Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

Anthropocentrism and Animal Instinct

The first howl stopped us in our tracks. Beyond the edge of the wide gravel path, the forest was thick with undergrowth and tangled tree limbs spilling away into a darkness even the light of the full moon couldn’t penetrate. My cousin flicked his flashlight across the treeline. The sudden wash of brightness transformed the ridge above us into a writhing mass of disorienting shadows. Was there something moving there? The night was silent. We waited, listening.


Another distant howl whined just on the edge of hearing, this time from the north. Then another, louder than before. The calls lingered on the warm summer air, meandering and dissipating so that it was impossible to be sure when exactly they lapsed again into silence. Four of us stood still in the middle of the trail that ran along the bottom of the ravine, edged on either side by rising forested slopes. We’d walked it dozens of times in daylight. Now it seemed unfamiliar, altered by the moon and the invisible presences stalking among the trees. Coming closer. I watched the dark intently. Another howl echoed from ridge to ridge. The forest breathed with the rough breath of a predator. As if in sympathy, my own breath quickened, a chill moving across my skin.

Another howl. My father and my aunt exchanged glances, and in a moment the decision was made to turn back. They were all low nervous laughter and chatting now, reasserting the murmured noise of human presence against the encroaching dark, eager to put off the sneaking fear with jokes and teasing. The beams of their flashlights danced and jolted over the path ahead that led back towards the parking lot.

I lagged behind. Still watching the dark, willing my eyes to adjust to the intricate depths of the woods that shifted with each turn of the moonlit breeze. The fear followed, a silent tread obscured by the scuffling of our boots. Only once, I glanced behind us, and seemed to see — there, paused in mid-stride across the open space of the trail where we had stopped — a low, dark being with animal eyes watching us depart.

I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

Where does our anthropocentrism come from? Some would elide anthropocentrism with arrogance and selfishness, confusing things still further by equating these with the instinct for self-preservation and the evolutionary imperative to pass on genes.

This is the argument that John Beckett puts forward in his post, “Interdependence and the Weakness of Evolution,” where he writes:

The idea that it’s all about us is the result of our evolutionary heritage. […] Along the way we picked up some habits that were helpful for the continuation of our species. Look out for yourself – or at least, try not to get yourself killed before you can reproduce. Learn to see things as black or white, because nuanced knowledge isn’t nearly as important as quickly figuring out whether you can eat something or whether it will eat you. Favor your blood relatives – they share most of your genes and so their success is almost as good as your own success. Given these evolutionary pressures, it was inevitable that our religions would be anthropocentric. [emphasis added]

Yet there are fundamental problems with the claim that anthropocentrism is the inevitable consequence of human instinct.

The first is that anthropocentrism is a specific ethical and philosophical perspective, a particular constellation of values grounded not simply in the desire for human survival but in the assumption of human supremacy. There is clear evidence that human beings do not universally share these values as Beckett asserts. Indigenous and non-Western cultures throughout history have had worldviews that do not include the belief that human beings are inherently separate from or superior to the rest of the natural world. Among the North American Cree, for example, hunting rituals are organized around a deep respect and reverence for the animals that humans kill, viewing these creatures as benevolent caretakers who give their lives willingly out of concern for the welfare of humans. To the Cree, humans are not superior to other animals but dependent on their generosity and self-giving, the way children are dependent on their relatives and their tribe for food, shelter and protection. The Cree clearly value their own survival, but this instinct for self-preservation does not automatically mean that they reject the inherent or intrinsic value of other non-human beings.

This view of human-animal kinship is in distinct contrast to anthropocentric views such as the one presented in Genesis (and Judeo-Christian tradition more generally), which asserts the human right to kill and eat animals as an expression of our natural “dominion” over non-human beings due to our divinely-granted power and superiority. For the Cree, as with many indigenous cultures, the killing of a non-human animal represents an ethical dilemma that must be addressed through rituals of reciprocity, propitiation, gratitude and forgiveness — acts which recognize the value and agency of non-human beings and seek to negotiate or compromise with them in ways that allow for the continued survival of the human and non-human alike.


