Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 41: HUMANS

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. This week we're going to discuss what it means to be human. Let's start with a clip from Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens.

 

YUVAL NOAH HARARI:  I want to believe that there is something special about me, about my body, about my brain, that makes me so superior to a dog or a pig or a chimpanzee, but the truth is that on the individual level, I'm embarrassingly similar to a chimpanzee. And if you take me and a chimpanzee and put us together on some lonely island, and we had to struggle for survival to see who survives better, I will definitely place my bets on the chimpanzee, not on myself. The real difference between humans and other animals is not on the individual level. It's on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Unfortunately, our collective actions are harming the planet. In large part, we will only be successful in using our gifts of flexibility and cooperation to restore planetary health if we get to grips with what it means to be human in the first place, I meet up with a British author, philosopher and librettist Melanie Challenger to talk with her about her upcoming book, How to be Human.Melanie writes on the relationship between humans and the rest of the living world. Challenger was born in Oxford and studied at Oxford University. Her first collection of poems,Galatea won the Society of Authors Award. She was an Arts Council International Fellow with the British Antarctic Survey which she used to research a nonfiction book on extinction. In that book, Melanie travels from the ruined tin mines of Cornwall to the abandoned whaling stations of South Georgia to the Inuit camps of the Arctic and to the heart of Antarctica. She writes that “her chief interest was in gathering the history of how we become so destructive to the natural world and its inhabitants.” The very notion of extinction that species could be created and then disappear, remained unimagined until the late 18th century when geologists began to gather evidence of the life forms that had once inhabited the earth. Ms. Challenger examines the psychological history and consequences of what it means to be a species that drives other species out of existence. I meet up with Ms. Challenger at the University of Cambridge's botanical gardens. I started by asking Melanie what it means to be an environmental philosopher.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  I'm not a trained philosopher, but I kind of got to that stage where I would probably have to own it now because essentially that's what I do. I'm trying to get at what the categories of life are, what nature is. Those sorts of fundamental, wooly, but important questions that we've been asking for thousands of years and still don't have clear answers for. Over many years now, 15 years now, I've been working with and talking to scientists, all of whom are doing work on the natural world, or humans or on organisms in different kinds of ways.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  In the book Extinction, it's you experiencing the natural world yourself. There's a lot of your own emotional reaction to the landscape and to what's been lost.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  I wanted to focus on the idea of extinction in all of its different manifestations. So just a meditation on extinction and that was my starting point. Why that? Well, I suppose because I grew up in the way that my dad's generation grew up with a kind of nuclear, with the kind of atomic reality, I grew up with the anthropocene reality, with the idea that there is massive biodiversity loss and you know, extinction of species. And so, I wanted to go out and just see where it had come from, how it got to this stage, and use just the concept of extinction to do that. And it really started through whales because I love whales.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  In researching your book Extinction,you went down to Antarctica and also met up with whaling communities in Chile.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  I went to all of the old whaling stations and saw these, you know, literally the kind of machinery that was used to industrialize whaling and got very involved in whaling. Whaling is an oil industry, an industry that is going to come have a boom and bust, how they think about it, who the individual players are, what psychologists are involved and in the end what the outcome is. And that was the starting point of me starting to see the wider sort of historical patterns for how we can get into a really bad situation with something we're exploiting and be unable to prevent that from happening.

ARED BLUMENFELD:  I spend a lot of time in Cape Cod and Nantucket and you still feel the whaling industry. The cultural aspect is really fascinating, just how people are so proud that they came from Portuguese whaling families. 

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  I read, you know, dozens and dozens of diaries of whalers from the 1700’s through to the 1950’s, and most of the people who were doing the actual work loved the whales because whales are awesome, and they react to them as these incredible organisms. Most of them express anxieties when they killed them and there's a degree of reverence. The practical business of lifting a large whale, like a fin whale or a blue whale, out of the ocean and trying to butcher it. It's just unimaginable because the beast can't even be held. You can't even imagine how large they are when you see them. Many of them were proud of what they were doing. They had incredible ecological knowledge, but in the end, you know they needed to make their money. No one individual was causing any of this, but the whole system can still result in driving species to extinction.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  What are the big things that come to you, especially as you are kind of thinking about philosophy and the systems of thinking about our place in the world?

