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Last Updated: 12/04/2012
How the nonhuman made us human
Febna Reheem Caven

Animals, plants, and the wider natural world are often reduced to mere "environment", a backdrop for human affairs over which we assume absolute superiority and dominion. In this thought provoking essay, Febna Reheem Caven argues that our physiology, psychology, identity, cultural expressions, and ultimately, our existence depend on the active collaboration of the natural world. To find peace and fulfilment, then, we will have to re-identify with the ultimate "Other" -- the nonhuman.

“What’s the use of their having names”, the Gnat said, “if they don’t answer to them?”
“No use to them” said Alice, “but it’s useful for the people who name them, I suppose”. “If not, why do things have names at all?”

Lewis Carol, Alice in Wonderland

running man nebula (NASA)

In the age of modern reasoning, where the rational human mind and its development were perceived as the very essence of being human, the Other – in the form of nature and animals – were simultaneously decimated in substance. Aristotle, the father of modern philosophy, believed that animals were incapable of reason and therefore were to be regarded as inferior to man in the same manner as were slaves. The Bible also reflects these sentiments with a decree of man as master over animals: “Let (man) have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground”. Descartes’ view was more extreme as it took animal existence to a still lower level. He believed animals were assembled as machines and that they were incapable of having thoughts, feelings, language, or consciousness (Wilson, 2010). As human thought progressed along this line of withholding recognition of the consciousness of animals and the importance of engagement with nature, it began to be reflected in discourses on morality too. Thomas Aquinas, a very influential figure in the development of Christian morality stated that a man when he kills an ox commits a crime against another man and not against the ox (Thomas & Richard, 2002). Scientific taxonomy aided the rational human mind to extract essences of plants and animals and ‘objectively’, ‘analytically’ scrutinize them as specimens and taxonomical categories. Given these trends in the development of philosophy, morality, and science, today in the 21st century, non-humans are the passive, dismissible other. The central argument of this paper is that, contrary to the line of thought described above, the active agency of non-human entities – animals, plants and inanimate nature – has shaped humans. And to reiterate the fact that we are humans, the active, cognizant, creating, articulating entities that we are by virtue of all the non-human elements that we readily dismiss in importance.

Influence in Physiology

Our species evolved watching the Other, interacting with the Other, hunting the Other, and eating the Other. And so, the influences of the Other is deep embedded in our physiologies and psychologies. Our color vision, bipedal nature, opposable thumb, the length of our intestine, the number and shape of our teeth, and much more have been influenced by the animals hunted and plants consumed. While the immensely complex brain is often considered the defining characteristic of human civilization, the reason for its rapid development has been attributed to the nutrient-rich diet that was facilitated by the consumption of clam-fish in the Rift Valley area in Africa at a crucial stage of human evolution (Broadhurst, Cunane, Crawford 1998).

Influence in Cognition and Perception

The imprint of the flora and fauna in the world we evolved in goes beyond the physiological characteristics of mankind into the psychological realms. Animals are present as well in mentality, and processes of thought, as in materiality (Oma, 2002). In the many million years of human evolution, “the tracking of nature replicated itself in the neural elaboration of human brain” (Sheperd, 1996). Moreover, animals are active agents with their own will based both on instincts and a possible consciousness of themselves as beings in this world (Midgley, 1988). And however debatable their ability to reflect and make assumptions may be, they most certainly have schemes and decision-making processes of their own. And in carrying out their schemes, they are active, exercising their will upon the world they inhabit in an active way, and in this way, they take up an active space in the world as opposed to passive.

As Oma (2002) notes, even in the process of domestication, animals are demanding in terms of being tended; they control the human’s daily cycle, and also the annual cycle. Other animals might need pastures, and it is important to bring them to good pastures. Consequently, access to pastures, fodder, and the work invested in these activities and other activities must be negotiated and delegated within a society, but also with other groups. The shared life-space therefore gives both humans and animals roles and responsibilities that they would not have without each other. Thus their coming together in the shared life-space implies a reciprocal and dynamic relationship in which both parts manipulate and affect each other.

This evolutionary cognitive interrelationship with animals is reflected in our cognitive strategies, perception tendencies, aesthetic preferences, and affective reactions (Shephard, 1996; Kellet & Wilson, 1995; Eagle, Wolitzky, Klein 1966). The usual brief stare at zoo animals, our scrutiny of pets, our hunger for “nature” on our television screens are all remnants of an ancient, vigilant vocation of our kind. (Shephard, 1996). Children respond spontaneously to the details of nature and the names and movements of animals much more readily than to artificial categories. In “feature abstraction theory” it is said that “children learn an impressively large number of ‘natural concepts’ during their early years, yet they have great difficulty in learning the artificial concepts used in laboratory tasks” until later. Today, in cities far removed from the mysteries of forests, in psychological experiments on affective reactions, humans show stronger aversive responses to snakes and spiders than to to guns and frayed electrical wires. What is still more surprising is that this effect is seen even in experimental subjects who have not ever been exposed to such species (Kellert & WIlson, 1995). Even in aesthetic preferences, many experiments have consistently proven that human beings prefer savannah-like landscapes (Orians 1986) and landscapes with water (Zube Pitt and Evans 1983), even over posh urban locales. In another experiment by Ulrich (1993), even mediocre natural scenes scored higher than un-blighted urban scenes.

