I’m not a species essentialist. That is to say, I do not believe that the sum of a species is held in its genetics; a genetic code that makes you look “lion” enough to be visibly recognized as lion does not necessarily make you so. A lot of humans make this mistake—assuming that looks mean everything—because we have a pretty sub-par sense of smell compared to actual omnivores and carnivores and, Western culturally, we don’t really encourage developing it. To someone who doesn’t view animals as important, as real people, the idea of paying serious attention to scent as a primary non-human language is pretty ludicrous. Which is actually pretty sad.
Scent is fucking important, though, even for humans: it affects sexual attraction, love, often friendship, and your basic feeling of connectedness with other humans, not to mention food and its taste. People who lose their sense of smell generally fall into a deep, unremitting depression, regardless of their species—the same behavioral cues for severe depression appear in rats who’ve had their olfactory bulbs removed (by humans) and, as you should well know, body language will out; to put it more succinctly (and honestly), they developed severe depression. I am still surprised that we haven’t really gotten beyond food smells as a signal of scents’ importance to us.
But perhaps it’s because we don’t do it so well as many other animals, and you’re not really allowed to point out something humans aren’t as good or better at without rationalizing it away; perhaps it’s because we’d have to realize that all land-predators use scent to track prey, and we can’t because we’re not predators; perhaps it’s because we’d have to realize that scent has more importance for some species than, well, ours, and as such we can’t judge their capacilities on a sight-sound-dexterity human-animal template. Perhaps it’s because we’d learn more about non-human animals than we’d really be willing to know.
Did you know that when a cat is upset, the scruff on their neck will emit a very particular acrid odor? That the scent varies by mood—anxious, depressed, frightened? Did you know that when cats are happy, the scent changes—that a consistently ebullient cat will have this sweet musky smell? It’s cat musk, the same scent they use in perfumes, except when it’s actual animal musk (civet, for example) they just cage them and then treat the unhappy-scent with chemicals to make it into the happy-scent.
Did you know that this is why cats generally do not respond to mirrors, except at a distance or to play—because cats identify other cats only by scent? That’s why your other cats will freak out at one who’s just been taken to the vet for more than a small amount of time: they smell weird, they must be a stranger.
Consider that for a minute. Consider the idea that, for whatever reason, cats do not and cannot recognize other cats on sight, but on scent-profile. Consider that not as a bigot who believes anything different than what they do is inferior, but as someone trying to understand a foreign culture, from one equal to another. It makes sense; it’s just weird to think of as a human. I posit that it’s because cats’ eyesight is based mostly on movement; humans have a sense of sight that recognizes a wide range of color (which also can’t be movement-sensitive—look up completely colorblind people; their eyesight is literally like a hawk’s and, if they get any color-sight capabilities, they stop being able to really focus on anything). Dogs are partially colorblind compared to us, too; their social groups are also scent-based, though they’re still less sight-oriented than cats.
And, speaking of dogs, they don’t naturally stink; in an actual pack structure (which most humans are not capable of providing, given our cultural misconceptions), they actually smell floral.
I’ve had firsthand experience with that; I knew a dog who was basically ignored constantly by her family (all of which, of course, had the balls to say that she “lived a good life”) and when they expressed interest in having someone else take care of her, I jumped at it. I am very social, as is my best friend, and the primary characteristic of an alpha is that zie is very social; we groomed this little lab mix out, took her for walks to help relieve her arthritis, fed her food we would eat in addition to her kibble (raw potatoes, bell peppers, mandarin oranges—yes, she ate them!—strawberries and cooked legumes), and basically kept her with us almost constantly—the way a real pack would. She started off smelling like “dog,” that very earthy, not-sweet-musky, B.O. scent; her fur was oily and matted, so if you petted her for very long she’d leave that particular animal-product greasy residue on your hands. Yet after three weeks—of making her cuddle when she didn’t ask for it, come and sit when she didn’t want to, and basically making her a pack member—she started smelling sweet and floral, as if she’d just been bathed and shampooed (she hadn’t). Scent was not the only indicator of her mental health, but it was a damn important one. Her previous family had been wrong to assume that dogs just smelled bad—like it was natural, automatic.
If we considered scent important, we’d no longer be able to dismiss and diminish the non-human animals who rely on them as “silly” for not percieving the world the same way we do.
Scent is just an example, but it is a really good one, and that’s why I keep pushing it. There are other senses we do not understand, the biggest of which is probably sight, basically because humans like to assume they’ve got the best at it. But we don’t know the half of it. Birds, reptiles, insects and fish can often see ultraviolet light, electric, water and air currents, heat; these are extra frigging colors that we can’t see. The usual failing of humans is to be too busy believing they’re so damn awesome to actually be awesome.
But all the senses are just an indicator of the essential species-ness of a species is, what and who they are. Not being a species essentialist, I believe that a species isn’t merely defined in terms of genetics, but in behavior: ecological, group, individual, in order of importance, because the greater terms define the latter. That is to say, an animal (a species, not necessarily non-human) outside of its ecological place will not be able to “be species.” Their species-ness becomes harder and harder to maintain in unnatural circumstances, and having lived in a fucking tent without anyone fucking preventing me from getting enough food, I now realize that while naturalness is not really all love-and-light, it is certainly a requirement for actual happiness and fulfillment. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the status quo forever gets nature wrong, so you should probably just dismiss every idea you have about it right now and start over.)