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  The first thing that came to me with it is very dynamic and complex out there, and there aren't going to be pathways out of our difficult relationship with nature that that are going to be easy and acceptable for everybody. And that human beings aren't these horrible people. I mean, there are some of us who are not doing great things, but most of us are loving and love the natural world and very responsive to the natural world at an emotional level, but that's not going to mean we're not going to have a massive impact or find it very difficult to reverse the situation that we're in. So, I suppose that led me to two points of view. The first was how do you better define what biophilia is? It's been seen as a kind of hazy feeling of affection that we have for nature. Well, that was present in all of my research for sure, but how can that feeling have more of a fundamental impact? Well, that question was very open, and it wasn't being well answered at the time. Then the other thing that became clear to me was, very leastly, we have a very uncomfortable relationship with being an organism with life and death. What does it mean for us ourselves to be an organism? And how does that affect our psychology and the sorts of ways in which we're likely to think about how we should value the natural world, including ourselves?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Why do you think we're so uncomfortable with our own mortality? After all, as Shunryu Suzuki said, life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  Obviously there's big cultural variability and there's variability through history in how individuals and societies and cultures have viewed death. So, accepting that, there's good evidence that we have had taboos surrounding death in pretty much all societies, and throughout as much history as we can see, we began to bury our dead. We have gone on to ritualize death and that ritualizing in many societies usually means hiding it away in some way or formalizing death in some way. Obviously, it's the business of organizations to try and survive, but not necessarily to not die. You know, it's the business of organisms to be able to survive long enough to pass on their DNA. We are an animal that is aware of our death in a way that most other animals aren't. I don't think we can say that definitively for other species, but most of them aren't aware of it in being able to narrate it in their own minds, and of course that has impacted on us, and it impacts all cultures, whether or not it manifests in very different ways. Some cultures, like some of the ones that we have in the West today, where people are absolutely terrified of death and are determined to overcome it through whatever technological or medical intervention will allow it. I think our relationship with death and how we are we going to think about that is really fundamental to our future at this point in time, and I don't think we've come to terms with that question yet.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Another big question is why are we so adamant, so focused on proving that we aren't animals?

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  Well, you could tie that back to death. I think I'm confident in saying that most of us want to survive. We want to flourish, and we want to live for as long as possible and we grieve massively for one another. We are irreplaceable beings and the impact on death in our lives is unimaginable. So, the kind of death burden, if you like, on the human species is huge. But when it comes to the fact that we're driving other species to extinction and we're now thinking about our own extinction risk as a species, now I think death is coming into focus and what it is to be a human is coming into focus. So, what is it that we value in ourselves? Why have we erected the idea that is a dividing line, a value dividing line. We are a different entity to a whale or a mosquito or a plant, but in the end, you know, the evidence is there's continuity between us and other species. We come from a common origin. So, what exactly is it that is the dividing line that makes our lives of primary importance and value heavy and all other species we regard as replaceable individuals and sometimes as replaceable species for that matter that are devoid of any intrinsic value because of all of our role in the changes to the systems and the ecosystems on the earth and the abundance and variety of life on the earth. We're having to go back to really, really ancient questions of how we categorize life, why we think our life or our mortality are of such significance and how we're going to categorize that as it shifts in the future.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  I remember seeing this Christian chart with you God and Jesus and Mary and then man and then woman and then children, and then livestock. There's been this sense of hierarchy with us and we're made in God's image and everything else isn't. The mythology of our superiority has been embedded in every single cultural facet.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  For most of our history, we haven't been able to make sense of our ability to talk, do the kinds of things so we can see that other species can't do. You don't have to fall into the exception of this trap to nonetheless recognize that we are an extraordinary species and we do have a cognitive capacity that is remarkable. It's still awesomely remarkable to have echo location, you know, to be a sperm whale that's able to use part of its head to get a visual image of prey in the depths of the ocean. All those things are remarkable, of course.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Just to push back, aren’t those all very anthropocentric views? We put value on the things that we have, and we devalued other things. So, of course, we think we're exceptional because of our cognitive abilities, but that's a very human lens. I mean just existing as life isn't that sufficient?

