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The changing natural world is taming our superiority complex

The only exceptional thing about humans is our age-old disregard for other life on Earth, says nature writer Esther Woolfson

I’ve often wondered why we humans believe that we’re superior to all other species. 

The idea is one that has been so widely accepted for so long that it seems almost iconoclastic to challenge it. Even now, as we’re facing the ever-increasing evidence of the irreversible damage we humans have done to the planet and all its lifeforms (evidence which suggests we might not be quite as clever as we think we are) there are still many who continue to defend this notion of “human exceptionalism” which over millennia has had the effect of disadvantaging every other species on Earth. But where did this notion originate?

And how has it managed to sustain itself for so long?   

The roots of the idea are ancient, founded in the religious and philosophical thinking of Egypt, Greece and the Middle East. When, around 500 BCE, the philosopher Pythagoras mused on the nature of souls and how humans should behave towards other species, he began a line of thought which developed through the philosophy of Aristotle and the Stoics – among them Zeno and Seneca – to the thinking engendered by Genesis and the foundational texts of the great Western religions, all of which embraced the certainty that humans had the right to exercise dominance over all other species.   

The rationale for the belief lay in the unshakable conviction that animals had neither souls nor ‘reason’ – no cognition, feelings or consciousness and therefore might be exploited in whichever way humans chose. It was Christian theologians and scholars, in particular St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who were to cement these beliefs into the fabric of Western religious and social thinking. The later philosophy of René Descartes encouraged the view by asserting that other species were no more than automatons, so-called “bêtes machines”. 

Over time, the effect of these ideas of God-granted human superiority has been massively destructive as licence appears to have been given to humans to act in any way we’ve chosen towards other species, free from the merest twinge of conscience in the face of their suffering. Many even denied other species the possibility of suffering – Descartes’ follower, the priest and theologian Nicolas Malebranche, declared that animals “eat without pleasure. They yelp without pain. They desire nothing, they fear nothing, they know nothing”.

One important question about concepts of human superiority and “exceptionalism” is how they’ve proved as resilient as they have for so quite long

The answer seems unfortunate but inescapable. Our freedom to exploit other species for food, sport, labour and clothing as well as our total disregard for their environments and habitats in the furtherance of our own gains has been simply expedient.

For centuries, it has been to our material advantage to ignore the consequences of our actions both for other species and ourselves, and if we’ve done it all with the sanction of heaven so much the better. We’ve regarded animals not as vital, necessary parts of one single living world, to be nurtured and protected but as what the 18th century economist Adam Smith called “unmanufactured commodities”, the kind of “commodities” who have provided the foundations for the cruelties of factory farming and the iniquities of the industrialised meat trade. It’s no coincidence that today the greatest defenders of the idea of “human exceptionalism” are those who stand to gain the most financially from animal exploitation and habitat destruction. 

But for those people, the ones who want to continue to view humans as superior and God-chosen, there are dangers. Despite ourselves, the world is changing. Fear of both present and future may be encouraging some new thinking with regard to our place in the world of species. Suddenly, we may not seem – even to ourselves – quite so superior. 

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It may happen that the relentless destruction of rainforests and other habitats can no longer be seen as a justified way to profit from the natural world.

It may be too that, as we continue to lose species to extinction as a result of our own foolish actions, as we battle diseases caused by our callous and cruel treatment of other creatures and their habitats, we come to accept that we are neither superior nor particularly exceptional and that we’re just another small part of the life of Earth. 

Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species by Esther Woolfson is out now (Granta, £20)