Book Review: The Myth of Human Supremacy



From Max Wilbert

I’ve just finished reading Derrick Jensen’s new book The Myth of Human Supremacy (2016, 7 Stories Press).

In Derrick’s style, the book jumps from philosophy to neurobiology, from direct experience of relationship with non-humans to discussions of ethnocentrism. Although some have difficulty with this style, it’s elegant to me; in short strokes, he paints a picture larger than the sum of its parts.

Human supremacy is a fragile system. To be maintained, it must silence the near-daily experiences and messages from the more-than-human that demonstrate intelligence, morality, complexity, and other characteristics that, under western science, are reserved only for humans.

Even in someone like me, who was raised with anti-racist, feminist, anti-empire politics and brought up living alongside a wide variety of non-humans, human supremacy is ingrained. It’s built into the foundations of our culture.

I’ve often been told that one of the most important tasks for non-indigenous people is to decolonize our hearts and mind. This book contributes to that process by helping the reader understand and deconstruct human supremacy step-by-step.

For example, in Chapter 20, “Self-Awareness,” Jensen deconstructs the idea that self-knowledge is the realm of humans (and perhaps a few other mammals and cetaceans) alone.

Many human supremacists love to talk about the “mirror test” of self-awareness, in which you put a mirror in front of some nonhuman to see if the nonhuman recognizes itself, in which case it is declared to be self-aware (though not as self-aware as us, of course!). Very few nonhumans pass this particular test, which is I’m sure one reason the test is so beloved by so many human supremacists. I’m sure it’s also a reason this test is sometimes called the “gold standard” of indicating whether some creature is “self-aware.”

The test is fraught with problems. First, there’s our old friend tautology: humans conceptualized the experiment presuming that humans are self-aware and nonhumans are not, and then devised a test humans can pass and nonhumans cannot. Great job. My understanding of my nonhuman neighbors is so much greater now.

Next, there’s our old friend anthropomorphization: the presumption that the self-awareness of others must match the form of our own self-awareness, and further that it must match one specific chosen form of self-awareness. Can there not reasonably be said to be other ways to be self-aware? I know that for myself, I am at least on occasion self-aware even when not looking at a mirror. Imagine that! And I think we can say that humans were probably still self-aware before the invention of the mirror. Or what about the self-awareness of a caterpillar who knows she has a parasite egg in her and that she must eat certain foods or she will die? Do you know when you have parasite eggs in you? If not, then gosh, you must not be very self-aware. Or what about the self-awareness of plants who know how to change the taste of their leaves? Can you change the taste of your own flesh to make yourself less palatable to predators? To this latter you can reply, “Yes, that’s why I eat at McDonald’s.”

And of course there are lots of beings whose primary experience of the world is not visual. How well could you pass a self-awareness test that involves you being able to hear and respond to your own echolocation signals? What? You say you can’t hear your own echolocation signals? That’s a sure sign of a lack of self-awareness.

For crying out loud, anyone who feels hungry is self-aware, obviously, or they wouldn’t know they’re hungry. Anyone who attempts in any way to stop pain or discomfort or to continue to receive pleasure is self-aware, or they wouldn’t know the state they’re trying to change or perpetuate.

Ah, the human supremacists insist, we understand that the tiger is aware of its hunger, but is the tiger aware that it is aware of its hunger? at is the question. To which I ask, are the human supremacists aware of their own hunger? Are they aware of the violation imperative that drives this culture? Are they aware that they’ve indentured themselves to authoritarian technics and that they are no longer fully human, that they are, to use the Buddhist term, hungry ghosts: undead and unliving spirits of the greedy, “who, as punishment for their mortal vices, have been cursed with an insatiable hunger”?

And then there’s the presumption that the behavior of captive animals (or plants) tells us something about either their interior lives or what their personalities, relationships, or lives are like when they’re free. e behavior of captive beings tells us about the behavior of imprisoned and (by definition) abused beings.

And at last to the biggest problem with the mirror test of self-aware- ness, which is that I find it both extraordinary and all-too-expected that members of this culture have the gall to look down on anyone as lacking self-awareness. Most humans in this culture—particularly human supremacists, or rather supremacists of any sort—fail the mirror self-awareness test spectacularly. Oh sure, most of us can use a mirror well enough to comb our hair or make sure we don’t have boogers hanging out of our noses, and most of us can recognize ourselves well enough in the mirror to become anxious about our looks, but I don’t think that an ability to use a mirror to comb one’s hair necessarily implies self-aware- ness on any sort of significant level.

Especially when you’re killing the planet.
When we look in the mirror, what do we see?
We see God’s image on Earth or the pinnacle of evolution. We see the

greatest gift the universe has ever given itself. We see the bringers of the light of consciousness to the universe. We see the universe knowing itself.

We see those whose responsibility it is to bring this light of consciousness everywhere. When we look at our technics, we see only our own brilliance.

When others look at us, however, they see something completely different. They see those who have become Death, destroyer of worlds. They see those who invent machines to outsource Death, and to outsource and facilitate the destruction of worlds. They see those who lack the self-awareness to perceive, much less comprehend, that they have become Death, destroyer of worlds. They see those who lack the perceptiveness or honesty to acknowledge that they are murdering—sorry, reorganizing— the planet. They see those who are so entranced by the technics that control them that they believe there is “no evidence” these technics are inherently destructive, and that there are no “costs” associated with these technics.

I’ve known Derrick Jensen for a number of years, and I’ve read all his other books; this is one of the best. Any activist, subversive, revolutionary, permaculturist, gardener, animal lover, tree planter, or other person who has questioned the dominance of our species should read this.

You can purchase this book from Derrick’s website (this will give him the best percentage on the sale. He doesn’t make much money from his writing, and supports his disabled mother, so it helps) or request it at your local library.

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