The Animal and the Human

February 20, 2023

Recent DNA analyses have revealed that humans share a majority of our genetic makeup with other animals. Physically speaking, our similarities with our fellow beings far outweigh our differences. In the Western mindset, however, a sharp line is drawn between human beings and other animals. Because Animeonline they do not communicate in our language, it is thought, we do not have much in common beyond physical structure. For Westerners, only humans have a soul, a wide range of emotions, and the unique capacities of reason, imagination, and the changing of our environment on a grand scale to meet our needs. Despite the division in our thinking, we still have intimate relationships with the animals closest to us and cannot seem to resist anthropomorphizing them. There are several societies whose conception of humans’ place in the animal world is far different from ours.

Although these kinds of belief systems are widely varied, many see us as more
closely related to other creatures, both physically and spiritually. Here, I will
examine a few of these non-Western ideologies and compare their conceptions of
the human-animal relationship to each other and to Western ideas.

Several cultures which hold traditionally animistic religious beliefs share the concept
of a time long ago during which humans were animals and vice versa. In this
“Distant Time,” “Dreamtime” or “Mythtime,” as it is variously referred to, animals
were able to take human form. Most animals, it is believed, once possessed human
souls, and some cultures think that they still do, although the average person is now
unable to perceive them. Folklorist Charles L. Edwards hints that this idea may have
evolved out of a memory of a much earlier period in the evolution of the human
species, when the common ancestor of both humans and apes roamed the earth.
This apelike being lived no differently from the other predatory mammals who
shared his environment. Some of his offspring later began the process of change
and adaptation that would produce our species. “In outwitting his foes, instead of
throttling them the diverging elementary man began to make plans of strategy.” As
their thought process grew more complex, Edwards argues, early humans expanded
their thinking beyond their immediate surroundings and contemplated the unseen
forces that governed their world. “[T]hese forces took form in the gods who dwelt
beyond the clouds, and the myths of cosmogony and transformation arose.” Now,
when people belonging to animistic traditions look for ways of explaining the
phenomena around them and of connecting their rituals to the greater processes of
continuing cyclical transformation, they recall the time when myths were formed,
when humans were much closer to other animals than we are today.

Edwards connects the deep sense of spiritual communion with other beings out of
which myth and belief in the supernatural arise to the formative period in the
development of each human being known as childhood. He relates a story of his
own childhood and the time he spent watching ants in his backyard, inventing
stories to match the escapades of “the ant-people.” He envisions them as soldiers
engaged in various industries at peacetime, but in wartime displaying “remarkable
valor and extraordinary strategy.” This depth of imagination, which is now the
exclusive domain of children, is the fertile ground from which spring “the miracles
of transformation” and the deeper sense of connection through the
anthropomorphism of playful storymaking. “So we see in the child, as in primitive
people [sic], the projection of his own fancies born of fear, or love, or desire, into
the things about him which then become personified.”

For many non-Westerners, the rituals associated with storytelling and traditional
practice comprise an extension and evolution of childhood, where the wonder and
intimacy in the natural world they experienced as children develops into a greater
understanding of ourselves and other forms of life. Most Western adults are, on the
surface, all too eager to put childhood behind them. Our deep longing to connect
to the wider life community manifests itself in other ways, though, such as our
feelings towards our companion animals.

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