But in an anthropocentric worldview — in which animals are seen as material resources rather than as beings with intrinsic value in their own right — the source of ethical concern is shifted from the non-human to the human. In Judaism, for instance, ancient dietary laws regulating animal slaughter and consumption focus not on the agency or intrinsic value of non-human beings, but on issues of purity and dirt (or “matter out of place“). Rituals regulating the care, slaughter and preparation of livestock center on the question of whether the animal is clean or unclean, ensuring that certain foods are avoided if they would pollute the human body or soul.1 In other words, the ethical dilemma of human-animal relationship in Judeo-Christian tradition centers on the necessity of maintaining the symbolic or spiritual separation between humans and animals even when we are physically dependent upon them.

Asserting this distinction between humans and non-human animals in the face of our potential entanglement is a preoccupation that we also find throughout Beckett’s post, and it is the most obvious indication that he has not been as successful in rejecting anthropocentrism as he hopes. He continually insists that in order to be ethical, humans must reject, remove or transcend evolutionary programming in favor of a “better” way. Consider, for instance, when he writes:

The shortcoming of evolution is that it favors what works, not what’s best. And it favors what works now, not what will work in the long run. That’s one of the reasons I have to laugh at the idea of intelligent design – our design isn’t very intelligent. But it’s been good enough to take us from the trees to the caves to the skyscrapers.

The implications of Beckett’s words here are clear: humans represent the pinnacle of evolution, the last best effort of an ultimately flawed process; and while evolution might have been good enough for millions of years, it isn’t sustainable “in the long run” without human insight and power to guide it according to “what’s best.” This statement fits neatly into the definition of anthropocentrism as the view that human beings are categorically different from their surroundings due to their intelligence, religion, socio-political life, etc. Remember, a worldview can still be anthropocentric even if it agrees that humans are “a part of nature.” Although there is no doubt that he believes humans and the rest of the natural world are interdependent, this interdependence poses a serious ethical dilemma for Beckett, who fears that “evolution” threatens to mire humans in the selfishness of “natural” instincts that will lead to our destruction.

An Aside on Bad Science

To emphasize his point, Beckett directs our attention to two examples of non-human animals whose instincts have led to what are (in his opinion) dangerous, out-of-control behaviors: the rabbit, and the wolf. That he chooses these specific animals is itself worth noting — for even if unintended, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence. The rabbit (as prey) and the wolf (as predator) have played opposing symbolic roles that are relatively consistent throughout Western culture. The rabbit has strong symbolic ties to fertility and fecundity, sometimes being portrayed as a trickster figure or “mad hare” who is ruled by lust to such an extreme that he willingly violates social taboos in order to satisfy his desires. The wolf, on the other hand, has often symbolized the dangers of unchecked gluttony and violence, similarly transgressing social boundaries by attacking livestock — usually sheep, although for some reason Beckett uses an “endangered” cow in his example.2 Whether with sheep or cows, however, this portrayal of the wolf almost always relies on an implied contrast between the instinctive (and therefore dangerous) appetites of the wild animal and the benevolent, protective influence of the human beings who “know better” and ensure the survival of domesticated livestock.

Together, the rabbit and the wolf have often been used to symbolize the dangerous extremes of animal instinct freed from the moderation of human moral conscience or reason. They represent, respectively, mindless (re)production and mindless consumption. Furthermore, they are considered harmful, dangerous or unpredictable precisely when they violate the boundaries between human and non-human communities — for instance, when trespassing into human-controlled spaces to steal livestock or destroy gardens. Beckett would like us to believe that these “rabbits who have eaten all the grass” and the wolf who “doesn’t care if the cow he eats is the last of its kind” represent the inevitable results of flawed evolutionary processes that fail to create “ideal” adaptations and can at best aspire to for merely “adequate” ones. Far from an accurate — let alone comprehensive — portrayal of these animals, however, his examples are one-sided stereotypes drawn from the very anthropocentric worldview that he claims to be rejecting.


