Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

By John Holmes | Go to book overview

6
Humans and Other Animals

MORE THAN KIN AND LESS THAN KIND

As Huxley observed in Man’s Place in Nature, Darwinism fundamentally alters our relationship with the rest of the natural world. To say that, after Darwin, we are animals does not make this transformation quite clear enough. Pre-Darwinian thinkers from Aristotle to Linnaeus said the same. For them, it was a matter of taxonomy. After Darwin, it is a matter of kinship. Focussing narrowly on us, on human beings, we are now properly animals by nature as well as by kind. This is widely recognised.

What is not so widely appreciated are the implications for how we should think about them, that is, about other animals. Since Darwin, that category (nonhuman animals) has ceased to be a natural kind at all. Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas or orang-utans, let alone to fish. The six million years and a quarter of a million generations that have passed since our bloodlines parted company is as nothing to the close-on 400 million years and millions of generations that have gone by since any ancestor of ours could reasonably be called a fish. Even so, we (humans and chimpanzees) are more closely related to some of the animals we call ‘fish’ than those fish (specifically lungfish and coelacanths) are to any other fish currently alive. We can go on and on, expanding the category ‘ourselves’ to include each new set of cousins we encounter as we trace our genealogy back in time. Richard Dawkins does just that in his richest book, The Ancestor’s Tale, taking us back to the ever-more-approximate moments when our ancestors diverged from those of other fishes, of starfish and sea urchins, of worms, snails and spiders, of jellyfish, of sponges, of mushrooms, of plants, ultimately even of bacteria.

Like the repositioning of humans within the order Primates, this is not merely an academic exercise. It has a profound bearing on how we think about other creatures, in particular animals. Not least, it raises important ethical questions. Writing to the Secretary of the Humanitarian League in 1910, Hardy remarked that:

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Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Preface x
  • 1- Poetry in the Age of Darwin 1
  • 2- Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’ 37
  • 3- God 75
  • 4- Death 102
  • 5- Humanity’s Place in Nature 130
  • 6- Humans and Other Animals 154
  • 7- Love and Sex 185
  • 8- On Balance 226
  • Conclusion 260
  • Bibliography 263
  • Index 283
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