Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Animals We Are

After the Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America was published, it occurred to me that every mammal field guide I am aware of makes one glaring omission: it fails to include our own species, Homo sapiens. This may seem irrelevant, but stay with me a moment and see if I don’t make some thoughtful arguments.

I talked to Kenn Kaufman briefly about this, and his opinion is that people already recognize their own species, so there is no need for a redundant identification entry in a field guide. Fair enough, and the idea does seem ludicrous when one thinks of it that way. I know that I personally have never mistaken a human being for any other kind of animal, even sports team mascots in costume.

My point is something else entirely. We collectively do not consider ourselves part of the animal kingdom, and that is a huge mistake. It is why we ignore climate change, are slow to address pollution issues, and why we are so insensitive at times to other species. Ironically, those very same anthropocentric and self-centered attitudes we have confirm our animal nature.

Every species acts to maximize its own reproductive potential and minimize its mortality factors. Every species wants to eliminate other species competing for ‘its’ resources, and is vulnerable to habitat destruction. Sound familiar?

Ok, fine, you say, but how exactly could you even illustrate a field guide entry for Homo sapiens without having to slap a “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover, or face lawsuits over racism. Simple. You render each gender as a silhouette, and maybe include faces of different ethnicities as well. I think it would be a good idea to help remind ourselves how diverse our own human family really is anyway.

The distribution map would, obviously, cover most of the planet. Illustrating habitat might be more difficult. We vary from highly urban to remote wilderness, and colonial to tribal to isolationist.

The bottom line is that we need to celebrate our “animalness” as much as we do our separateness from nature. Maybe even more so in this day and age of sustainability and professed environmental awareness. What better way to nudge us in that direction than to have our own entry in a field guide, right next to squirrels, bats, wolves, whales and dolphins?

To be an “animal” should cease to be an insult, too. What else would you want to be? A fungus? I don’t know, maybe I am way out of line. Given the conservative political climate, I’m surprised there has not been a movement to change our scientific name to Hetero sapiens.

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