What Makes an Animal Wild?
Journalist Emma Marris’s new book, ‘Wild Souls,’ asks us to reconsider our relationship to the nonhuman world
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Before Zion was a name for a national park, it was another word for Jerusalem. Eventually, it morphed into a metaphor, shorthand for the promised land. Its most famous description appears in the book of Isaiah: in Zion, the wolf “shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”
As Emma Marris notes in her new book, Wild Souls, most of us interpret this as allegory. Instead we understand the opposite to be true: eat or be eaten—such is life in the wild. But at least a few people think that the ideal posited in the biblical text is one worth striving for. The nonprofit Wild Animal Initiative, for example, believes we should reduce all kinds of animal suffering, even, perhaps, suffering due to predation. Is this a leap forward in ethical thinking, or softhearted nonsense? That’s one of the questions posed by Marris’s fascinating work, which examines our responsibility as humans toward wild animals.
Though Marris is trained as a journalist, here she finds herself “doing philosophy,” as she puts it early on. Don’t imagine that she holed up in a library carrel, though; this is the kind of philosophy that involves “getting covered in mud [while] checking petrel burrows, sitting around campfires, touring genetic laboratories, and checking rat traps.” It’s hands-on philosophy, in other words, put to test in the real world.
The most famous philosophical works on animals—like Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, a central text in the veganism movement—have focused on pets and domestic livestock. As for all the less than tamed creatures, our ethical obligations “are often presented as being straightforward: we should simply leave them alone and protect their habitat,” Marris writes. Wildness is a synonym for the nonhuman, right? So our presence can only muck things up.
This has led to an obsession with purity. We want landscapes “untrammeled by man,” as it’s put in the Wilderness Act, a seminal 1964 law that protected nine million acres. We want wolves that are wolves—wild beasts, their bloodlines undiluted.
Marris describes a recent case in Washington State in which a black wolf was impregnated by a domestic sheepdog. One animal was an endangered species, the other someone’s property; each is enmeshed in an entirely different legal infrastructure. What would the pups even be? State officials had a clear answer: a threat. The hybrids might taint the genes of nearby wolf packs. So the expectant wolf mother was captured and spayed.
The ethical logic of this situation feels something like a snake eating its own tail. In order to keep the wolf wild and separate, humans had to capture the animal and perform an invasive medical procedure. To Marris—and to many readers, I’d expect, myself included—there is something cringeworthy here. Not that it is inherently wrong; it’s just that our guts and our intellects begin to collide, which is, as Marris points out, a sign that we’re engaging in genuine moral reasoning.
The book begins with a tour of animals’ many capabilities—to make art, to feel emotions, to feel pain, to cooperate across species, to outperform us intellectually, even. (A squirrel can’t count to ten, but it will “beat the pants off us when it comes to remembering the hiding places of thousands of nuts,” Marris notes.) Next is a surprisingly readable history of how philosophers have conceived nonhuman beings, beginning with ancient cultures and proceeding to Singer and beyond. Thus fortified for the journey to come, readers are dropped into a series of philosophical riddles. Is it justifiable to hold wild creatures captive, as pets or in zoos? (No, not really, according to Marris.) Can hunting be justified? (Not just justified but recommended, she writes, so long as it’s done in a way that reinforces our reciprocal relationship with the nonhuman world.) The bulk of Wild Souls is occupied by our efforts to protect threatened species, from genetic modification to the active slaughter of invasive species. (It’s a tangle; you’ll just have to read the book.)
Marris believes that our idea of wildness—our obsession with purity—is misguided. No animal remains untouched by the human hands. And not just because we’ve entered the Anthropocene. Yes, sure, our fossil-fuel economy has completely reshaped the landscape (Marris notes that one of the most obvious steps we can take to help wild creatures is to fight to keep the atmosphere as cool as possible), but even thousands of years ago, Indigenous people were grooming and cultivating nearly every corner of the earth. To call something wild is not just to indulge in romanticism but also to engage in a “colonial power play,” as Marris writes: “Our ‘wildernesses’ are just places where colonialism left the trees standing.”
Once you toss out the fetish for the “natural,” new options emerge. We could, for example, build a high-tech Zion, a world where we feed tigers cutlets of cellular meat that’s been raised in labs. Or if we can’t end predation, we might temper it, planting sedative pellets under animals’ skins so that when the kid is seized by the leopard, a sensor can note that it’s time to release the drug. Marris, though, after conjuring this vision, concedes that it’s “faintly disgusting.” Humility matters, even if purity doesn’t. She’s not convinced humans are smart enough to pull off such a grand intervention without making ugly mistakes. Instead she counsels readers to rethink the word “wild.” What matters is not purity but autonomy. Wildness can be reconceived as creatures doing what they want to do. This leaves room for humans to have a meaningful relationship with nature, so long as it’s by mutual consent.
Marris told me in an interview that she was terrified of philosophy until she moved in with a philosopher and the discipline began to unravel for her over dinner-table conservations. (Her husband, Yasha Rohwer, teaches philosophy at the Oregon Institute of Technology; in March, the couple copublished a paper critiquing the concept of ecological integrity.) But she realized the questions we face in the Anthropocene are not just scientific. They are ethical, which is to say they demand the tools of philosophy.
It’s an approach that leads Marris to a provocative argument: perhaps we need to stop worrying so much about entire species. The category of “species” is more human construct than biological reality—a leaky bag, as the half-wolf, half-sheepdog pups would have demonstrated—and a snapshot in time, too, as every species is gradually evolving into something new. Some may need to change to survive in a hotter world. Rather than saving whole species, Marris encourages conservationists to focus on individual beings and their autonomy.
Here, then, is a shortcut to ethical thinking: If you were reincarnated as an endangered species, what conservation strategies would you submit to? Some people might be willing to have their genes enhanced, though as Marris writes, current ethical guidelines forbid the use of Crispr technology on human beings. But few people would want their baby killed because its genes were deemed impure. If a black wolf wants to mate with a sheepdog, so be it. That’s what wildness means.
To grant to every animal this kind of autonomy requires a grand act of imagination. According to one estimate, there are more than a hundred billion wild vertebrates on land alone. I try to think of each as an individual flicker of life, but the number is too big, really, for me to hold in my mind. And that is part of the problem we face. To get to the promised land—or at least the future I hope for, where the earth stays cool and an abundance of animals survive—the science isn’t the hard part. The real challenge is the ethics, the act of imagining our appropriate place in that world.