And it's no mushy cute-fest, either, let alone a sentimental appeal for us to love animals. Instead of saying we should love nonhumans, Shipman begins with the observation that we already do, and works from there. What may be the book's greatest failing from an ideological animal-liberation perspective -- Shipman draws no ethical conclusions from her observations, and mentions the movement only peripherally as one modern expression among many of an ancient human trait -- is probably its greatest strength as a work of popular science literature. It will hold its greatest appeal for average dog- and cat-lovers inclined to ponder their love for their pets from an evolutionary perspective, and steers scrupulously clear of any sort of animal advocacy. But that's no reason not to read it.
Shipman states her hypothesis clearly right from the start:
I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals that has intensified in importance since at least the onset of stone toolmaking 2.6 million years ago. Defining traits are what makes humans human, what makes us different from all other animals, and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes. I don't claim that the animal connection is the only defining trait ... but I do claim that our connection to animals is so deep, so old and so fundamental that you really can't understand human evolution and nature without taking it into account.Shipman contends that at each of the "big three" advances in human behavioral evolution -- toolmaking; language and symbolic behavior; and domestication of other species -- an ability to form empathic bonds with nonhuman animals played a crucial, if not determinative, role. From there she embarks from the beginning of human evolution and works her way up to modern times, laying out her evidence at the three big shifts in an impressively comprehensive approach.
Obviously, I'm not going to list all her evidence here -- after all, this book is well worth reading in its entirety, and I'm certainly not going to make it easy for you to crib. But I will say that of all the "big three" shifts, I think her evidence for the animal connection's role in the spread of language and symbolic behavior is the weakest. Her argument on this point is both persuasive and parsimonious, but the direct evidence of it in the book is sparse. Nonetheless, as a whole the book is brilliant, rigorous, and at times even moving.
It's also one of the most scientifically-accurate popular explanations of human evolution that I've read in about 10 years. That alone is worth the price of admission.
The book was moving and useful to me because it helped me make some evolutionary sense of my life-long feelings of empathy for animals, my veganism and my animal advocacy. I don't need to tell you any of the silly, hurtful things I've had strangers and loved ones say to me about my "unnatural" lack of species loyalty; I'm sure you've heard many of the same crude remarks yourself.
But if you're like me, you've always known that your sense of connection to nonhumans was a deep-seated, unchosen part of who you are. It has always felt like the most natural thing in the world to you, as much a part of your make-up as your love for family or country. To you, as to me, these other animals have always felt like part of the tribe, and it was a mystery to you why other humans wouldn't agree.
Shipman argues that this is an expression of an ancient, and probably partially genetic, impulse in H. sapiens. Nature, she claims, has selected for cross-species empathy in hominins. In the early days, it was useful to our ancestors in acquiring animals for food and resources; hominins who understood animal thought and behavior were more successful than those who weren't. And nature intensified this trait as more hominins found more uses for it over millions of years. But as with most inherited traits, the animal connection lends itself to more than one expression. And so, we now live in a world where people lavish pets with billions of dollars in consumer spending, identify tribally with animal-totem athletic teams or cartoon characters, continue to visit zoos and circuses even in economically-depressed times, and -- in one little corner over here -- agitate earnestly for the liberation of nonhumans from exploitation.
It's all, Shipman argues, perfectly natural, and all characteristically human. We all express the animal connection in different ways, but it's still there, almost everywhere you look in human culture and history.
There are no statements of animal advocacy in Shipman's book, but she has done the animal liberation movement a great service in writing it. She acknowledges as an empirical fact what we have always known, and often waste a great deal of wind trying to convince speciesists of -- that empathy for nonhuman animals is one of the most human things there is. It does not require any more intellectual justification than possessing vertebrae or walking upright. It's simply a given of human nature.
This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned "the folly of ignoring the obvious." We ignore the obvious connection between human and nonhuman every time we try to convince speciesists of its existence; or rather, we become complicit in and indulge their often-willful ignorance of the connection. Do we waste time trying to convince people that it's natural to breathe? Well, we shouldn't waste our time convincing them it's natural to care about animals, either. It wastes our time, and the animals' time, too... time that animals don't have.
By using the obviousness of the animal connection's existence as her starting point, Shipman has, whether she knows it or not, advanced the debate about animals by leaps and bounds, and helped ground animal liberation ethics in a evolutionary view of life... and moreso than any actual animal-lib thinker who comes readily to my mind. This is a book I'll return to time and again.