individual mind. But even among human cultures, that is by no means the only way. And it certainly isn’t the only way with respect to animals.
I don’t think they define themselves as consciousness residing in a body, I think they may have more of a distributed consciousness.
M.M.: What do you mean by a distributed consciousness?
B.S.: I think it’s possible that in a number of ways the wolf feels itself a deer and the deer feels itself a wolf; what the historian of religion Mircea Eliade called “the mystical solidarity of predator and prey.”
And while the confrontation between predator and prey may be pretty frightening, and I don’t doubt that the animals have some conception of death, it doesn’t necessarily have the meaning for them that it does for us modern Western people.
As for what death is for them, I don’t have any easy answers, and a lot of it is speculation. But I think to even make a beginning, we have to be willing to use our imaginations and at least try to imagine possibilities beyond what we’ve been conditioned to.
When someone asks, “Do animals understand death the way we do?”, you have to bear in mind that most people throughout history have not understood death the way we do today. They haven’t thought of it as absolute extinction. They’ve explained it in many different ways. But putting the question that way, and assuming our own Western understanding, is not only very anthropocentric, it’s extremely ethnocentric as well.
We also have a sort of division between objective and subjective reality. We say that subjective reality is in the mind, and objective reality is out there, and that things like forms and lines and so on are objective, and feelings are subjective, and that when you die the subjective reality ends and the objective reality continues. Well, that idea isn’t exactly right and it isn’t exactly wrong, and you can’t exactly disprove it, at least so far as I can tell. But it’s not the only possibility by a long shot – not for human cultures and certainly not for animals.
M.M.: So, what do you say if a hard-nosed biologist asks you what evidence you have for the idea of the wolf and the deer perhaps having a certain shared consciousness?
B.S.: I certainly don’t think I can prove it, but I don’t think it can be disproved either. I think we have to consider other possibilities. I would say that the burden of proof would be on somebody who says they perceive consciousness and death the way we do in modern Western culture. Again, this is just one of many possibilities. And if they want to assert that this is the case, then the burden of proof is on them.
M.M.: How do you contemplate things like mortality and distributed consciousness in your own life?
B.S.: Well, I’m stuck in this culture just like everybody else. I can talk about overcoming fear of death, but I’m just as scared of it as everyone else. But I can sometimes think beyond it and imagine beyond it. Sometimes, when I look up in the sky and I see some crows playing, I can feel that in a sense I really am a crow. And with that comes all kinds of imaginative possibilities, even if I can’t escape or transcend all the paraphernalia of our culture.
So I’m part of our culture, just like everyone else, and trapped in it just like everyone else, but at the same time I can, through imagination and empathy, try to reach beyond it and also help others to do the same thing, and help them become aware of a vast number of exhilarating possibilities beyond the everyday routines that we’re accustomed to.
Boria Sax teaches at Mercy College and is the author of many books, including “Imaginary Animals”, “The Raven and the Sun”, “Animals in the Third Reich”, “The Mythical Zoo” and “The Parliament of Animals”.