Cardinal Points

Red-tailed hawk (Photo courtesy of Mark Seth Lender)


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Anthropomorphism as a pejorative is grounded in Aristotle – that animals cannot reason – and achieves its apotheosis in Descartes who tells us animals are merely organic machines, incapable of emotion or feeling and therefore we are free to do with them and to them as we will.

Animals do not do this.

Thirty years of fieldwork have demonstrated above all else, wild animals in their natural habitat do not treat humans as Other. They behave as if we can and should understand them. They expect the cues and indications that read loud and clear among themselves to be equally transparent to human beings.

Which is to say they presume similarity not difference and they do so consistently across species, even when they have not shared a common genetic ancestor with Homo sapiens for more than half a billion years.

Paper wasps to elephants, animals find our faces. They look us in the eye. Because they perceive Likeness. We are the ones precluded by our historical biases from noticing, much less asking ourselves to what extent the animals are right.

Thus we are denied a window into what wild animals think, what they feel, the limits of their tolerance and the things that provoke them to anger, their curiosity and that to which they are indifferent.

Ergo sum: “We Are Alone.” Leading inexorably to the false and dangerous impression that we can “Go It Alone.” That all life that is not “us” is inferior, dispensable, there only for our pleasure, benefit and profit and deservedly under our control.

The current geological age is after all called the Anthropocene. We continue in our headlong rush towards the demise of our civilization, our kind, and quite possibly life on earth, as if the age that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs should have been dubbed the Asteroidocene.

Mark Seth Lender is the Explorer in Residence at Living on Earthwhich is nationally broadcast on Public Radio to a weekly audience of 1,600,000 listeners. The segments he creates are based on his fieldwork with wild animals spanning three decades and seven continents.

You can find out more about his work, including Salt Marsh Diary, A Year on the Connecticut Shore, Cardinal PointsTrue Stories of Life on Earth and his first book of photography, The Decisive Sequence (due this spring) here.