As a biologist who documents new species and behavior in remote places, from sinkholes in Venezuela to treetops in Borneo, I see abundant signs that the future is grim. A recent United Nations report confirmed the terrible truth: One million species on Earth are threatened with extinction. Yet even though we know how bad things have gotten, there has been little inclination to act.
Moving forward will require us to recognize that abuse of nature is, at its core, part of a basic human drive to distinguish “in” groups from “out” groups. As long as non-human species are considered “other” and inferior, action to save them is unlikely. But in knowing this fact, there is hope — not only for how we treat other species but for how we treat other humans.
A significant body of research suggests that how we perceive animals and how we perceive people is closely linked. Brock University scientists Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson had research participants read essays enumerating the human-like traits of animals. Mere exposure to this perspective caused even those with entrenched prejudices to think kindly of immigrants — to regard them more as equals — despite the fact that the essays mentioned nothing about humans.
I witnessed what appeared to be a similar connection between beliefs about animals and treatment of humans when I traveled to Socotra, a remote island chain in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles off Yemen. Whereas the only other archipelagos with comparable biological diversity, the Galapagos and Hawaii, have experienced terrible species loss since human contact, that hasn’t been the case in Socotra. The islands, occupied since the time of Jesus Christ, have remained ecologically intact largely because tribal elders have traditionally orchestrated the movements of people and the goats they raise to reduce habitat destruction.
In Socotra, the spiritual connection between herder and goat is striking, even up to the time an animal is slaughtered. Herders cradle an animal that is to be killed, caressing and singing to it. The herders know each goat well, and the sacrifice isn’t taken lightly.
The Socotran people’s respect for animals and nature is remarkable, but their behavior toward each other is even more so. While war devastates Yemen’s mainland, even today no weapons are permitted on the archipelago.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the link in attitudes toward animals and treatment of other people makes sense. In an age when dangerous animals and foreign clans represented constant threats, people responded by differentiating without hesitation between “us” and “other.” While that ingrained tendency to identify and react to outsiders was a survival tactic in their dangerous world, it is what today lies at the heart of dehumanization. Ranking our own groups at the top of the hierarchy is the source of racial, ethnic and nationalistic clashes — and, as it turns out, mistreatment of other species as well.
The studies of Costello and Hodson suggest that when our innate assumptions of superiority are counteracted, the possibility for more humane treatment of both fellow humans and nature increases. Mind you, overcoming our tendencies to denigrate other species and people isn’t a simple task. We might assume, for example, that clashes between people would fade if a conflict negotiator can help all parties to see how they are alike. But such attempts can backfire for a simple reason: Both sides take pride in their uniqueness. Finding their cherished identities under attack, each group typically grows more entrenched. Relations may get worse, not better.
A similar problem can arise when people are asked to recognize ways in which humans are like animals. We tend to assume such comparisons can apply only to groups of humans other than our own – ones from different societies or ethnicities.
On the other hand, as Costello and Hodson found, likening people to animals can be transformed into a positive simply by turning the comparison on its head. Rather than thinking about how you and I are like animals, try this: They are like us. Instead of insulting “us” by putting us on par with animals, this vantage point raises animals up to ours.
The small twist can make a big difference, and holds hope for species preservation. Those who see the ways in which animals are like humans are more likely to respect wildlife generally. Still more remarkable, empathy toward other species slashes prejudice toward even the most marginalized foreign people. The biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson, under whom I studied, may have put it best. Knowing other species well, he said, “elevates the very concept of life.”
To policymakers engaged with species loss as only one in a range of contentious issues, these ideas may seem abstract. To me, as a biologist privileged to visit far-flung places where the connection of humanity to nature is apparent, they are obvious.
For species facing extinction and for oppressed peoples alike, reconnecting humans with the natural world is imperative.
Biologist and anthropologist Mark Moffett is author of “The Human Swarm: How Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall.”