Oh good grief. The WSJ did an interview with a fiction author/veterinarian who apparently writes deeply empathetic pro animal and feminist fiction—and yet, she treats the very human exceptionalism that bonds her to animals as something to struggle against and overcome. From an interview with Megan Mayhew Bergman:
What is our relationship with animals? Are they able to reflect back to us our behavior and quirks (like the parrot who mimics everything around it)?
Sometimes I have moments where I’m able to peer through my cloud of human exceptionalism and experience the natural world in a way that reminds me I’m actually a part of the animal kingdom. I think that nature, and the human animal bond, grounds us. I think the fear of a predator or the love of a companion animal is humbling and occasionally sublime. I’ve often heard it said that you can learn a lot about a person by the way they treat their animals you might say this philosophy influences the way I characterize people in my stories. They do, often, absorb or influence our moods. Man versus nature is the oldest narrative around and I think it still speaks to us, no matter how much distance we put between ourselves and the natural world.
I am tempted to roll my eyes. But I think we need to explore what she seems to be saying.
First, I interpret her interesting phrase, “peer through my cloud of human exceptionalism,” as a claim that HE is a negative that obscures the truth of our oneness with animals and the natural world. But the contrary is true. It is her exceptional human nature that permits her to empathize so deeply and care so selflessly for “the other.”
Nor is she—or any of us—any longer “part of the animal kingdom.” We have, to varying degrees, risen above and beyond it. And that is what permits Bergman to devote herself to caring for and writing about animals. What other species routinely takes other animals into their own homes and treats them like family? Sure ants herd aphids, but that is instinct, not exceptional outreach. We occasionally see a deer befriending a squirrel, or some such. But the truth of nature is that the she-wolf that mothered the mythical Romulus and Remus would, in reality, have eaten them.
Having “companion animals”—e.g. pets, most of which are predators themselves—is something humans undertook with intentionality because of our exceptional moral, empathetic, and utilitarian capacities. Our beloved cat also kills vermin. Our dog protects the house, etc. We changed the animals that we befriended and took them to some degree out of nature too, most particularly the wolves that we redesigned into dogs. And we are also changed by them, but that is precisely because of our own exceptional capacity to love.
”Cloud of human exceptionalism?” To the contrary. It was the light of HE that brightened the darkness allowing Bergman to harness her empathy in the service of her passions.