In times of tribal animism, the boundaries between animal and man were relatively indistinct. All of nature was suffused with the essence of the supernatural, and everything had souls, including rocks, trees, horses, and jackrabbits. Later, as increasingly sophisticated cultures evolved across the ancient world, the lines between us and other species tended to remain fluid. The Aztecs and the Egyptians thought some human souls became bees when they died; the Greeks and the Japanese said some became butterflies.
But with the rise of the world’s great religious traditions came the first ideas of a transcendent God or absolute higher power, and the first sense of a dimension within the human self–the soul–that was specially connected to it. Generally speaking, religions both East and West thought animals had souls, too, but they were souls of a lower order, bound up in physical passions and trapped by mortal existence. The human soul, on the other hand, was privileged with immortality. According to Western theology, that was because humans alone had reason and free will; in Eastern thought, it was due to the fact that our unique capacity for self-awareness gave us the all-important potential for attaining enlightenment. But in either case, it was only the human soul that could escape the bonds of this earthly plane to share eternal life at its maker’s feet.
From the perspective of religious salvation, therefore, animals are clearly out of luck. Yet history’s canvas is filled with images of yogis and saints who loved their animal brethren and honored them as moral and spiritual beings. Twentieth-century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi taught that animals could reach enlightenment directly without needing to advance first through human birth. He was famous for having close spiritual relationships with dogs, cats, cows, peacocks, squirrels, birds, and monkeys; his favorite cow, Lakshmi, is said to have achieved final liberation when she died. Back in the day, fish supposedly poked their heads above water to hear St. Anthony preach. St. Martin de Porres trained animals in ethics and virtue, and St. Francis gave sermons to flocks of birds from around the world. Once, Francis even tamed the terrible wolf of Gubbio, walking straight into its lair and demanding that it stop eating the local livestock–and the local townspeople. To everyone’s surprise, this tactic actually worked: the wolf bowed its head, placed its paw meekly in the saint’s hand, and followed him into town, where the people agreed to keep it well fed in exchange for its pact of peace.
With the advent of science, the religious belief in sharp distinctions between humans and animals has taken somewhat of a beating. As Bekoff explains, it is consistent with evolutionary biology that everything humans have (including souls), animals have, too–if perhaps in less developed form. “Variations among different species,” the argument goes, “are differences in degree rather than differences in kind.” Charles Darwin called this idea evolutionary continuity, and it has become a fundamental axiom in the study of animal behavior. Yet while some scientists such as Bekoff probably take Darwin’s insight too far by saying that the only major difference between us is that animals don’t cook their food, there are others who recognize far more significant distinctions.
In her studies of the chimpanzees at Gombe, for instance, Goodall concluded that their lack of a spoken language has been a fundamental evolutionary ceiling, making it impossible for them to develop higher capacities like shared moral codes. “Chimpanzees show behaviors that seem likely precursors to human morality–as when a high-ranking individual breaks up a fight to save a weaker companion,” she writes, “but for the most part, in their society, ‘might’ is ‘right,’ and the subordinates have to be submissive whether or not they are in the wrong.”
Where all this leaves us is ambiguous at best. As philosopher Daniel Dennett says, “Current thinking about animal consciousness is a mess.” Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori even goes so far as to say that robots possess the unquenchable spark of awakening known as Buddha-nature. Robot souls? I guess anything’s possible, but it’s hard enough to come up with definitive answers about animals, let alone artificially intelligent machines. There is one more realm of evidence we have yet to examine, however. And there, things operate by a different set of rules entirely.
Get your free issue of the magazine for evolutionaries. When you read EnlightenNext magazine, you’ll discover new ways of thinking about your place in the cosmos and humanity’s collective future. Each page contains depth, intelligence, and insight that can transform your perspective on everything from business and politics to spirituality and cultural change. And for a very limited time, they’re giving away a free digital issue. Click here to get your free issue now.
By Ross Robertson, EnlightenNext magazine