Does hunting make us human? It depends not only on how we define “human” but also on the kinds of hunting we’re talking about. It would be hard, for example, to make a case that “canned” hunting, or a weekend spent blundering around in the forest with a rifle and a six-pack of Budweiser makes us human, unless we have a decidedly jaded view of humanity. On the other hand, when hunting is performed carefully, respectfully and humanely for the purpose of supplementing the family larder, the argument may be easier to make.
It also depends on how we frame the question: for example, does hunting make us human in a natural or biological sense? Humans—or at least members of the genus Homo—have been hunting other animals for a minimum of two million years. So, in evolutionary terms, hunting has likely played a significant part in making us who we are as a species. Does this therefore mean that hunting is part of our “nature” in the same sense that herding sheep is part of the nature of a border collie? Probably not, although it could be claimed that many popular sports—especially those that involve chasing and hitting or kicking small, fast-moving objects such as balls—are essentially hunting substitutes that allow us to exercise our primordial hunting skills in the absence of live prey. But, if this is the case, it suggests that we are readily able to express our predatory natures in ways that do not involve hunting.
Or we can approach the question from an ethical perspective and ask whether hunting makes us morally better or worse as humans. Hunting, after all, is far from harmless. Non-human animals (henceforth “animals”) die from being hunted, and sometimes their deaths are prolonged, distressing, and painful. If this is the case, and if very few humans still need to hunt to survive, should we be doing it at all?
Certainly, hunting seems to be fraught with moral ambivalence. Despite our carnivorous heritage, we humans seem to be curiously uncomfortable with the business of killing animals, especially the bigger, anthropomorphic ones with fur and faces. Indeed, one could argue that this is part of what differentiates humans from nonhuman primates such as chimpanzees who appear to hunt without remorse. In traditional hunting and foraging societies, hunters perform elaborate ritual acts of propitiation and atonement to expiate the “blood guilt” associated with killing. The common notion that game animals offer themselves to be killed by favored hunters as long as they are treated with proper respect also serves as a form of moral exoneration, since the hunter need not feel culpable for taking something that he believes is given voluntarily without coercion.
Although their motivations for hunting are obviously different, so-called “ethical hunters” nowadays adopt comparable rituals and taboos. In this case, the emphasis is on the principle of “fair chase” in which the animal is viewed as a worthy opponent in a game of life and death, while the hunter deliberately seeks to even the odds in its favor by using more difficult and less reliable hunting methods (e.g., bow and arrow vs. high powered rifle with telescopic sights). Safe, respectful, and highly regulated conduct is also strongly advocated, as is the conservation or “stewardship” of wildlife and natural resources.
It could be argued of course that all of these rules and beliefs are essentially self-serving—merely transparent attempts to legitimize or sanitize the killing of other sentient life forms. But at least the animal’s death is acknowledged as a moral hazard that merits compensation, a position that is arguably more honest—and more human—than the typical western perspective on the exploitation of food animals that relies predominantly on concealment, moral disengagement, and denial. As a species, we are disturbingly adept at turning a blind eye to issues that make us feel morally uncomfortable, and the consequences of this for the majority of domestic livestock have been catastrophic: industrial farming and slaughter on an unimaginable scale, conducted out of sight—and out of mind—of the consuming public. Compared with this, the relatively candid and unmediated relationship between the hunter and his or her prey could quite reasonably be said to occupy the higher ground.
Alternatively, we can ask whether the disappearance of hunting might also result in the loss of some important or even essential aspect of our humanity. Typically, an experienced hunter is also a naturalist with above-average knowledge of wild flora and fauna. More to the point, the hunter is not a detached observer of the natural world but rather an active participant who seeks to become part of nature by engaging and interacting with it directly, albeit for purposes that are ultimately lethal. Of course, hunting isn’t the only human activity that permits a high degree of engagement with nature, but it is probably the archetype, and it could be argued that the end of hunting might also mark the beginning of the end of this type of fundamental human connection with the wild.
The agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and, most recently, the technological revolution have all had the effect of distancing us from, or placing us in opposition to, the world we once occupied exclusively as hunters and gatherers. In doing so, they have also made that world of natural—as opposed to human-made—ecosystems increasingly marginal and irrelevant. Unfortunately, when the wild becomes irrelevant, when it no longer holds a meaningful place in human hearts and souls, its continued existence becomes profoundly threatened.
For obvious reasons, hunting has always been, and will continue to be, a morally problematical activity. But at least in its “ethical” form, hunting acknowledges moral responsibility for the taking of life, and embraces a concept of humanity that is connected with nature rather than separate and detached from it. I do not hunt, but I value wildlife and wild places, and strongly endorse a view of humanity that incorporates the wild as well as the tame and cultivated. As long as hunting helps to keep us human in this sense, its benefits may outweigh its harms.
 J.V. Ferraro et al., “Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Persistent Hominin Carnivory,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 4 (2013): e62174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062174
Image credit: Izhmash Tigr-308 by Dennins van Zuijlekom courtesy of Flickr.