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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

The Great Chain of Being (p. 27)

From chapter "The Great Chain of Being"

One of the most harmful notions of Western Civilization—and one of the most foundational—is that of the Great Chain of Being, or Latin scala naturae (which literally means ‘ladder or stairway of nature’), closely related to the divine right of kings. It is a hierarchy of perfection, with God at the top, then angels, then kings, then priests, then men, then women, then mammals, then birds, and so on, through plants, then precious gems, then other rocks, then sand. It’s a profoundly body-hating notion, as, according to those who articulated the hierarchy, those at the top—the perfect—are pure spirit; and those at the bottom—the imperfect, the corrupt—are pure matter, pure body. Then both men and women live in a battleground of spirit and body, with men tending to be put more in the box representing mind/spirit/better/perfected, and women tending to be put more in the box representing body/life/death/corruption/imperfection. In this construct, humans are the center of attention, with those above humans being bodiless and perfected, and those below being fully embodied, imperfect, and having no mind. Of course, within each category there are sub-categories. So civilized man is far more perfected than ‘primitive’ man, who is barely removed from animals. You see this hierarchy everywhere within this culture, only now as we’ve secularized we’ve gotten rid of God and angels, leaving civilized (especially white) men at the top. And of course, those at the top get to use those below however they want. For example, men have access to the bodies of women, because men are higher on the hierarchy than women.

The Great Chain of Being has long been used to rationalize whatever hierarchies those in power wish to rationalize. It has been and is central to the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, to racism, to patriarchy, to empire. It is a very versatile tool.

The Great Chain of Being also underlies the modern belief that the world consists of resources to be exploited by humans. Traditional Indigenous peoples across the earth do not believe in this hierarchy; instead, they believe the world consists of other beings with whom we should enter into respectful relationship, not inferior others to be exploited. This is one reason these other cultures have often been sustainable.

Our perception of evolution is infected with this belief in the Great Chain of Being, as so often people, including scientists, think and write and act as though all of evolution was about creating more and more perfect creatures, leading eventually to that most perfect creature yet: us.

* * *

Did you know that mother pigs sing to their children?

And pigs dream.

And pigs have a good sense of direction, and can find their way home from great distances. They learn from watching each other. And they will outsmart each other: one pig will often follow another to food before grabbing it away; the other pig will then change her behavior so she won’t get fooled again (which is more than we can often say for many humans).

Scientists have done experiments where they trained pigs to use their snouts to move cursors on video screens. They found the pigs could distinguish between (human) scribbles they had seen before and (human) scribbles they had not. Pigs learn this skill as quickly as do chimpanzees.

Pigs are capable of abstract representation. They can hold an icon in mind, then remember it till a later date. They can also remember verbal commands—and these commands are given in a human language; I’d like to ask how many words of pig you or I know—and when these commands are repeated several years later, they will still remember what to do.

* * *

I need to go into town this afternoon, so this morning I made a list to remind myself where I need to stop. Evidently, I can’t remember my own instructions for even several hours. And who’s the smart one?

* * *

Pigs form complex relationships with their peers. They have friends. Of course. How could anyone think otherwise? They sometimes work in pairs to open gates and will open other gates to release other pigs.

I’ll tell you the image I can’t get out of my head. It’s of a mother pig confined to a tiny crate, suckling her children. And singing. To her children. Human supremacists have stolen her freedom, but they’ve not been able to steal her capacity to love.

And humans—the ones who put her in the cage—are superior?

* * *

Here’s another image I can’t get out of my head. It’s of a mother dolphin singing to her child. But they are both dying.

Here’s why.

Mother dolphins nurse their young for eighteen months, longer than many humans. The mother dolphins love their children with fierceness and loyalty. Even when a baby dolphin is caught in a tuna net, the mother will often not abandon the child, but move in close, and comfort and sing to her baby until both are drowned in the net.

Fishing companies acknowledge that most of the dolphins they kill are children and their mothers, who will not leave them even unto death.

* * *

And did you know that cats can count? A litter of kittens was caught in a house fire. Their mother kept returning to the fire to bring out her children, one by one. The fire and smoke blinded her. When the kittens were all safe outside she made sure she had them all by touching each one with her nose, counting.

She did not regain her eyesight. But while she took care of her kittens as they grew, she would always make sure to touch each one with her nose, to make certain they were all there.

* * *

Human supremacists could argue that she was not counting them, but instead smelling them.

I would argue these human supremacists are missing the point entirely.