Body language will out; behavior will out. Behavior is the window to the soul, not the eyes (even human eyes, on their own, are hilariously incapable of imparting anything more than “frightened,” “happy,” and “neutral”), but when you conceive of behavior in the limited sense of the individual, you lose one of your greatest tools to understand a species.
It’s too simplistic to try to understand human behavior in terms of the individual, because humans are also social, cultural, and ecological (or right now, anti-ecological—i.e. civilized). You can’t see a human or zeir emotions and behavior as merely an individual thing; it doesn’t make sense. You can’t cure someone’s anxiety by seeing it as an individual thing; you can’t cure anything by seeing it as an individual thing. When osteoporosis rates have an absolute correlation with high-dairy-consumption countries, you face intellectual dishonesty and a disgusting bigotry when you try to frame osteoporosis as an individual lack of dairy.
And the inverse, because you can’t have one without the other: real, optimum health cannot be achieved without covering all levels. Health is not merely physical, and it is not merely mental, emotional, not merely social and cultural; they’re inextricable. It’s a fucking web.
Now if you’re very bright you can clearly see that I’m using humans as the example, not the rule, and if you’re even brighter then you’ll be able to understand that only human-supremecist bigotry stops anyone from groking how to apply these assessments to other species, too.
I don’t believe that species-ness is an absolute—you can have varying levels of species-ness without actually “being species.” But one of the essential parts of species-ness is how you are social, in part because it determines how you think. (No, you don’t really have any agency within culture and civilization; cut yourself off and you’ll grow some, though.) The way animals relate to each other weighs heavily on their species-ness and also their ability to be happy; I’ll reference again the story about Sith, the dog I took care of, and point out that basically everyone is wrong about cats. They naturally group in colonies, even if they don’t hunt together, but even then they enjoy seeing another cat hunt; and their primary pleasure centers—cheeks, above eyes, ears, neck—are all easily accessible to another cat if they like each other. Hell, most cats enjoy living with other cats, and even become anxious, bored and lonely without them.
Which is all a fancy way of saying that you’re supposed to socialize with your own species; not that I’m precluding other species (after all, there are fucking thousands of cases of inter-species friendship outside of the influence of humans), but just that your own species is default. While I roll my eyes at the human supremecism behind the statement that it’s not healthy for a human to associate only with non-humans, I essentially agree with the concept.
Especially because humans who are not around other humans for long periods of time become—well… strange. They stop really knowing how to socialize, but even more than that, their mind goes weird and unhealthy; they get depressed, space out for long periods of time, and develop erratic moodswings. They become “touchy”—excessively needy for routine, feel uncomfortably and painfully vulnerable from contact with other humans, unable to read or react appropriately*, have exaggerated or suppressed behavioral/emotional affect, often develop repetitive compulsive behaviors, so on and so forth. In essence, they develop many of the traits of autism—which is one reason I’ve always been so wary of any claims of both the “natural variation” of the autism spectrum and the idea that what many anti-ableists call “neurotypicality” is somehow innate and unchangeable.
There’s not such a distinct line, and it’s not so innate or unchangeable. If you can develop the fucking behaviors, then clearly those behaviors we label “autism” are an inherent concept within the animal experience.
There are two groups most likely to get these things: the first is documented, the second is not. That first group is those who’ve been put into solitary confinement for even as “little” as three months; they develop all these behaviors, and like with eating disorders, they’re hard as hell to get rid of. I am, of course, obligated to note the remarkable similarities in these developments between human-animals who have been solitary-caged and non-human animals who have, like many puppy mill breeder dogs—and if you don’t like that comparison, then you can just get the fuck over your hoity-toity simian self.
The second group is a particular kind of homeless man—the solitary ones. Having come into contact with them, I can honestly see why street kids (who tend to be very social, or at least they were) would hate and disrespect them, but I am also a primitivist who accepts that nature isn’t very love-and-light—I think it’s actually natural to reject and shun the socially incapable so that they die, and that it’s become that way because of the necessity and the overwhelming dominance of nurture over nature. I also know that makes me kind of an asshole—which is fine, if I had my way almost every single person who might read this would never have been born. But for the record, I don’t think that this applies only to a certain kind of social… failure?; I count myself in the group. If I’d been born, in nature, with some kind of innate anxiety disorder, I’d be fucked as far as continued life went; and if all of civilization were to fall apart right now and it was still traumatizing enough that my anxiety disorder didn’t disappear the way it did in the tent, I’d be incapable of surviving then, too—not that I’d want to. Anyone who thinks that a life with anxiety can be good or acceptable is a total fucking tool, especially if they live with it. Anxiety and happiness/fulfillment are mutually exclusive.