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  And many philosophers have argued for the intrinsic value of those things absent the human, as the observer. You know, we can sympathize with how we build systems to explain that and stories to explain that. And in the absence of better information, we have a very spiritual capacity and we also have a psychology that I think was built to be able to be inclusive in a very flexible way. And by that, I mean, you know, we were talking about the scale of what you value. Well, that's shifted, hasn't it? So, women, as you said, have nudged their way higher up on that scale, but I think that we've always had groups of people who've got a different skin color or who've got some sort of genetic difference from the norm or whoever got a different set of genitalia who have been moved in and out of their categories. So, we've got a flexible mind in terms of how we have a hierarchy. And while that exposes the hypocrisy and how constructed our sense of superiority is, it's also a positive thing because it means that our values can shift. It means we can be increasingly inclusive should we want to be. And I think this is an opportunity for us to start doing that. It's not going to be easy, but I think that flexibility is a strength, not a weakness.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, I like that. So, basically because it's a constructed narrative, we can deconstruct it and recreate something more positive.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  That would be my hope. A younger generation, I'll say usually are a wee bit more progressive and trying to be more inclusive and hopefully they will start to return to some of the unfinished work of the former generations. Some of the unfinished work is going to be really uncomfortable, how we think about the value of other organisms to what kind of duties we have to them. I think that work is the best job we could do at the time to move things forward and get regulatory precedents in place. But with the genomics revolution in particular, and with things like synthetic biology with AI, we can already see that the current ethics and the current thinking is not fit for purpose. So, we're going to have to go back again and try to be even more inclusive, push a little bit more and rethink what does it mean to be a wild organism. Is there such a thing? How can we attribute wildness some sort of value versus us instrumentalizing a wild animal through gene editing. These sorts of things are unfinished work and they're going to be incredibly important as we move forward and in conservation work, for instance.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, on the one hand, you've got kind of the future of our species and the manipulation of every aspect of our humanness as well as kind of semi non-human artificial intelligence. And then on the other side, you've got the natural world that the World Wildlife Fund just reported three weeks ago, showing that 60 percent of species numbers on the planet have been reduced. We're kind of sandwiched between the natural world and our history and our connection to it, and a future which is unnatural and how do we exist in that space?

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  This is the hard, intellectual work that has to be done. I mean even just talking about what's natural and unnatural and where the dividing lines going to be drawn up for a generation is unclear at this stage. For instance, that isn't yet a working consensus on intrinsic versus extrinsic value. So, in other words, is a landscape or an animal valuable in its own right in some way? And how and why? Or is it only valuable because of what it can do for us? 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The powers that eventually were able to agree to something in Paris, it doesn't feel like they're waiting with bated breath for those philosophical dilemmas to be resolved.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  Yeah, I mean we've been talking about these things for several thousand years, and there has been progress, and there's lots more data now and science has been a great friend of philosophy in a lot of ways. We've got lots of information about understanding ourselves and how these sorts of things work that are helpful to us. And we've got a better understanding of what species are, what hybridization is, all of those kinds of things. You know, none of it is easy. The earth is unspeakably dynamic. We're not going to get perfect thumping answers to any of this. We have to do the best that we can. At this stage, ethicists have got to stand up and wave their hands and if they don't come up with something, what we will fall back on is going to be precedent or prior intellectual history. And some of those histories are really at odds with one another. We need a better moral toolkit to deal with the challenges that we face, and we better get on and do it because the science is moving superfast and it is way outpacing our ethics.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Talking of which, just this week, this startling news was heard around the world.

 

NEWSCAST: A Chinese researcher claims they he helped make the world's first gene edited babies. Twin girls whose DNA he says he altered with a powerful new tool that lets scientists edit the genetic code. 

 

SCIENTIST HE JIANKUI: I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make the first, but also to make it an example. Scientist He Jiankui says he edited the baby's genes to try to give them a trait few people naturally have-   to help them resist HIV infection.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Hearing that, how do we get back on track? 