Influence in Identity

Identity is a state of mind that is formed and reformed through the interactions of individuals with the world, both in an abstract way, and also through direct, physical encounters with materiality and material objects (Bateson 2000 (1972); Ingold, 2000). Because of these formative interactions, the concept of the Other – animals, birds, plants and Nature as a whole – has been crucial in the development of human identity. This has happened in two opposing ways: by constructing human identity as different from “animal nature”, and by identifying with certain animals or plants or natural entities in spirit (as in totemism).

In most biological respects, human are like other living organisms. For instance, they are made up of cells like those of other animals, have much the same chemical composition, have organ systems and physical characteristics like many others, reproduce in a similar way, carry the same kind of genetic information system, and are part of a food web. But when we ascribe “humanness” to ourselves, implicit in that process is a statement of our “difference” from the nonhuman. It is by cultivating a disdain for the “beast” that one cultivates an appreciation for being “cultured”. Exploring the influence of animals in early European cultures, Erica Fudge observes that, had animals never existed, Western philosophy from antiquity to early modernity would have had to invent them. Drawing on a variety of texts, ranging from "high" philosophy to pragmatic training manuals, Fudge authoritatively demonstrates how the discourse of reason in early modern England virtually required the animal – that is, animal otherness – in order to define the human (Fudge, 2006).

Photography: Tim Flach

Simultaneous with this distancing, human cultures have shown an opposing trend of constructing identities also by identifying with animals and plants. Levi-Strauss considers totemism – a process in which an individual or a group identifies with an animal, as a universal human tendency (Levi-Strauss, 1964). As dream symbols, metaphors, spirit-guides, and omens the animals and plants around our species have probed, revealed, and expanded our sense of selves. So much has been the influence of animals to human cultures that anthropologist Paul Shipman states: along with the three key innovations that are normally thought of as defining characteristics of the human species (tool use, symbolic thought, and food domestication), “the fourth trait, the animal connection, is equally important diagnostic behavior of humans and that animal connection unites tool making, symbolic behavior and language, and domestication into an adaptive package” (Shipman, 2010).

Influence in the Language, Art, Religion

Even as human civilizations progressed from caves to cities, in scientific, legal, political, literary, and religious writings, the presence of the animal and nature are ubiquitous. It could be because the meaning of animals is implicit in what they do […] they eat, run, leap, crawl, display, call, fly, mate, fight, sing, swim, hide slither, climb and die […] And one or the other animal does it with more finesse than a human would” (Shephard, 1995). That may be why animals easily become prototypes of our thoughts – as symbols, sounds, metaphors.

Some of the earliest expressions of art, such as the cave paintings of Lascaux, prominently feature the animals that Cro-Magnon man saw around him. The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer. When the system of Yoga was developed in the Indus Valley Civilization in India, entities of nature (animate and inanimate) served as scaffolds for classifying- matsysana- fish pose; gomukasana- cow pose; ustrasana-camel pose; vajrasana-thunderbolt pose, etc. The Ainu in Hokkaido use animal categories to describe the intensity of pain- it could be a “bear head ache” (like heavy footfalls), “musk deer head ache” (a light galloping one), “wood pecker head ache” (a drilling one), and so on (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1977). A scrutiny of the forms of the alphabets of ancient languages – Phoenician, Egyptian, or Dravidian – shows the tremendous influence the natural entities had in their figures. Time in astrology, and constellations in astronomy took the names of animals (Stewart, 1998). In religion, no matter how creative or outlandish the human imagination has been, the divine and the feared being have invariably taken the form of combined-figures of animals and humans. From the elephant headed God who blesses education in Hinduism to the figure of the Devil with horns and tail in Christianity – man/animal figures best represent the other-worldly. Angels, chimeras, sphinxes, dragons, the Quetzalcoatl, the Ra, the Shiva, are all examples. The reason for this could be related to the explanation William Stewart (1998) gives on why animal symbolism is so powerful in psychological counseling too. According to him, “animals represent that which is vital” ( Stewart 1998, pg. 37). As one identifies with an animal, one immerses oneself into one’s unconscious. The more “primitive” the animal, Stewart noted, the deeper the level of consciousness that is tapped into. This ubiquitous, creative and therapeutic presence of animals in our life and psyche, indeed makes one question the ‘otherness’ we have ascribed to them.

