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There Is No Escape From Human Exceptionalism

Author Melanie Challenger thinks we should embrace our true animal nature. But that’s impossible

Melanie Challenger, author of How to Be Animal (2021) thinks we would be less messed up if we could just accept our animal nature. She writes at Aeon, “Human exceptionalism is dead: for the sake of our own happiness and the planet we should embrace our true animal nature.” Further,

Today, our thinking has shifted along with scientific evidence, incorporating the genetic insights of the past century. We now know we’re animals, related to all other life on our planet. We’ve also learned much about cognition, including the uneasy separation between instinct and intention, and the investment of the whole body in thought and action. As such, we might expect attitudes to have changed. But that isn’t the case. We still live with the belief that humans, in some essential way, aren’t really animals. We still cling to the possibility that there’s something extrabiological that delivers us from the troubling state of being an organism trapped by flesh and death. In the words of the philosopher Derek Parfit, ‘the body below the neck is not an essential part of us.’ Many of us still deny that human actions are the result of our animal being, instead maintaining that they’re the manifestation of reason. We think our world into being. And that’s sometimes true. The trouble comes when we think our thoughts are our being.

Melanie Challenger, “The joy of being animal” at Aeon (April 6, 2021)

A four-word response to all this: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies (1954) was written by Nobel Prize winning British author William Golding (1911–1993), who wrestled much more deeply than Challenger with what it means to be human:

The novel told the gripping story of a group of adolescent boys stranded on a deserted island after a plane wreck. Lord of the Flies explored the savage side of human nature as the boys, let loose from the constraints of society, brutally turned against one another in the face of an imagined enemy. Riddled with symbolism, the book set the tone for Golding’s future work, in which he continued to examine man’s internal struggle between good and evil. Since its publication, the novel has been widely regarded as a classic, worthy of in-depth analysis and discussion in classrooms around the world.

Biography.com Editors, “William Golding” at Biography (June 12, 2020)

From the close of the book:

His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of mans heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

William Golding, “Chapter 12” at Lord of the Flies

The wish to escape it all by going “wild” is understandable. But the truth is, we don’t have a “true animal nature.” Animals can’t reason. But humans can’t not reason. We can’t escape knowing both good and evil and the constant struggle between them by becoming more like animals.

When we try to escape into being animals, all that happens is that we reason badly and become bad humans. And the moment we even bring reason into the discussion — well, that’s precisely what human exceptionalism is about!

We may not like human exceptionalism — Challenger certainly doesn’t — but we are certainly stuck with it.

You may also wish to read:

The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly. Michael Egnor:

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

There Is No Escape From Human Exceptionalism