How to count the questions raised by the gob-smacking moment unfolding around us?
Here’s one that’s been plaguing me.
By what kind of logic could a Homo sapiens fetus incapable of independent life count as a person, and the fictitious construct called “corporation” count as a person, but elephants who mourn their dead, or migrating turtles who navigate by sensing magnetic fields, or birds who rehearse elaborate aerial ballets, or snakes who undergo profound and life-threatening rituals of transformation, or fish who generate electricity and store it in organic batteries, or plants who learn not to panic when their pots are dropped in a lab and then safely caught, or trees who communicate through the heart of the forest by means of neurotransmitters… none of those count as people? What is it about two particular life-forms — one incipient, the other purely metaphorical — that gives them primacy over every other being, all of them miraculous?
Why have we consigned ourselves to such a crimped place in the world?
One hint that that our delusion of supremacy over the whole welter of life doesn’t line up with our own deepest understanding is the current explosion of mental illnesses. Down in our boggy core, we know we’ve got something wrong.
A recent interview on the thoughtful radio show On Being (now ended) touched on this topic. Featured was a psychologist working in the latest science of how the gut biome and other aspects of our body chemistry affect our state of mind. Prescriptions for psychotropics, she pointed out, are going up with the rise in depression, but “recovery rates aren’t great.”
Her alternative approach focuses on lifestyle changes, notably diet. Because, she says, depression isn’t brought on “simply” by unprocessed trauma or patients’ life experiences, but by “the underlying biological processes.” A whole-food diet is therefore a major component of her treatment programs.
Yes! By all means, yes to grains and seeds and nuts and a riot of vegetables and flowers and the flesh of animals on occasion, depending on their abundance, the quality of the lives they got to live, and how they were killed.
But is that really all? “You are what you eat” — in chemical terms? Or does the move from drugs to diet (combined, of course, with exercise and good sleep) amount to yet another palliative? Another way to avoid attending to what our hearts are trying to tell us?
Admittedly, I’m simplifying here. If everyone insisted on eating actual food again, the ramifications would rock our world. Still, the narrow focus on what we put in our mouths misses most of what matters. It does nothing to disturb our jealously-guarded position in the center of everything. We humans — even each individual human body — remain alone in the frame of reference. If others with whom we share the planet exist at all, they appear in this picture only implicitly, as the ingredients that make up our more wholesome meals.
For our ancestors, food was far more than the sum of its chemical components. Food was a matrix of relationships. Plenty of research has highlighted that other crucial factor in mental and physical health: the importance of social connection. People embedded in a web of family and friendships tend not only to suffer less anxiety and depression, but to have more robust immune systems, to recover better from illness, and live longer than their more isolated neighbors.
Such people, note, rarely eat alone.
But why limit our understanding of “social connection” to ties with other Homo sapiens? For our ancestors, it wasn’t just the relations with the humans who gathered around the table or the mat on the ground that mattered.
Take a look at this 1833 painting by George Catlin
That is called getting inside someone’s skin.
In The First Domestication, Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg argue that wolves and humans may actually have co-evolved. That is, it may have been wolves who taught us many of the behaviors that came to distinguish us from our primate cousins. The authors cite peoples from Japan to Siberia to every part of North America who credit wolves with teaching them to hunt in groups, for example — which, according to careful work by anthropologist and primatologist Christopher Boehm (Hierarchy in the Forest) likely prompted the remarkable egalitarianism Homo sapiens adopted on and off for tens of thousands of years. Wolves may have taught us about collective child-rearing, a practice we’ve largely abandoned — to the detriment of our children. They may have taught us about play.
And people learned not just from four-footed predators, with whom they shared the fruits of a collective hunt. Unleashing their imaginations, they stretched themselves into the shape of their prey, even plants, too, cultivating a mind-expanding empathy.
What I’m suggesting is this: it was through the acquisition of food that pre-modern humans, and some still today, entered into relationships with the rest of life around them. Seeking the living creatures they consumed, they came to know their habits, their likes and dislikes. They tended them — domesticated and wild alike — practicing all the tender gestures you would lavish on a lover, gaining that intimacy.
And here’s the remarkable thing. Our ancestors’ growing knowledge does not seem to have quenched their sense of awe. Far from fancying themselves at the top of some heap, surrounded by inferiors or inanimate matter, they felt they were strands in a vast and richly embroidered fabric of family and friendships that wove throughout the plant and animal worlds and on to the boulders, the mud, the salty sea and the unseen spirits that animate them. Humans adopted themselves into the tribes of creatures they admired, including some counterintuitive ones: eels and porcupines, or snipes with their long, sand-probing beaks, hoping to receive the protection of those creatures, and to approach mastery of their obviously superior gifts.
What a wide world lay open to those humans.
That world, I am coming to think, was Eden — a place right here on earth, a place we inhabited in knowledge and wonder for a hundred thousand years. And then we were driven out. No wonder we’re pining away.
With your indulgence, I’d like to pursue this metaphor a bit further. Sacred stories and fairytales — those treasures of wisdom — frequently feature a prohibition violated:
If you touch that feather, you will know fear and you will know trouble.
Here are the keys to every room in the castle. Go in and out as you please…with just one single exception. See this tiny key, which fits the lock of that little door over there? Don’t use it. Whatever you do, don’t open that door.
But of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, or you shall die.’
In the stories, violating prohibitions like that is a sort of “sacred transgression,” which sets in motion a necessary process of initiation. The protagonist is sorely tried. She must voyage to the ends of the earth and back. He is flayed, his flesh dissolved; he’s reduced to a pile of bones. They are plunged deep into the bowels of the Underworld or the belly of a fish. At length, reconstituted, they are finally fit to recognize the marvel they loved and lost — be it person, or place, or state of being. They can return and reclaim that treasure in a new, more mature union.
How, in this context, might we read the story of Eden?
Did we as a species commit that transgression — taste of the fruit of a certain kind of self-generated, self-satisfied knowledge that a deeper Wisdom was warning us to avoid? Did we grow intoxicated? Addicted? Did we persuade ourselves that a lonely perch on the top of some kind of invented cosmic hierarchy would make us happy?
Was it we who cast our own selves out of Eden?
And since then, has our history been a long rite of passage? If so, then something seems to have gone wrong. In the fairytales, the expulsion is rarely definitive. Through all the ordeals and the transformations, the protagonist never loses sight of the shimmering goal. Can the same be said of us? Or have we gotten lost on the way, confused by chimera of our own devising? Do we truly believe our corporations are worth more than a stand of thousand-year-old trees? A human embryo more than a river? Have we repressed our longing till we can’t even recognize it any more? Have we persuaded ourselves we’re too good for Eden, anyway?
Maybe. Maybe our minds are fooled. But not our hearts. Resisting all the latest pharmacological advances, our hearts are silently breaking. Our hearts long to return to Eden.
And if we do not find some way — if we do not allow ourselves, reconstituted, to fall back in love with the rest of the natural world — I’m not sure we will survive the ordeals to come.
And here is the glory in that peril. Falling in love is sublime.