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  You need a set of workable guidelines that are clear and then you set a regulatory framework and then you set a legal precedent and things can move forward. And that's what we've seen as the sort of advances in bioethics because as you say, quite rightly, what has happened and what will happen, what will dictate change, will be economics, will be the big investors, will be someone who can whack a load of data on the table saying, well, this is the number of human lives that will be saved or altered if you do this or this is going to be the income economic outcome.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, in the absence of that large moral toolkit, we continue just to make decisions that seemed to be solely based on economic criteria.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  We are so unclear about what our relationship is to other animals and what duties we have to other animals and other living systems that whatever decision we make is deeply troubled at the moment. And yet the dilemmas are real. We have to find some way of engineering our way out of the mess that we're making for the benefit of all of us. And I just see a lot of very tense human animal conflicts or human sort of, you know, landscape conflicts that are not easy to resolve and that somewhere we have to do the work of understanding how to be a good person in that situation, how to be a good society, how to make a good action. And that sum total of what we mean by “good” is still very difficult to answer. And we've just got to get better at doing that kind of intellectualizing and that horrifies some people. They don't want to do that work. They want straight data. That's why we fall back on data, it feels easy, but it's not working for us. We can see that. And so, we've got to go back to the more difficult business, the old-fashioned business of what is a good action and what kind of action do we want to carry forth into the future? And I think that that work still has to be done.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  These fundamental concepts that each generation should be better off than the next seems impossible to reach in a world of finite resources. Our expectations of what our life should look like, our assumptions about how our live should progress seemed to be in conflict materially with the resource constraints of the planet.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  I'm quite hopeful actually. In my studies of industrial history, two things are quite clear. Firstly, that we're not often very good at judging what the disaster is. There usually is a disaster. So that's also the other point of this. Very often with a new technology, some sort of negative consequences will follow. Some of those consequences can be terrible like the ozone layer being a classic example for CFC’s release. But very often when we're not brilliant at predicting what they're going to be, so we should always have a good dose of humility about predicting the future both positive or negative. That said, I think we're quite a resourceful lot. I have a lot of faith in the work that scientists and engineers do. We've just got to make sure that we're also doing the intellectual work. You know, I want that to happen side by side. And of course, we want to flourish. We want other forms of life to flourish as well, of which we're all apart. We're all of the same origin, that even the very processes that give rise to us are worthy of respect and we don't know what other life there is in the universe. I'm always like, please can that be aliens. I’m rooting for the aliens in my lifetime, but at the same time, for the moment, we're only sure there is viable, complex life on this planet. So, we better do our very best to look after it. And I think the kind of narratives that we have at the moment that we’re screwing up here, so let's have a backup plan on another planet are disastrous when we imagine these sorts of things. Imagining some world in which the sorts of problems have been overcome. But if we're going to do that, we want to overcome them here first and I don't think we should let ourselves have a get out clause for that. But, you know, I do think we have the capacity to change. I’m quite hopeful about that.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Tell us a little bit about the book that you're researching right now.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  For the last 10 years or so, I've been writing a book called How to be Animal,and it's this sort of history of what it means to be human. So, it will look at a deep history of how we evolved, and also the ideas about that history that haven't always been right and have had a little dose of mythology in them. I'm bringing it right through to now where I'm arguing that actually understanding what humans are and how we think about valuing human life and the lives of other living organisms is absolutely vital. While we now have a capacity with things like AI, all of the fourth industrial revolution kinds of technologies are much more powerful technologies in terms of a fundamentally redefining natural organisms. And because of that, and that's very real, that's not speculative, because of that, I feel it's really important that we rethink what it is to be an animal. And my claim fundamentally is that we struggle with being an animal at a profound level and we kind of need to get that struggle right before we start being too intrusive at the fundamental level of what we are. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  What would you ask people to think about? 

