I’ve thought a bit and decided. It’s not so much that hunting necessarily makes us human. I think the more important reality is that hunting reminds us humans that we are animal.
I am neither scholar nor philosopher… biologist nor anthropologist, but I have some ideas about the sorts of things that make us, “human.” Lay aside the basics of taxonomy, as there’s not much to add there, and think more about the concepts of self-awareness and the ability to rationalize. Consider the determination expressed by much of human culture and society to distance our species from the rest of nature… to set ourselves above all others. That conceit? That’s what makes us human.
Throughout human history, for as far back as we can really look, the general thrust of humanity has been to drive us further from our “animal” nature. That drive is, arguably, responsible for the formation of society and culture as we set laws and mores that inhibit the “savage” tendencies and enable us to live together. You don’t fight, you don’t kill, and you don’t breed with your neighbor’s mate. The Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins… social controls all, and intended to set us humans apart from the beasts.
The tale is long and convoluted, but it brings us to a time when the most “civilized” societies are also the most separated from nature… and more importantly, from their natural selves. The animal part is still there, of course, as evidenced in everything from our business and political practices right down to our children’s games (what are Tag and Hide-and-Seek if not basic training for little predators?). Still, how many people recognize it for what it is? How many would celebrate it if they recognized it?
And how many, seeing it, try to squash it?
Squashing the animal out of our very nature…
It’s an exercise in futility, of course, but exercise builds strength. The more we distance ourselves from the animal, the more we divide ourselves from nature. Too many civilized humans already think of nature not as a vital part of ourselves, but as some nebulous construct… as some abstract state that is different from us. It is “other”.
I think, thankfully, that there’s always been a subset of the population that recognizes that nature is not separate, but it is integral to everything that we are. Outdoors-folk, naturalists, environmentalists… we all recognize (and some of us evangelize) the importance of interconnectedness. And we recognize this because we choose to be part of it… even if we don’t all perceive our parts to be the same.
Of all the participants in that subset, hunters connect at the most basic level. We actively participate in the continuum of life and death… predator and prey. Put aside the confounding cloak of modern trappings and technology, and look at its bloody essence. When we hunt we feel ourselves, even for those brief moments in time, animal.
Good or bad?
I don’t know. Value judgments are easy when you’re judging someone else. They’re not quite so simple when you’re looking in a mirror. I can’t speak for anyone else.
Personally, I feel it is a blessing to recognize the animal in my humanity. It’s grounding. I embrace it. I think it’s absolutely important to understand that at the most base level; we’re not that different from the other creatures… and no more or less vital to the world around us either. Each of us wants life, but none of us really has much say in the matter. It’s bigger than the rabbit or the deer. It’s bigger than me.
And when I stand with bloodied hands over the carcass of my prey, I know that his blood is my blood too. Our origins are the same. We defy genealogy. For a moment I am wild… I am untamed. I understand more than ever the meaning of Whitman’s barbaric yawp.
That’s a value system that needs to be abandoned, if we stand any hope of halting or reversing the accelerating disaster. We will need to value nonhuman nature and also embrace our human biological and ecological embodiment. Among other things, that will mean direct, mindful participation in ecosystems in the modes evolution has equipped us for—including hunting.