Back to the subject—humans are inherently social with other humans; a lot of species-ness is tied up in how you are able to be social with others of your species (and often others of different species). To a point, I believe that sexuality is inherent, too—mostly in the way that emotional and sexual intimacy often overlap, while they’re not necessarily the same thing. It’s difficult to explain in English, because things are so divided in English—I don’t know if it’s possible to write “(1) for humans, intra-human emotional intimacy is absolutely necessary and natural for happiness and species-ness, (2) that emotional intimacy is often completely indistinguishable from the desire for sexual intimacy from one specific human to one specific other, (3) but emotional intimacy may not necessarily be at all related to sexual intimacy between two humans” without sounding like you’re condemning a lack of sexual intimacy, or a desire for sexual intimacy.
Which is not what I’m trying to imply; it’s a lot more complicated than that, as is everything. Between two (usually two, sometimes more) humans, a relationship may be entirely emotionally intimate and be just as fulfilling as another relationship that feels empty or incomplete without sexual intimacy. The two things overlap, but they are not lesser or greater; you cannot add emotions together and come out with something greater, like it’s fucking math or something. When you add one note to another, the music does not automatically become louder; but it is changed. Whether it becomes better, worse, or has no effect is entirely dependent on the piece. And even though it may be nice at one point or another, you can’t just add all these notes together throughout the entire thing hoping for the same effect—the piece will become, basically, noisy mush. And sexual intimacy is one octave; emotional intimacy is another. There’s more than one note, more than one nuance, and sometimes a piece sounds best when it’s kept simple, a la Canon in D.
And a piece cannot be judged against another piece except by the one hearing it; if you’re asexual, then maybe you just won’t have any interest in the sexual-intimacy octave compositions at all, but even those who are ?sexual can feel that the non-sexual pieces are the ones that sound sweetest when they play them with their non-sexual friend, and not want to play anything else.
But in order to be happy and fulfilled, you have to play the pieces with someone else; otherwise your ear grows dull and you stop being able to really distinguish the notes. That’s not so much like music, except that the longer you are isolated from others the more experimental and less relatable your music tends to get, but it is the way of the brain: pathways fade and grow with time and repetition and you are changed by what you experience in a real way, even if you can’t see it.
The mental is physical; the physical is emotional; the emotional is mental. The lines between these things are organic and indefinable, because they change so often and require such a nuanced view of life and love to take the fullest amount of joy in them.
A cat hunts, a cat plays, a cat chases, a cat grooms, a cat brings prey, a cat takes naps in the sun, a cat does these things with other cats. If a cat does not do these things, then they are a cat only in name and appearance: they have none of their birthright, their essential cat-ness, to make them happy, and it’s a wretched, cursed existence.
A dog plays, a dog chases, a dog wrestles, a dog rubs, a dog brings prey, a dog whines, a dog follows, a dog alerts, a dog is a dog’s pack; there’s no way you can distinguish between an individual dog and zeir pack without losing some sense of who and what that individual dog is. A dog’s pack is their birthright and still, it’s a wretched, cursed existence without it.
A horse races, a horse nuzzles, a horse whinnies, a horse nibbles, a horse is a horse’s herd. A horse who is alone is a horse as good as dead; if they are alone they will shortly be dead, and if they’re alone then death will be better than more of the same.
Evolution cannot be understand as purely or even mostly ruled by physical/ecological requirements, because the greatest threat to an animal’s survival is unhappiness. So make happiness come from what it takes to fully experience a healthy life; make healthiness, happiness and security indistinguishable and you have a successful evolutionary tactic. Also let the suffering ones die, because empathy is the only universal instinct amongst animals, and seeing someone who is suffering will make you empathize, and suffer yourself, and then everyone will suffer and die. Happiness is not an afterthought of nature; it is an evolutionary imperative.
A human laughs, a human kisses, a human shares: a human shares fruit, orgasms (if they want), laughs, kisses. A human explores, a human touches, a human admires bright colors, a human plays. Maybe some of them with other animals; but a human definitely does these things with another human.
It’s definitely pretty ableist of me to say this, but I don’t think you can be human without these things; I originally came to this line of thought because I realized that psychopaths—narcissists and borderlines, not just the antisocials—didn’t have any kind of mental or emotional process that would make me think of them as a person, so I wondered just what it was that made you human.
And I also wondered what made the survival of a species so fucking important, what it was that made Lierre Keith and every other carnist drool over the idea that a species would survive. And I decided they were wrong, and that the idea of a species as a genetic code, as an individual state, is a particularly individualist, intellectualist, pro-civilization, anti-nature evil, above and beyond being merely carnist.
A species is not a genetic code or an appearance. That is not how they function; that’s not reality. Behavior will out; function will out. I can’t even pretend otherwise anymore. It’s just too simplistic, it’s what you mean when you say “childish” and “immature.”
*”Appropriately” here should not be considered in the sense of the status quo cultural context, but in the way that, between two humans, both of them can continue to interact without feeling threatened-uncomfortable. Note two things: first that, as with all mental-emotional-behavioral Things, its level of “problematic” is defined by its consistency and regularity; second that it should also be noted that many, if not most, male-socialized behaviors (and quite a few female-socialized behaviors) cannot be considered “appropriate” in any way, shape or form. Gendered behavior is inappropriate—abolish it!