The actual ecological study of these iconic animals in their natural habitats gives us a very different understanding of their behaviors, as well as the contextual value of evolutionary adaptation. For instance, far from being an insatiable killer that jeopardizes the survival of endangered species, the gray wolf is a keystone species in North America. In areas where it has been driven almost to extinction by human hostility and encroachment, its absence can lead directly and indirectly to cascading environmental damage such as deforestation, plummeting biodiversity, and disease. On the other hand, when allowed to reclaim its native habitats, the presence of the gray wolf actually increases biodiversity and enhances the health and stability of the ecosystem as a whole. The stereotype of the rabbit as a mindless producer/consumer is similarly distorted by human biases. Rabbits are just one of more than a hundred mammalian species (including also bears, mice, weasels, badgers, otters, seals and roe deer) that undergo delayed implantation, ensuring that fertilized eggs do not develop into viable fetuses unless the mother has access to sufficient resources (food, shelter, etc.) to support both herself and her offspring. This biological adaptation, which some studies suggest may be latent in all mammals, helps to keep populations in check when resources are scarce. Where rabbit populations have gotten out of hand, the problem is not a lack of resources but an abundance: the rabbit is an invasive species introduced by human beings into an ecosystem where it has no natural predators or competition. To use either of these animals as examples of how evolutionary processes are unsuccessful and ultimately flawed is akin to leaving a man in the middle of the ocean to drown, and then blaming “nature” because he didn’t instantly develop gills.

In an earlier draft of this post, I spent a great deal of time teasing apart exactly how Beckett’s view of evolution in general — like his portrayal of these two animals in particular — is fundamentally biased by ideological and anthropocentric assumptions. Beckett himself has written about how “bad science makes bad religion.” Unfortunately, he seems unaware that he has built much of his own argument on the crumbling cliffside of the now-outdated “selfish gene” theory. The application of evolutionary game theory and behavioral models have demonstrated the evolutionary advantages of altruism and community-oriented selflessness, and advances in the study of multilevel natural selection by scientists like E.O. Wilson (who has long been a critic of the “selfish gene” theory) have fairly definitively shown that these simplistic interpretations of evolutionary pressures as inherently “selfish” are flawed. It’s well known by current evolutionary biologists that gene expression is influenced by environmental conditions, and that evolutionary processes do not “program” certain traits or behaviors (let alone entire belief systems) so much as encode certain inclinations or in potentia responses to different contexts and conditions which allow organisms the flexibility to adapt to changing environments over time. Natural selection can just as easily favor cooperative and altruistic behaviors as selfish behaviors, and it functions not only at the genetic and individual levels but also in social groups that extend beyond kin relations. In addition, Richard Dawkins, the most vocal advocate for the “selfish gene” theory and the only scientist Beckett himself cites, has come under increasing criticism from the wider scientific community for allowing political ideology to bias his research. A more wide-ranging examination of current evolutionary science only proves to undermine almost every aspect of Beckett’s argument and overturn his simplistic interpretation of “instinct” as “selfishness.” Rather than spend any more time on this particular topic, I’ll leave it to curious readers to follow the various links and references in this section and explore for themselves the on-going development of modern evolutionary biology.

Anthropocentrism in Pagan Clothing?

So the question remains: if anthropocentrism isn’t instinctual, then where and how did it develop? Scholars continue to debate this point and, contrary to Beckett’s assertion, there is no straightforward or definitive answer. It’s true that some scientists cite evolutionary pressures as one possible influence among many. On the other hand, some scientists point to instinctual cognitive processes to explain just the opposite: an “Agency Detection Device” that inclines us to view human beings as embedded in a world full of many other agentive, conscious beings. If anything, certain interpretations of evolutionary psychology suggest that the anthropocentric worldview that sees humans as the only beings of intrinsic value is actually a rejection of human instinct, not its inevitable consequence.

