I, Mammal!

The concept of identification has been much in the news lately. If I say that I “identify” as a conservative American man, a lawyer, a Lutheran, a resident of Minnesota and a fan of the Minnesota Twins, my announcement will provoke zero interest, because I actually am all of those things. How boring can you get? For one’s “identification” to be newsworthy, and perhaps profitable, one must identify as something that one is not–an African-American, a woman, and so on.

In the New York Times–where else?–Randy Laist offers a new twist on identification. He identifies not as a human being–how pedestrian is that?–but rather, as a mammal.

I choose to identify as mammal.

And this is my reason: Our relationship to the natural world, which is changing in such dramatic ways, is in desperate need of revision. Human exceptionalism — expressed in our treatment, use and abuse of other animals, and in the damage we do to the natural environment — has paved the way for enormous harm. It seems clear, then, that identifying exclusively as human has its pitfalls.

This is, of course, a non sequitur. But let’s stay with the premise: how about the great good that humans do for the environment? How about the large number of species, including many of those that are most familiar to us and with which we interact daily, that would not exist without us humans?

“Human exceptionalism,” denounced by Laist, has been the perspective of pretty much every human being who has ever existed, from the beginning of time to the present. Those who have blurred the species divide, and instead of identifying “exclusively as human” have left room for horses or sheep, have generally wound up in prison.

Consider some other options: Thinking of ourselves as primates strikes a little too close to home. It’s like being told you look like your brother; nobody wants to hear it. On the other hand, defining human beings as animals spreads the net too wide. I accept on principle that I have a lot in common with a tuna or a mosquito, but the acknowledgment doesn’t compel me on a visceral level.

We are, of course, both animals and primates, but mere facts of biology are not what our author has in mind when he searches for an identity. Tunas and mosquitos just don’t make the grade.

When I consider what I have in common with a bear, however, or a squirrel, or a whale, I recognize an inherent sympathy that is at the center of my being.

I get a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Hey Randy–if you get a warm and fuzzy feeling when you contemplate a bear, you are the guy I want to go camping with. I’m guessing the bear won’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling when he contemplates you.


This is beyond parody:

There are deep-seated joys associated with our mammalian nature. The satisfaction of working up a good sweat. The infantile pleasure taken in soft, furry things. A tasty swig of milk. The warm and fuzzy feeling itself — one of the most basic descriptors of human contentment — is essentially mammalian, referring to the body heat of the ancestral burrow that we all still remember in our bones and seek to recapture in various ways throughout our lives.

I dunno. You’d have to go a long way back into my ancestry before you’d get to a burrow. Maybe Mr. Laist’s family is different.

The warmth emanates from our capacity for endothermy, a quality we share with birds. The fuzziness comes also from hair — a feature unique to mammals.

And tarantulas.

Humans love hair. We’re actually kind of obsessed by it. And why shouldn’t we be? We’re mammals, and a mammal’s hair is its glory. The human case is particularly poignant, since we have so little of it, finding ourselves among a handful of other mammals such as pigs, whales and naked mole rats that have lost almost all of theirs, too.

Wearing clothes and sleeping under blankets are human behaviors that return us to a more immersive relationship to hair…

Plus, they keep us warm.

…and stroking the fur of dogs and cats is soothing to us because it recalls primordial mammalian sense memories. We fetishize the decorative patches of fur that remain to us….

TMI, Randy.

Birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish can all be loving parents…

Fish often eat their children. People rarely do.

The importance of reproductive biology to mammalian identity makes it a rather gynocentric way of seeing, which may be one of the reasons the mammalian perspective is generally unvoiced and devalued in our…

Wait for it!

…historically patriarchal society.

Actually, my guess is that through the centuries, it wouldn’t have been men who would have objected most strenuously to the assertion that people are one with bats, goats and mountain lions.

Many of the basic coordinates of being an animal are similar whether you have fur, scales or feathers, but the evolution in mammals of a neocortex distinguishes mammalian behavior from that of our close relatives, since behavior in mammals tends to be inflected in various ways by the operations of this singular meta-organ.

Left unsaid: the differences between human brains and bats’ brains make our behavior quite different from that of our flying cousins.

As it relates to our perception of the natural world, “us” had historically been people in my immediate tribe. Recently, the circle of tribal identification has expanded to include all human beings; then, more recently still, deep ecologists have imagined ways of inviting the nonhuman world into the fold as well.

But there is a danger in pushing the borders of affiliation so far out that they no longer have any resonance. Placing an emphasis on our mammalian identity is a reasonable compromise between a restrictive anthropocentrism and a vapid all-inclusiveness.

In other words: some people out there are even nuttier than I am!

This mammalian sensibility is a powerful spur to the ethical imagination. Not only do I put down the hamburger, seized with the impression that eating a cow is tantamount to cannibalism…

Here’s the thing: the tiger is not going to put down the wildebeest and go vegetarian out of a sense of mammalian solidarity. The polar bear isn’t going to experience a feeling of mystical unity and stop eating seals. Nor will any other mammalian predators switch to tofu.

So Randy Laist’s flights of trans-species communion are an example of what he denounces as “human exceptionalism.” Here’s the proof: if Laist ever encounters a bear in the wild, he had better run like Hell. The bear won’t give him a break as a fellow mammal.