Coronavirus has stopped us in our tracks and forced us to rethink our position as the rulers of the world. You could say it has done us a favour. An invisible enemy has challenged our treatment of the non-human world and the planet we share.
For about 2,000 years most humans have imagined themselves to be the Earth’s “apex predators” – smarter, faster and more deadly than any other creature with which we share the planet. An article in a 2018 special issue of Scientific American praised our species for “the richness of our subjective experience” and “better cognitive skills and bigger brains” – although elephants have bigger brains and no one has worked out how to measure the “subjective experience” of non-human animals.
Our species has not always been so conceited. If we go back 200,000 anni, we would find the earliest Homo sapiens acting more like rabbits than lions – shivering at the sound of rustling in the tall grass and huddling at the sight of a pack of hyenas. How much of our existence as a species was spent battling and dodging more dangerous animals we do not know, ma il (usually) men who conquered the marauding beasts were often memorialised in myth.
Humans did not rise from their beleaguered status to anything resembling global dominance in a single leap. For many centuries, “civilised” or urban states embraced religions in which humans and non-human animals appeared to be more or less equals. At least in myth, they could speak to and understand each other, mate and quarrel with each other and, most clearly in the case of the Roman and Greek gods, behave like the lead stars in a reality show. Only with the arrival of monotheism, roughly between 1200BC and AD700, did the unique gods of each polity acquire names and something like personalities – Jaweh, Jesus and Allah.
As these monotheistic super-gods grew and incorporated the attributes once spread among the many gods of polytheistic religions, they became more abstract and removed from the material world – to the point where that material world began to seem inferior and even disgusting, as illustrated by a bishop who educated his congregation by pulling out every feather, uno per uno, from a sparrow to punish it for being a “devil”, ie a non-human, a bird. Hinduism was far more tolerant, making no spiritual distinction between human beings and other life forms.
The Covid pandemic presents us with a particularly sharp difference between two of the species populating Earth: on the one hand, the complexity of the human species, with its overgrown brain and its mobile limbs; and on the other hand, the simplicity of a microbe or sub-microbial particle such as a virus, which has evolved to prey on creatures larger than itself.
In the late 19th century, humans, who had fought megafauna as predators and prey and had gone on to fight each other, confronted for the first time the invisible enemies that frequently attacked them and their children. Leading European scientists, notably Louis Pasteur, proved that diseases could be spread from one vessel to another, while the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck identified infectious agents he called viruses.
Over the course of millennia, a pyramid of antagonistic creatures had arisen on our planet, ranging in size from viruses to bacteria to the cells that comprise whole living bodies. Humans have learned to make use of some of these tiny beings, for example in food production and medicine, but now we find ourselves in a less powerful position. We must, belatedly, come to an accommodation. This will involve rethinking the idea of our supremacy.
There is hope for a more equitable arrangement between the Earth’s species. Nel 2012, an international conference in Cambridge, Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals, issued a “formal acknowledgment that many non-human animals, including mammals, birds and cephalopods, also possess ‘the neurological substrates that generate consciousness’”. This was, in its own way, a thunderous shift in human consciousness, which had so far given no quarter to the idea that non-human animals are capable of imagination, curiosity and other human-like traits. It raised a multitude of questions about humanity’s position in the world. What did the conference-goers mean by “consciousness”?
And why were scientists only now discovering animal consciousness, after generations of putting animals to work in their laboratories as sources of tissues and cells? What are the ethics of using animals, and who should decide?
Perhaps the philosophical questions are the easiest to answer, and they are not easy at all. The practical questions are harder. Can we share the Earth with our fellow earthlings? What happens to the non-human animals incarcerated in feedlots and abattoirs? How will humans subsist if large chunks of the planet are “rewilded” for optimal animal life? We may be on the verge of making peace with our planet-mates, we may finally see the moral as well as practical reasons for doing so, but can we work out how?
The burden of initiating “peace talks” between humans and non-humans no doubt lies with us. It is our kind that emptied the once crowded rivers and plains, who silenced the chatter of the forests and ploughed the grassy fields. We have a lot to learn from each other – assuming of course that the non-humans among us are still willing to make contact with creatures as bloody-minded as we have proved to be. And the first thing we humans will have to learn – the foundation of everything else – is humility.