Monday, May 21, 2018


What a piece of work is a man! 
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! 
In form and moving how express and admirable! 
In action how like an angel, 
in apprehension how like a god! 
The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. 
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 

In the kids' game of Twenty Questions, the first identifier is "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral," and the classification for human beings is "Animal." In a system out of the work of Carl Woese et al. of the U of IL — for more grownup games of taxonomy — living things with cells are Archaea, Bacteria, or Eukarya, with the Eukarya made up of Fungi, Plants, and Animals. If you're multicellular, with a pretty large and complex structure, don't do photosynthesis, and live on Earth, you're an animal.

In the old system of The Great Chain of Being, we're what Hamlet called "the paragon of animals" and the highest of animals, but still animal. Also, "a little lower than the gods," or "than the angels" in more recent usage: at the nodal point on the Great Chain between mere animals and divine beings. Homo duplex: flesh and spirit, perhaps a soul. Life-breath plus small "e" earth in one version of us in Genesis, or, again from Hamlet, "this quintessence of dust."

Deal with it.

Really ancient archaea and their bacterial relations have been around a whole lot longer than fancier species, and they may heft more biomass than we do today. There is a good chance they will succeed us as well and are the true dominant creatures in the history of Earth and its inheritors.

Animals we colloquial call "animals" — our mammalian or anyway vertebrate cousins — are what people often mean when they refer to other people as "brutes" or refer to with "brutal" — and maybe after that go down that ol' Great Chain and label other people "cockroaches" and such.

It's like us civilized folk calling low-tech people barbarians or savages or "barbarous savages."

Uh, huh.

Tigers have never practiced crucifixion, and savages didn't invent cluster munitions or nerve gas. Some ants are into analogies to slavery and genocide, but otherwise our brutal fellow critters are relatively well-behaved, relative to us, humans, who have been guilty of such necessarily civilized human behavior — acts by urbanized, literate high-tech folk — as fire-bombing cities.

Some of my favorite animals are people, and all my relatives; but we really must stop flattering ourselves. Hamlet's praise of our species — "in apprehension how like a god!" — should be pronounced only in the course of that bloody satiric tragedy, Hamlet, or sung amid the scattered bodies on another stage, for the climax of Hair.

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