Human Exceptionalism

Brett Walker argues that humans should rejoin the animal kingdom, or at least admit that they could never leave a group with which they belong, and stop seeing themselves as superior to animals. He does this by examining the case of a young mining engineer, Carnegie, who was forcefully reintegrated into the natural realm when he was digested by a pack of wolves. Carnegie was no longer superior or separate from nature, but a part of it and in what is perhaps its purest form – energy. Oddly, at the same time Carnegie’s death reminds us that humans are a part of nature the wolves become part of our history. Some might say that the wolves were always part of our history but there presence here would not be noteworthy if the victim was not human. I think it is hard to view man as superior in the face of stories when nature reminds us that we are not at the top of the food chain, but rather “just another flavor of meat.” The tales of violent human interaction with animals seem to exhibit agency, by definition.

This leads to the interesting case of domesticated animals, dogs are the example Walker uses. When humans domesticated dogs they began the long process of conquering this animal and controlling its evolutionary fate. Humans have controlled dogs, breeding, behavior, eating habits, uses, etc. since the dog first came under our control. It’s interesting that Walker says dogs chose to become domesticated. I wonder how much of a choice the first dog had in its domestication? Did the animal choose to be subjugated or was he broken by the human? Walker believes that it worked out well for the first canines and contrasts their experience with the evolutionary track of the wolf. Clearly the dog has prospered and the wolf suffered, but it is difficult for me to see the choice, or agency, the animal acted upon. I also think that this is even more troubling with smaller organisms, like insects and microorganisms. If we use the same line of reasoning as Walker then don’t we have to give agency to viruses? This might be easier since humans have struggled to maintain their dominance over infectious diseases. Viruses are another reminder of how close we still are to nature/biology but it is hard to imagine a virus having agency, or is it?