Does Hunting Make Us Human? – Discussion At Center For Humans & Nature

March 4, 2014

How to begin?

I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of the Center for Humans and Nature before today (or maybe I have and didn’t remember), but from the sounds of it, it’s kind of intimidating.  It sounds like a place full of lofty thinkers and deep conversations about Leopold, Audubon, and Thoreau.  So when these guys announce an open conversation about hunting, and bring in writers like Mary Zeiss Stange, I felt a little hesitant to toss in my two cents.

There is little doubt that hunting played a decisive role in our species’ evolution. But with the spread of agriculture and the domestication of animals, eventually the necessity of hunting diminished. This raises the question: Does hunting still contribute to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to nature? Do we need hunting for that purpose? In many different cultures, hunting has inspired an ethic informing hunters’ engagement with prey, arguably one of the foundations of modern environmental ethics. But is the hunter’s ethic still a necessary component of broader environmental ethics?  Should it be?  We invite you to join the conversation and return as new responses are added each week.

But then, it’s the Internet and my two cents didn’t cost a penny… so of course I couldn’t resist.  The conversation is essentially a blog format, so it’s not too hard to jump in with your comments.  However, as you may expect, my comments ran a little long.  And since I sort of needed an easy post today, I figured I’d just add them here… for those of you who don’t want to go read the whole conversation (but you really should, as there are several excellent writers involved, including our friend, Tovar Cerulli).

Here’s what I had to say:

I’ve thought a bit and decided.  It’s not so much that hunting necessarily makes us human.  I think the more important reality is that hunting reminds us humans that we are animal.

I am neither scholar nor philosopher… biologist nor anthropologist, but I have some ideas about the sorts of things that make us, “human.”  Lay aside the basics of taxonomy, as there’s not much to add there, and think more about the concepts of self-awareness and the ability to rationalize.  Consider the determination expressed by much of human culture and society to distance our species from the rest of nature… to set ourselves above all others.  That conceit?  That’s what makes us human.

Throughout human history, for as far back as we can really look, the general thrust of humanity has been to drive us further from our “animal” nature.  That drive is, arguably, responsible for the formation of society and culture as we set laws and mores that inhibit the “savage” tendencies and enable us to live together.  You don’t fight, you don’t kill, and you don’t breed with your neighbor’s mate.  The Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins… social controls all, and intended to set us humans apart from the beasts.

The tale is long and convoluted, but it brings us to a time when the most “civilized” societies are also the most separated from nature… and more importantly, from their natural selves.  The animal part is still there, of course, as evidenced in everything from our business and political practices right down to our children’s games (what are Tag and Hide-and-Seek if not basic training for little predators?).  Still, how many people recognize it for what it is?  How many would celebrate it if they recognized it?

And how many, seeing it, try to squash it?

Squashing it…

Squashing the animal out of our very nature…

It’s an exercise in futility, of course, but exercise builds strength.  The more we distance ourselves from the animal, the more we divide ourselves from nature.  Too many civilized humans already think of nature not as a vital part of ourselves, but as some nebulous construct… as some abstract state that is different from us.  It is “other”.

I think, thankfully, that there’s always been a subset of the population that recognizes that nature is not separate, but it is integral to everything that we are.  Outdoors-folk, naturalists, environmentalists… we all recognize (and some of us evangelize) the importance of interconnectedness.  And we recognize this because we choose to be part of it… even if we don’t all perceive our parts to be the same.

Of all the participants in that subset, hunters connect at the most basic level.  We actively participate in the continuum of life and death… predator and prey.  Put aside the confounding cloak of modern trappings and technology, and look at its bloody essence.  When we hunt we feel ourselves, even for those brief moments in time, animal.

Good or bad?

I don’t know.  Value judgments are easy when you’re judging someone else.  They’re not quite so simple when you’re looking in a mirror.  I can’t speak for anyone else.

Personally, I feel it is a blessing to recognize the animal in my humanity.  It’s grounding.  I embrace it.  I think it’s absolutely important to understand that at the most base level; we’re not that different from the other creatures… and no more or less vital to the world around us either.  Each of us wants life, but none of us really has much say in the matter.  It’s bigger than the rabbit or the deer.  It’s bigger than me.

And when I stand with bloodied hands over the carcass of my prey, I know that his blood is my blood too.  Our origins are the same.  We defy genealogy.  For a moment I am wild… I am untamed.  I understand more than ever the meaning of Whitman’s barbaric yawp.


5 Responses to “Does Hunting Make Us Human? – Discussion At Center For Humans & Nature”

  1. Does Hunting Make Us Human? – Discussion At Center For Humans & Nature | on March 4th, 2014 17:04

    […] Does Hunting Make Us Human? – Discussion At Center For Humans & Nature […]

  2. ian on March 4th, 2014 22:22

    There seems to be a dividing line on the issue of environmentalism around participation. As in ‘participation in’ nature. This is going to sound weird, but I’ve never felt more ‘in love’ with this planet than when hunting. Participating in the old, more primal way I guess. And I’ve worn out a lot of hiking boots across this continent, not hunting too — spent nights in caves, weeks on rivers, communing in different ways that are also awesome.

    But nothing makes me feel more in tune with everything around me than hunting. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods ‘hunting’ with my bb gun, so I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised when at 35 it felt outrageously ‘right’ when I picked up a rifle.

    My friends who just want to climb or surf, and take nothing away from the environment aren’t having any less of a ‘connected’ experience, though. I think they feel just as connected. They just don’t have that bug. When we scuba dive together, they are so excited about what we saw, and I just feel hungry. Like I just watched the conveyor belt of sushi go round and round.

    Maybe surfing and climbing are bad examples for the ‘point’ I had in my mind a minute ago (‘cuz those are pretty participatory endeavors). It was something about the people who don’t need to even go out in nature to appreciate it. The mere though of its existence is meaningful to them, whether it’s a big swath of uncleared forest on Google Maps or knowing their family property is quietly growing trees and deer and mushrooms…that they’ll probably see every 10 years.

    And I’m certainly not one to tell them that their way of communing is less meaningful than mine. Though I have to remind myself not to judge. I actually like their way. It’s pretty freaking sustainable. Maybe it all should be viewed like Economies of Scale. And someone in each village needs to be the hunter. Of course, someone needs to be the shoe-maker, and the engineer and the flamenco dancer too. But for each person, their gig is absolutely fucking vital for their well being and sense of connectedness with the planet. But being the hunter feels perfect to me.

  3. Phillip on March 5th, 2014 06:37

    Thanks, Ian.

    When it comes to environmentalists and “connection” there certainly are divisions within divisions. It ranges from the folks who want to put their hands on everything to effect what they see as positive change, to the “nature under glass” folks who believe nature should be seen and not touched… and of course, to the folks who seldom or never actually encounter wild nature, but are perfectly happy with the conceptual existence of it.

    Like you, I generally won’t judge. As long as no harm is being done and as long as I am free to connect in the way that works for me, I believe everyone’s perspective has some value.

  4. Brooke Hecht on March 11th, 2014 14:48

    Philip, Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful thoughts at We were thrilled to have your thoughtful comments and hope you will come back often. And I am glad that we have likewise discovered your blog.

  5. Phillip on March 12th, 2014 04:52

    Thanks, Brooke. I enjoyed the opportunity to spout on. Of course, I do it all the time on my own blog, but it was fun to have an open opportunity to share on someone else’s site as well.

    I will continue to follow the conversations at Humans and Nature, and hope to be inspired to contribute again some time.