Darwin believed that all living creatures were descended from just a few or one original species. Man and the apes had a common ancestor, and for all the imperfections of the geological record, there can be no doubt that in terms of skeletal structure, organs, senses, reproduction, digestive processes etc., all mammals have a vast array of common features. The inference that they are variations on a theme seems inescapable, and from this we can extrapolate all kinds of fascinating insights into the nature both of animals and of man.

One of the most important has to be the fact that the distinction I have just drawn is false. Man is an animal. It is therefore a mark of intellectual arrogance to denigrate the instincts, feelings, sensitivities and capabilities of animals as being somehow different from those of man. Mammals (I shall confine myself to these, as they are our closest relatives) can only survive by reproducing, caring for their young, feeling and responding to pain, finding food and drink, protecting themselves against their enemies, etc. If they are “programmed” to do this, then so are we. (We shall not delve here into the question of who devised the “programme”.) Our means of survival are precisely the same as those of other animals, and the idea that animals feel what we feel is not an anthropomorphic projection, because it is the other way round: in the evolutionary order of things, they came before us, i.e. we inherited the programme from them, and so we feel what they feel. An elephant mother loves its baby, nurtures, suckles, protects it just as we do, and if the baby dies, the elephant grieves. There are countless examples of animals expressing emotion, and you don’t even have to be a zoologist or a wildlife observer to experience this. Anyone who has lived with a cat or dog will know that it has feelings.

Another vital element in survival is communication. We pride ourselves on the complexities and range of our languages, but again these are only extensions of animal language. Scientists have observed that different animal sounds have different meanings, and it is known that there are sounds we cannot hear, and some may travel over vast distances. Our senses in many areas are inferior to those of other animals, and it may even be that our superior brain power has adversely affected those senses, as we do not rely on them so much. Natural selection may emphasize that which is advantageous, but perhaps it also creates a balance whereby one feature is enhanced and another shrinks. A heightened sense of smell may accompany a diminution of vision (or conversely, a diminution of vision may be compensated for by a heightened sense of smell).

The point I am making here is that we have lost sight of our animal origins, and because we have done so, we have misunderstood a huge area of our own behaviour. Before we discuss the animal nature of man, however, we should consider human influence on other animals.

Knowing as we do that they are our fellow creatures, and share so many of our traits, we should not assume that their suffering is any different. They cannot describe their feelings in our language, but a cry of agony is the same in any language, human or animal. To inflict pain on an animal is in principle no different from inflicting pain on a human, and anyone who uses the excuse that they are different from us is merely one step away from the most appalling crimes in human history: Europeans enslaved Africans; Hitler murdered Jews; Sunnis and Shias, Tutsis and Hutus, Israelis and Palestinians slaughter one another with the same excuse. Difference is no justification for cruelty or destruction.

This is clearly an argument in support of the animal rights movement, but it needs to be tempered. Even though there can be no excuse for deliberately inflicting suffering on animals, this is not a reason to reverse processes that appear to be natural, and it most certainly is not a defence of violence to prevent violence. For an animal rights supporter to go round killing medical scientists is equivalent to a member of the Zebra Protection Society shooting lions. If we use animals for meat or for vital research, for instance in combating disease, then that is part of the whole evolutionary pattern by means of which survival depends on advantage. But on the other hand (agnostics cannot help waving the other hand), we must impose limits on our advantage if we are to maintain it. By over-exploiting or killing off other species, we will ultimately deprive ourselves not only of our own food sources, but also of the biodiversity and the ecological benefits that those species bring to our planet.

As far as our own animal nature is concerned, so caught up are we in our selfawareness that we forget what we are. It is a similar process to that by which we build streets and houses to form a city, and then forget that underneath is a layer of earth, and if we once more removed the streets and houses, there would once more be earth. We cover up nature, and we cover up ourselves. This is not to say that we do not differ from other animals, but until we recognize the common points, we shall never attain a proportionate view of ourselves or of them.

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11. Humans

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