The Ape That Denied Its Nature

A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, so what does this photograph of the author and a spotted hyena individual at the Toronto zoo indicate about the modern state of the human-nonhuman animal relationship? This blog serves to explore questions of such manner. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Michael Noonan.

Many people put an unconscious distinction between the world as experienced by our daily lives and society’s activities, and what we perceive as the ‘natural world’ or domain of the animals. At the basis of this dichotomy, there is ‘Nature’ and then there is humanity, with a clear divide being drawn due to humankind’s alleged special traits that have largely been demonstrated to be of trivial novelty by modern animal cognition research. With the natural environment being outside of our immediate concerns and instead acting as the backdrop to our species’ progress, countless short term concerns take precedence over the imperative of fostering a healthy biosphere. Nonhuman animals are often placed in the distant categories of pests to drive out of our properties, food to consume on our plates, or curiosities to gawk at in the local zoo. When it comes to our nonhuman kin and the environment, humankind certainly acts in a peculiar and often contradictory fashion. We launch exhaustive searches for extraterrestrial intelligence in the far reaches of our galaxy while ignoring the complex minds of the nonhuman species with whom we share our planet (de Waal 2016). Stretches of forest just like those that our hominid ancestors inhabited are cleared for lumber or farming, despite their vital role in providing the very oxygen that we breath. Yet we decorate our cities with green spaces, paint animals on the walls of our newborn children’s rooms, and share a considerable amount of resources with the small carnivores that we welcome into our homes as pets. In a beautiful testament to humankind’s moral reach, ecotourism agencies characterizing wildlife as natural heritage worthy of living space and protection are beginning to outpace industries capitalizing on the death and commoditization of such species. The sphere of human compassion is gaining in its inclusion of our planet’s nonhuman life with recognition of both their inherent value and our reliance on the ecosystem services they provide, but there is still plenty to consider about the past, present, and future of our coexistence.

The Blasphemy of Being an Animal

Thought-provoking painting by Banksy titled “Cave Painting,” depicting a street worker power washing various Paleolithic-style artworks

To kick off the first article of this hopefully fruitful blog, here is an image for your consideration, a painting by Banksy titled “Cave Painting.” While the work is widely interpreted as commentary on graffiti censorship, I feel that another message can be taken away from this depiction of a street worker dutifully erasing paintings of hunter-gatherers and prehistoric hoofed mammals. This piece has struck me as embodying a fascinating albeit possibly self-destructive tendency of human nature, and one that is indeed most-perplexing when viewed from the perspective of biology: denial of our animal nature. Beginning with Carl Linnaeus’ 1758 classification of Homo sapiens, the biological affiliations of humans have been recognized as nestled amongst the mammals and, more specifically, primates. As early as the second century A.D., our anatomical similarities with fellow primates were noted as remarkable by Greek physicians (Diamond 1992). Yet even today, numerous creationist groups decry the readily established placement of our species amongst the African apes as blasphemous, to the extent that schools across America face demands to remove the reality of evolution from their textbooks. This betrays a blatant insecurity in believing that our Creator must have molded us in a fashion far removed from the rest of the living world, with all other species merely providing fodder for our divine providence. Even many scientists remain trapped in the pre-Darwinist paradigm of animals as instinct-driven machines rather than individuals with the potential for remarkable social, emotional, and cognitive capacities. The egocentric question of ‘what makes us human’ drives much of modern research into animal cognition, with Dr. Frans de Waal (2016) coining the term ‘anthropodenial’ to describe scientists’ exhausted cynicism towards the presence of human-like cognitive abilities, even those that we take for granted ourselves, in nonhuman animals. The scoff of “I am not an animal” has been so abundant that a recent symposium described it as “the signature cry of our species” (Mountain 2014). The Tree of Life mapping our biological relationships reveals that we are a minor branch rooted to a diversity of evolutionary ‘inner animals’, with vestiges of this heritage visible in modern anatomical features such as our middle ear bones repurposed from the jaws of stem-mammals and our limb bones sharing the same structural arrangement of bones as the fins of the intermediate ‘fishapod’ Tiktaalik rosae. Despite the sometimes polarized attitudes of biologists and theologists, it is undeniable that religious belief and recognition of evolutionary history are not mutually exclusive, something that I wish to expand upon in future articles. Edward O. Wilson’s ‘Epic of Evolution’, for instance, provides a narrative model amending creation stories founded prior to knowledge of cosmic deep time or natural selection, and invokes positive moral behavior towards all life in light of our common grounding. Unfortunately, modern perspectives of nonhuman animals often forsake or pervert the evolutionary narrative of our species, just as the streetworker in “Cave Painting” eagerly washes away the painting that represents our recent prehistory as ‘just another species of mammal’.