Among sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers there is also much debate about the source and cause of anthropocentrism. The first writers to use the term did so in order to draw attention to differences they saw between Western and Eastern cultural attitudes towards the non-human, and to call out Western-centric and Eurocentric prejudices which tended to dismiss non-anthropocentric cultures as “primitive” and “backwards.” Scholars such as historian Lynn Townsend White, Jr. and ecologist David Suzuki see anthropocentrism as particularly prevalent within Western culture, tracing contemporary anthropocentric views back to roots in Judeo-Christian religious tradition — pointing to the very same passages in Genesis that Beckett takes as evidence that anthropocentrism must be universal. Many scholars in environmental ethics have noted that this view of human superiority was more formally codified and exacerbated in European culture by liberalism, capitalist philosophy, imperialist colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. Others have noted that anthropocentrism has played a prominent role in Western philosophy, from its earliest foundations in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, to the more recent work of Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Scheler, Heidegger and Sartre. This is another fundamental problem with Beckett’s claim: he takes characteristics specific to Western culture (including its legacy of anthropocentrism and dualism) and treats them as inherent and universal to the human species as a whole, while ignoring counterexamples from non-Western cultures.

This is one reason I agree with Traci Laird’s dead-on assessment that anthropocentrism in modern Paganism “plays out in subtle and tricky ways.” Beckett clearly believes that anthropocentrism is harmful and undesirable, and he spends a lot of time trying to argue against it. He acknowledges that anthropocentric attitudes have shaped modern society in ways that have led to widespread (and possibly irrevocable) environmental damage. That he fails to extract himself from basic anthropocentric assumptions is all the more surprising because he professes “a reverence for Nature based on the recognition of the interrelatedness of all life and the inherent worth and dignity – and agency – of all life.”


The problem is that he does not take this reverence seriously enough to apply it consistently in his thinking or integrate it into his worldview. For instance, he explains that we should adopt an attitude of religious reverence towards nature because “reason has been shown to be a notoriously ineffective method of persuading anyone to change their behavior.” It seems Beckett is just not comfortable with the idea that non-human beings deserve reverence in their own right, and so he tries to bolster this view by arguing for its instrumental value. We need reverence because reason alone isn’t enough to change our behavior, and we need to change our behavior because, according to Beckett, “moderating our behavior is in our own self-interest and it is especially in the self-interest of our species.”

Sensing the uncertain ground beneath him, he denies that this is an anthropocentric view — but here he is simply, well, wrong. This reasoning is known by its proponents as enlightened anthropocentrism, and it asserts that we should advocate for environmentally sustainable ways of living because of the intrumental value of the ecosystems on which we depend, rather than on the intrinsic value of those ecosystems and their inhabitants. The SEP notes:

[A]nthropocentrism often recognizes some non-intrinsic wrongness of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) environmental devastation. Such destruction might damage the well-being of human beings now and in the future, since our well-being is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment. […] [S]ome theorists working in the field see no need to develop new, non-anthropocentric theories. Instead, they advocate what may be called enlightened anthropocentrism (or, perhaps more appropriately called, prudential anthropocentrism). Briefly, this is the view that all the moral duties we have towards the environment are derived from our direct duties to its human inhabitants.

And this is where Beckett, despite his best intentions, slips back into the trap of anthropocentrism: for him, the solution to preventing environmental damage rests on the necessity of asserting an essential separation between humans and non-human beings even though we are physically dependent upon them. He attributes human weakness (selfishness, arrogance, ignorance) to “evolution” and insists that these are the only things we can learn from other animals. He contrasts this with human power (intelligence, self-moderation, spiritual insight), which he attributes to the civilizing influences of religion and culture. He embraces the anthropocentric dualism that asserts human culture and civilization are not only separate from but superior to a limited, flawed (not to say “primitive” or “backwards”) natural world. Why shouldn’t we behave the way other animals do, or trust our own natural instincts? To Beckett, only a lazy, ignorant person would ask such a question — and the answer is so obvious to him that he doesn’t even feel the need to give one. But the implication is obvious: because humans are different, we should be better than that; because we have more power and more intelligence; because being like other animals is dangerous, unethical and self-destructive.