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  It’s a really big subject, but as a small little example, what a synthetic human genome? Is it a human? Is it a different organism?  Is it a participant of technology? Those sorts of classifications drive to the heart of some of the real difficulties that we have with being animal ourselves. It, it frightens us because it exposes a kind of deep materiality. The fact that we're made of a stuff that can be changed and transformed, that were made of the stuff that will deliver us eventually. That's intimidating for us to get our heads around and what we think of that, and the kind of life cycle that we go through and the matter that we're made from. What it is essentially to be human and what value that has. And you know, some people dismiss that essentialist perspective, but I think it bares much closer scrutiny. Is human a workable definition? Do we care about it? We certainly build our lives on it. We build our lives on the idea of human dignity, absolutely enshrined in fundamental law in action, but what do we really mean by being a human? And I think we better get pretty good at answering those questions.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Melanie and I leave the botanical gardens and walk onto the streets of Cambridge so that she can get her train back to York. Isn't part of it this a religious overlay of the sanctity of human life and that we've been elevated through this mythology and religion that we've created to somehow justify our own superiority?

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  Yeah. So, this would be kind of what people called human exceptionalism, but there's kind of scientific, quasi-scientific versions of this. And you could argue humanism as a sort of secular alternative to religion, you know buries within it. We shouldn't throw around that without good thought behind it. You know, when we talk about human essences people say, well that’s just folk biology. It's not, you know, it's not real, it's not justifiable and so we should get rid of it. But actually, it's really fundamental to the way that children think, for instance. So, it looks to be a very human tendency to categorize things through essences and there can be negative and positive consequences to that very natural way of thinking. But it may be that we value in very positive ways if we can be a bit more knowing about how that way of humanizing happens and are more inclusive about the way that that humanizing happens. You know, maybe it's just a mental act of generosity. That is a good thing. As long as it doesn't mean you draw a dividing line that says nothing else has value. I think that's the problem. Not to try to displace humans and say that they don't have value, but to point out that we kind of need to bring everything else along with us on that value journey. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Because when you look at any human rights violation from Dafur to Rwanda, all the languages about dehumanizing the people that you're subjugating to horrific acts of torture, you justify on the basis that their sub-human.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  Yeah. So, for a really fundamental part of my work is on dehumanization and particularly animals. There are different kinds of dehumanization, particularly animalistic dehumanization which can take either blatant or subtle forms and can range from turning your eyes away in disgust at a homeless person through to killing your enemy or your perceived enemy in a conflict situation. So, it's all on a spectrum with very different outcomes. But it's universal. This way of using animals or stripping away what humanizing is in order to not care about or behave differently towards another person. And I think it's important to remember is that we're capable of humanizing. Chimps do a kind of similar thing. So, you know, they have sort of a chimpization and a de-chimpization where if someone's going to come over as a mate or as an ally, then they get chimpized within the group and it can be flexible. I think we have this flexible capacity to attribute value. So, when we're talking about humanization, it's not really categorizing boy human ears and what's special about us and what kind of brain we have or don't have. I think that's a red herring, it's an active mental generosity and it's the act of valuing something or someone. It's an alliance, it's a mental alliance and that humanizing can actually happen towards non-humans without anthropomorphizing. But if we just generalize it is as a mental act of generosity, we've got the capacity to extend that to non-living species. And I think that's just the way I hope we go.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, I mean it seems like there's two ways to go. One is to extend human qualities and generosity to the rest of the living world. And the other is to expand what it means to be human, to include all of the rest of the animal world.

 

MELANIE CHALLENGER:  We're not going to treat other animals in the same way that we treat humans or think about them in exactly the same way. But I think it's just important that we understand that our capacity to humanize is going back to the idea of seeing ourselves as this sort of the top of creation and that has many sinister aspects, but it does have a positive aspect as well, which is just to give value to a living thing. Even if a meteorite doesn't give any value to you, even if the rest of the cosmos doesn't care about you, we can care about ourselves. And I think it's just about being generous.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  Thanks so much to Melanie Challenger for talking with us today. It's fascinating how questions of human relevance in the universe play such a pivotal role in shaping our relationship with the natural world around us today. Using philosophy and ethics to help us move into a paradigm driven by questions that promote generosity over greed definitely caught my interest. I can’t wait for Melanie's book, How to be an Animal, to be published next year. Next week, we go to Stanford University to examine where geoengineering solutions can play a role in reversing the melting of the Arctic. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.