Ethologists of the Paleolithic

Banksy’s work seems to borrow much of its style from paintings dating to the Paleolithic period, the ‘Old Stone Age’ spanning from 2.6 million years to 12,000 years ago and constituting 95% of human history, like those discovered on the walls of Chauvet Cave and Cave of Lascaux in France. Many art historians and zooarchaeologists propose that these pieces reflect a deep appreciation and understanding of contemporary fauna. At the time of these works’ creation, designated as the Pleistocene epoch, biodiversity was booming in Europe and free-living terrestrial animals occupied ninety-eight percent of the world’s biomass in contrast to the scant two percent that they constitute today (Smil 2011). The lifestyles of Paleolithic people were reliant on the reproductive turnover of hardy mammal populations, and the ability to reliably interpret and predict the behavior of nonhuman animals would have been essential for human survival (Nordell & Valone 2014). As such, the accuracy of some paintings attests to an intimate comprehension of animals’ functional anatomy and locomotion, leading researchers Horvath et al. (2012) to title their paper on these findings with the remark, “Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists.” The paintings of Paleolithic artists are so detailed that they have even informed paleoartists of pelage ornamentation otherwise unexpected on certain Pleistocene mammals, such as the black band of fur circling the midsection of wooly rhinoceroses (Naish 2013), the distinctive dark shoulder hump of the Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus (Geist 1998), and the striking spots of wild horses (Pruvost et al. 2011). Attesting to the value of such wildlife knowledge, the reindeer appears to have been the pivotal prey species for sparking and sustaining the cultural flowering of the people living during Europe’s Upper Paleolithic (Geist 2003). According to Dr. Valerius Geist (2003), the seasonal migration of reindeer may have been perceived by hunters who, utilizing lunar calendars to predict herd movements, could intercept and kill the quantity of deer necessary for future sustenance. Geist (2003) suggests that the strategy of consuming and preserving reindeer meat would have enabled the persistence of Homo sapiens against competition from Neanderthals, created excess time for the development of cultural practices founded in leisure such as art, and ultimately shaped human history in Eurasia. While the alleged animist traditions of Paleolithic people have certainly been fantasized, archaeological findings lend credence to a deep sense of companionship held by Paleolithic people towards at least one species in particular. The remains of a wolf-dog, a Pleistocene canine bearing cranial traits that fall between those of wolves and prehistoric dogs and possibly reflecting early domestication attempts, have been unearthed in proximity to the remains of twenty human individuals at the Czech archaeological site Předmostí (Shipman 2015). The skull of another wolf-dog at the site was found with a large mammal bone lodged between its jaws, suggesting deliberate placement potentially in the context of a mortuary ritual (Shipman 2015). The implications of these findings are tentative, yet they suggest that some measure of special care unique from the treatment of other animal remains may have been granted to deceased wolf-dogs by their human contemporaries, potentially due to the interspecies emotional bond arising during the domestication process (Shipman 2015). Several modern indigenous cultures ascribe a spiritual value to nonhuman organisms through rituals based in sympathetic magic that seek to yield prosperous hunts in return for reverence (Orland 2004), in a sense recognizing the benefit of fostering a mutualistic coexistence with the environment. The ethnographic studies of cultural anthropologists draw parallels between such practices of modern and prehistoric foraging peoples, suggesting that the devoted observation and depiction of wildlife by Paleolithic people may have had similar spiritual grounding.

Origins of Exceptionalism

At the risk of positing an entirely subjective interpretation of Banksy’s “Cave Painting,” the depicted scene may be viewed as representing modern institutions’ denial of our humble origins as a fortunate lineage of African primates. It is tempting to question when this curtain of ignorance fell and speculate as to when Homo sapiens first established a self-perceived identity as dominant beings exempt from natural selective pressures. However, the origins of human exceptionalism may not have been marked by a distinct singular event and may be impossible to determine experimentally, other than perhaps through measuring the prevalence of human-centered expression in artwork or the occurrence of large-scale environmental manipulation. Still, this remains a question of profound significance that philosophers, theologians, and ethologists alike should continue to probe both in theory and their encounters with other species. Despite the current lack of a testable hypothesis, numerous scenarios have been conceived that may illuminate the shift in human consciousness from animal to transcendent being. Dr. Frans de Waal (2016) has described the dichotomy of the ‘hunter’s attitude’ and the ‘farmer’s attitude’ towards nonhuman animals, which continues to influence the biases of modern animal cognition methodology. The hunter’s approach is one consistent with the inferred habits of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, where hunting grounded in minimal control is practiced through observation and anticipation of animals’ behaviors (de Waal 2016). The farmer’s approach is one based in a more utilitarian relationship of practical use for food and labor following the Agricultural Revolution, with sacred texts designating nonhuman animals as inherently subservient (de Waal 2016). Dr. Jared Diamond (1992) has described a ‘Great Leap Forward’ in human evolution towards behavioral modernity, where our species’ role on the planet underwent an abrupt transition from being ‘glorified chimpanzees’ to establishing material culture that would pave the way for remarkable feats like metallurgy and the Panthéon. While purely hypothetical, Diamond (1992) suggests that selection for the particular anatomy of vocal tract muscles like the tongue and larynx that provide the precise formation of a diversity of sounds in humans was the key evolutionary event sparking the Great Leap Forward. Complex referential communication is in no way unique to Homo sapiens, with predator-labelling known to exist in other social mammals and birds such as the oft-exploited chicken, but Diamond (1992) argues that a greater diversity of sounds and finer control in human language would have allowed intricate coordination of hunts and the production of tools at an industrial pace. The effectiveness and utility of language would have been greatly enhanced by the evolution of symbolic thought, which facilitates the attachment of words to abstract objects yet also may have been the source of humankind’s developing precise worldviews. Symbolic thought not only fuels contemplation of our place in the universe, but is a reminder of more grave matters like our existential frailty, with some anthrozoologists arguing that recognition of our mortality is a driver of both our denial of animal self (Mountain 2014) and the apathetic slaughter of other species (Lifshin 2017).