Beckett is fully aware that we are stuck in the hole of anthropocentrism, but the only possible solution he can see is to keep on digging. To a man with a shovel, it can be hard to imagine any other solution, and Western society has spent a long time convincing us that the shovel is the only effective tool we have. And so it seems unthinkable to Beckett to take seriously questions about how non-human beings offer insights into ethical relationships that extend beyond human-specific concerns. It never occurs to him that it is possible to see human beings as descendants of and apprentices to non-human animals, plants and other beings who have guidance to offer (or demands to make) about how to live in harmony with the natural world.

This bias is pervasive, reaching even beyond the claim that human instinct is anthropocentric. It has roots in the philosophical concept of human subjectivity, and its relationship to epistemology and ontology. These topics are what I’ll be exploring in my next post.

[1] We can see an echo of this concern in secular Western society today, when dietary choices made to help humans lose weight or reap certain health benefits are far more popular and provoke less criticism than choices (such as veganism) that are founded on a concern for the welfare of the animals themselves.

[2] This example of a wolf killing an “endangered” cow is an especially odd one to use, considering that every year in the United States alone, human beings slaughter an average of 35 million cows for food consumption — that is, more than the human population of the 20 largest cities in the U.S. combined, or the entire human population of Canada. That’s every year. In contrast, wolves are responsible for only 0.2% of unintended cattle deaths in the United States, lagging far behind causes like weather (12%) and poor living conditions (49%) that lead to disease or injury. The very notion of a wolf being responsible for killing the last of an “endangered” cow species is so bizarre it borders on the nonsensical.

Next: What the Robin Saw: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 1)

This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Brian Taylor on his blog, animist jottings. For details on how to join, click here.

Photo Credits:
• “Wolf Moon – Full Moon,” by Bill Dickinson (CC) [source]
• “Untitled,” by Valerie (CC) [source]
• “In this weather?” by Porsupah Ree (CC) [source]
• “Loba,” by Lulu Lovering (CC) [source]

10 thoughts on “Anthropocentrism and Animal Instinct”

  1. There are places in this post where you and I disagree on science and there are places where you totally misrepresent the points I’m trying to make. So be it – I’m genuinely not interested in a long debate.

    I want to answer one question, because it’s critically important: “Why shouldn’t we behave the way other animals do, or trust our own natural instincts?” Because trusting our natural instincts has led to overpopulation, resource depletion, pollution and habitat destruction, and the needless extinction of other species. We DO have more power and more intelligence than other species, and we’ve totally abused that power and intelligence – particularly in the last 300 years.

    The solution is NOT “asserting an essential separation between humans and non-human beings”. The solution is understanding – at an emotional, religious level – that we share a common ancestry and a common future with all other species, that they possess their own inherent value and sovereignty, and then learning to act accordingly.


    1. John,

      I have no problem with disagreeing about different scientific studies, what they mean and how they’re interpreted. Even the scientists doing the work don’t agree, after all! That is part of my point — disagreement and skepticism are essential aspects of the scientific process of inquiry. But what worries me a little is if we can’t even agree about what is science and what isn’t. I’m not sure I know of any studies that support the claim that “instinct is inherently selfish,” as you say, let alone any that say anthropocentrism is instinctual. I’ve seen lots of studies that say the opposite (and I link to some of them in the post).

      I think our more basic disagreement concerns the role of reason and critical analysis in religion and culture more generally. I agree that emotions are often better at motivating people to take action, but they’re not always reliable in helping people choose effective action or in looking at past actions and trying to determine why they were not as effective as we’d hoped or believed they would be. I agree that the emotional/religious reverence of nature is important — but I also think that this has been generally agreed upon for the last several hundreds years (since the Romantics)… and yet, merely feeling that this is true hasn’t done much to change the direction that our society is going. We need to think more carefully about these issues to understand why emotional/religious reverence hasn’t been enough, and we need to understand how natural processes and cultural influences overlap, intermingle and shape each other in complex ways. By insisting that “evolution”/instinct is “bad” because it is selfish and religion/culture is “good” because it is moral, I think you promote an anthropocentric dualism that is unhelpful and undermines our ability to think more deeply about these issues.


      1. Alison – I love the points you make in this particular post – as well as your response to John here. Not because I disagree with John, but because your perspective opens up a far different way for me, personally, to view the topic. But I do disagree with one particular point you make here to John in your response:

        “I think you promote an anthropocentric dualism that is unhelpful and undermines our ability to think more deeply about these issues.”

