Mar 17, 2021
Welcome back folks! Don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but rumor is that in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the signs of spring are starting to emerge—little buds and shocks of color. We’ll be monitoring the situation closely over the coming weeks.
My guest today is Melanie Challenger. Melanie is a writer and researcher whose work explores the relationship between humans and the natural world. The subject of our conversation is her latest book, How to be Animal: A New History of What it Means to Be Human. In it, she confronts our species’ epic struggle with our animal nature. We have this tendency to see ourselves as above and beyond the natural order, as possessing something special, something extraordinary that sets us apart. And yet it’s no secret that we are also biological organisms, made from the same stuff as the rest of the animal kingdom and bound by the same laws and limits. You can sense the struggle; you can probably feel the tension.
Through the lens of this struggle, Melanie’s book takes in a huge sweep of terrain. It considers our tendency to dehumanize other humans and “dementalize” animals; it discusses our alienation from our own bodies; it takes up our desire to colonize space and upload our minds so they survive our death. That’s not all. It also zooms in on paleolithic cave art, neuro-essentialism, the notions of personhood and dignity, not to mention mass extinction and machine intelligence and a whole lot else. It’s a provocative book and a brave book, and chatting with Melanie about it was a real treat.
An announcement, or re-announcement, I suppose: Applications for the 2021 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute are now open. Check out our amazing faculty (including some former guests of the show) and find further details at disi.org. I’ll just mention here that Melanie and I first met at the 2020 institute—she was one of our Storytellers. So, you know, more evidence that cool people who think about cool things are to be found at DISI.
Alright folks—hope you enjoy this one. And, if you do, definitely pick up Melanie’s book. It’ll be out Tuesday, March 23 in the US.
A transcript of this show is available here.
Notes and links
9:24 – “Substance dualism” is one of several forms of dualism. See here.
12:30 – A primer on elephant cognition.
18:00 – One of the works on dehumanization that Challenger discusses in her book is Less than Human by David Livingstone Smith. The topic is also discussed at length in a book we featured in December, Survival of the Friendliest, by Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods.
21:30 – A recent review of the wide literature on “terror management theory.”
25:50 – An article reviewing work on “mental time travel,” which Challenger views as one of our key capacities as humans.
30:46 – A study by Amy Fitzgerald and colleagues on crime rates in the proximity of slaughterhouses.
33:50 – The Cave of Altamira in Spain.
38:30 – Here we discuss the work of researcher Kim Hill.
45:50 – John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, can be read here.
53:57 – See Challenger’s previous book about extinction.
55:45 – Read about the 2009 Copenhagen accord here.
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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