Earth In Need of a New Tribal Revolution?

A recurring theme in narratives exploring the rise of anthropocentrism is the portrayal of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers as an edenic culture of ecologically-astute ‘noble savages’. It certainly is true that large-scale exploitation, confinement, and genetic modification of nonhuman animals for human means and goals appears to have first occurred during the rise of sedentary agriculture during the Neolithic period. While domestication involves a sort of interspecies agreement where species inhabiting human settlements would have been safeguarded from competition and disease, the high evolutionary success of many domesticated species was accompanied by a plummet in individual welfare that has culminated in industrial factory farms (Harari 2015). It may not be appropriate to presume that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers were living in the golden age for human-wildlife interactions while the modern Anthropocene is a dark age for the natural world. Dr. Pat Shipman (2015) notes that human dispersal out of Africa and across the globe has been riddled with a trail of extinction, and describes Homo sapiens as the most pervasive and influential invasive species in Earth’s history. As pointed out by Dr. Valerius Geist (1998), Eurasia and America have been under intense anthropogenic impact for the past ten thousand years by indigenous peoples and the white Europeans who came after, resulting in relatively young and species-poor faunal conditions that we have accepted as the ecological norm. However, if our role in Pleistocene extinctions was in the context of a novel predator entering an ecosystem and triggering trophic cascades, then it can be viewed as quite different circumstances from our driving species extinct at 1,000 times the rate today. An interpretation of detailed cave paintings may indicate that the hunting of megafauna was once centered around the acquisition of necessary food through small-scale harvest of individuals, rather than rampant onslaught for the gratuitous purpose of obtaining body parts to be hung up on walls or sold as aesthetics and traditional medicine. While the spiritual attitudes and small tribal populations of Paleolithic cultures are entirely unlikely to be replicated in modern communities, recognizing that our dependence on other species warrants a moral obligation of respect and living space may be essential to ensuring a future of biological and societal stability.

As masterfully stated by Dr. Edward O. Wilson (2016), “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology…We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” Indeed, much of present civilization carries on as if their own generations are the ultimate product of our relatively short geological history and the only one whose well-being should be considered, thus forsaking the past and future of our own species and countless others. The most appropriate message for traversing what lies ahead amidst the Anthropocene would be to synthesize all of our gained knowledge about the planet’s vast species interactions and pave the way for a revolutionary ecological enlightenment, with the past either serving as a model for our refined behavior or a reminder of our grave tendencies. Serving a more substantial role than mere attitude changes, practices similar to those of hunter-gatherers have been implemented to address modern conservation issues through methods such as Alan Savory’s Holistic Management which seeks to reverse grasslands desertification by herding cattle in a manner that mimics the behavior of natural ungulate herds grazing under predation pressure. The steaks served from freezers to our plates are certainly no reminder of the thrill of our ancestors’ vital reindeer hunts, and the artificial spaces we live in drown out the chorus of biodiversity once providing the unbridled soundscape of Paleolithic settlements. Yet the awe-inspiring paintings that continue to adorn the walls of French caves, with many others likely awaiting discovery, act as a monument to the evolution of humankind’s successes occurring not by means of our own godly intellect but by a reliance on the fruits of the biosphere which could not be rashly overexploited without dire consequences. Until pure water and flowering plants no longer remain a necessity or are somehow superseded by technology, humanity has no future if a blind eye is turned to the preservation of crucial ecosystem services. As Dr. Valerius Geist (2003) remarked on reindeer conservation, “modern humans owe much of what they are to reindeer. We need to reciprocate.” An extension of this attitude to all the world’s fauna should be embraced by conservationist biologists, wildlife managers, and policy makers alike if we are to honor our origins and the birthright to nature held by all generations to come.

The author pictured en route to Avatar Grove in British Columbia. Pilgrimages to wild spaces, grounded in ethical ecotourism of course, may be the simplest acts necessary for bridging the biophilia inherent within each of us with society’s economic progress.


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