        John’s point might seem ‘unhelpful’ to some folks (including yourself as you note), but his perspective does provide a point/counter-point to the overall ‘discussion’, just as your rebuttal does. From my vantage point (which isn’t any great shake, admittedly), any additional voice to the overall conversation will provide a certain degree of “helpfulness”….the measure of its helpfulness will come from that of the individual reading it…and that will vary from individual to individual – relating to their perspective.

        Just a pair of pence to toss into the pot…



      2. Thanks for your comment, Tommy. 🙂 I probably should clarify — when I say “unhelpful,” I mean that I don’t think Beckett’s advice actually leads to actions that will accomplish what we want or expect them to accomplish. And so we might need to think and talk more about why that is. Like, if you’re trying to make some grilled asparagus, and someone hands you a recipe for chocolate cake. We can debate the relative merits of asparagus vs. cake, but that’s a slightly different conversation. What I’m saying is that I want to compare all the various benefits and drawbacks of cake vs. asparagus, and John just wants to say, “Cake is good, asparagus is evil, and that’s the end of the conversation.” That’s not helpful if you’re left holding the wrong recipe with the wrong ingredients and you still have more questions to ask (and, say, diabetes). See what I mean? What I’m saying is sometimes it’s not helpful to just declare, “Let them eat cake!” in the face of complex social problems. 😉

        But I definitely agree that conversation is important and different views can show us different perspectives and get us to think more deeply, even when we don’t agree with those views. After all, I wouldn’t have written this piece if John hadn’t shared his ideas, which prompted me to respond! So, yes, I do think his perspective is helpful in provoking conversation, and different individuals will have different responses and ideas as a result.


    2. We have no way of saying what our “natural instincts” are separate from cultural constructions without indulging in some pretty appalling forms of human experimentation. Suckling is probably a human instinct, so is listening to language. Beyond those examples, waving in “instinct” around things that are cultural constructions and not constructed the same way across different cultures doesn’t strike me as all that great of an explanation.


      1. YES! Exactly.

        We can make some guesses about “natural instincts” without doing horrific experiments, but even when we attempt those types of scientific studies, they are often W.E.I.R.D. studies — that is, studies of Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic societies — which are themselves not representative of humans as a whole. And so it’s hard for us to ever say for sure what is “instinct” and what is a cultural construct that is just deeply ingrained. That’s why (a) we need to always put science in its appropriate context as a method of inquiry that relies on reproducibility and peer review (instead of relying on the research of just one scientist), and (b) we need to have a conversation about how cultural influences play out in complex ways within the larger context of the natural world. One of the articles I linked to in this post suggests that when it comes to “beliefs” that seem to be instinctual for humans, the only ones we can really demonstrate are things like “objects move on inertial paths” and “animals bear young similar to themselves.” And even evidence for this is on somewhat shaky ground (especially since the field of evolutionary psychology is still very young, and still very W.E.I.R.D.)…. Even so, these kinds of proto-beliefs are a far cry from Beckett’s claim that anthropocentrism is instinctual!


      2. Beyond the ethnocentrism of WEIRD, I think that evolutionary psychology is fundamentally flawed in speculating about modern behavior in terms of neolithic and paleolithic behavior. Without either a fairly large number of species for cladistic study, or a molecular biology model of the phenotype in question, about all you can say is “yep, genes might have an influence.” It’s not the same standard of evolutionary biology that you’d find in microbiology, botany, or developmental biology.


  2. In response to Beckett’s assertion that our instincts have lead us to destruction, we must also remember that our instincts also lead us to nurturing life, as in, our young, our blood relations, plant foods which we cultivated and hence propagated, and animal species which were preserved by carefully managing hunter-gatherer societies. Human instinct is not a singularly-driven facet of our humanity. We are wired with the abilities to help and heal as much as we are with the converse ability to harm.

    Allison, I love these concepts you are exploring and am looking forward to more. My hard polytheism has always included animism, and I’d like to explore that more for myself.


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