05/31/2016 01:04 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Animals, People, and the Humane

To say that I had an exchange with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on the narrow topic of "humanity" might, I suppose, be overstating the case. Back on May 14, Mr. Kristof published a column about the evolving inclination to treat animals better that either he, or his editor, entitled "A Humane Revolution."

I tweeted: "given treatment of other species, perhaps wrong to call right thing 'HUMane?'" Mr. Kristof retweeted me. I am not sure whether that satisfies the new-age definition of an exchange. Moving on.

The issue, arguably one of mere semantics, could be seen to run in deeper channels, extending to the view we favor of our place in the natural world. There is something aspirational, and something perilously biased, in using the word we rely on to differentiate our own kind from all others to designate the best way to be, the most estimable conduct.

For starters, people are animals. This is true for some rather fundamental reasons. First, all life is connected, part of a single continuum, cousins at one remove or another. This story of the extended family of life is quite beautifully told by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale. If you have not already experienced what happens when the Canterbury Tales encounters Darwin and his greatest successors, I highly commend the book to you.

For another, we are animals for actuarial reasons. We have carved the cosmos into inventories of only animal, vegetable, and mineral, and choosing our place in that catalogue is far from challenging. We are animals, because there is nothing else at all suitable for us to be.

I am not convinced we are especially nice animals.

Yes, we care for those we love -- but so do most if not all members of the mammalian class, and no small number of species in other classes as well. Some other mammals are as devoted in their fulfillment of parental obligation as the very best of us.

But while at times necessarily, and perhaps on occasion unnecessarily brutal, few species ever approximate the diverse transgressions perpetrated by the worst of us. Our kind has devised whole varieties of depravity to call our own.

In general, dogs are more faithful. The social insects are more selfless. Penguins, more dutiful and doting. Maybe we are not the worst of animals, but I see little to suggest we are remotely, reliably the best.

There is something intrinsically unsettling about a species that treats other species badly, at times nauseatingly so, while deciding that the best name for behaving well is what it calls itself. To borrow from the Princess Bride: I am not sure "humane" means what we think it means.

Less humorously, its use tends to foment the very perception that allows for speciestic abuses: that there is some discontinuity between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. There isn't. A narrow division as between cousins, surely, but a discontinuity of kind rather than degree, just as surely not. Any such thing would leave humans no kingdom to call their own in a cosmos catalogued into animal, vegetable, and mineral. We are animals, for there is nothing else for us to be.

As we work against all too many prevailing impulses to treat even ourselves consistently as decency demands, perhaps it is premature to hope for the expansion of such effort to more distant cousins. But then again, there are already some in that very vanguard, looking at life with a more generous and egalitarian eye, and fighting to defend its native sanctity accordingly.

We are awash in reasons to respect the spectrum of life on this planet more than we have done. We are a part of it all in ways no rhetorical proclivity can undo. We will ultimately, and ineluctably, experience triumph or disaster as part of something greater and more varied than ourselves.

For the hope of triumph to triumph, we will need to heed the call of better angels. They have been asking all along for more humane comportment; our kind has been selectively deaf.

If we hear the call and heed it now; if we manage to behave in accord with such hope, and honor our aspirations -- we may have need to think of something new to call it.


David L. Katz

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Senior Medical Advisor,

Founder, The True Health Initiative

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