The Consequence of Ignoring the Dialectic relation between Man and Nature

The fact that animals and plants have such a profound influence on human psychology implies that the state of the non-human world has much influence on human mental and physical well being too. If indeed our cognitive apparatuses have been primed for processing and engaging with the natural world, any loss of that world will be a loss of human potential too. An animal eco-symphony is essential to the survival and maturation of our own destiny as human race. This is made clear by the work of Paul Shephard, who introduced the concept of “Ontogenetic crippling” in Eco psychology. As all other species in the earth, Homo sapiens too go through a period of ontogenetic development. This unique ontogeny is a result of the way our ancestors’ lives were shaped by natural selection. And as Paul Shepherd states, “in the realm of nature, human ontogeny is a regular giraffe’s neck of unlikely extension, vulnerability, internal engineering, and the prospect of an extraordinary view from the top.” These seeds of ontogeny are present in all of us, and extend into the first 20 years of our lives. The setting of those 20 years of development for our ancestors was “a surrounding of living plants, rich in texture, smell and motion […] the flicker of birds, the real sunshine and rain, mud to be tasted and trees to grasp, the sounds of wind and water, voices of animals and humans” (Shephard 1995, pg 26). This environment and engagement with that environment, according to him, forms a second grounding to humans. By exploring the natural world, accompanying adults in hunts, reading meanings in the natural world, having each passage in life being celebrated by a community of members, the human child is programmed to develop maturity. The unfortunate implication of this situation is that, living in a modern society that does not meet any of the requisites for ontogenetic development, the result is “ontogenetic crippling”, preventing the full unfolding of human maturity. And because of this the human existence ends up being one deeply troubled. With “poor initial mother symbiosis, inadequate place and creature naturizing, without crucial adolescent initiation”, the narcissism of the human adolescent extends into adulthood, resulting in preoccupation with self images. Devoid of the world in which our ancestors developed, the brain, programmed to process the rich information of the natural environment, binges itself on consumerism and other artificial means of experience and identity.

To conclude, initiatives to preserve the biodiversity of this world should not be seen as a generous deed, a charity by humans. It is essentially a curative or preventive step to save our own selves – our own history, physiology, identity, arts, and language.

Works Cited

· Barret, J. (2000). Fields of Discourse: Reconstituting a Social Anthropology. In J. Ed: Thomas, Interpretative Archeology. A Readder. New York.

· Bateson, G. (200). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago.

· Bordieau, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Stanford.

· Broadhurst, C., Cunane, S., & Crawford, M. (1998). Rift Valley Lake fish and shellfish provided brain-specific nutrition to early Homo. British Journal of Nutrition , 79, 3-21.

· Daehler, M., & Bukatko, D. (1985). Cognitive Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

· Fudge, E. (2006). Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England. Ithasca: Cornell University Press.

· Hamilakis, Y. The Sacred Geography of Hunting: Wild Animals, Social Power and Gender in Farming Socieites. In E. Kotjabopolou, Y. Hamilakis, P. Halstead, C. Gamble, & V. Elefanti, Zooarcheology in Greece. London: British School of Athens.

· Ingold, T. (2000). The Perceptionof the Environment. Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. New York & London.

· Kellert, S., & WIlson, O. (1995). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Eashington: Island Press.

· Levi-Strauss, C. (1964). Totemism. London: Merlin Press.

· Midgley, M. (1988). Beasts, Brutes, Monsters. In T. Ingold, What is an Animal? (pp. 35-46). London: One World Archeology1.

· Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1977). An Octopus Headache? A Lamprey Boil? Multisensory Perception of Habitual Illness and World view of Ainu. Journal of Anthropological Research (33), 245.

· Oma, K. (2002). Animals as a Structural Principle in the Construction of Human Identity in Bronze Age Europe. Retrieved February 26, 2012, from The Emergence of European Communities:

· Shephard, P. Nature and Madness. In T. Roszak, Ecopsychology. San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books.

· Shephard, P. (1996). The Others. Washington: Island Press.

· Shipman, P. (2010). The Animal Connection and Human Evolution. Current Anthropology , 51 (4).

· Stewart, W. (1998). Dictionary of Images and Symbols in Counselling. James Kingly Publishers.

· Ulrich, R. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, natural landscapes. In S. Kellert, & E. (. Wilson, The biophilia hypothesis. Washington: Island Press.

· Wilson, S. (2010, January). Animal Ethics. Retrieved March 2, 2012, from

· Zube, E., Pitt, D., & Anderson, T. (1983). Landscape assesment: Values, perceptions and resources. Stroudsburg: Dowden.

Febna Reheem Caven holds an MA from the University for Peace.