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"Am I an Animal?" - Embracing the Human Animal in All of Us


The human animal

First, let's get this out in the open... am I an animal?


The short answer is... fortunately yes! Biologically, your genetics (aka your DNA) codes for you to grow all the body parts of what scientists classify as being Homo sapiens (that's the species name they've assigned to humans). You share 98% of your DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, so categorically, you're considered to be a primate (more specifically an ape, not a monkey). Because you are a warm-blooded vertebrate that has hair or fur, and the female members of your species can typically produce milk to feed their offspring, human scientists classify you as a mammal. And because you're a multicellular, eukaryotic organism that breathes oxygen, you'd also be classified more broadly as being animal! 🥳


plant dyed linen button up shirt

LICHEN BUTTON shirt and SALTWATER shorts by Charlie Darwin Textiles


Let's dig deeper into what it means to really identify as a human animal...


I have three questions for you to consider for yourself:

  • What does it mean to you, to be an animal?

  • Do you think of yourself as being animal (i.e. a human primate)?

  • If so, when are you most reminded that you're an animal?


Here's how some other people have answered these questions...

I asked these questions to over 200 public policy students in 2018. Nearly all considered humans to be animals, but many admitted they don't think or talk much about it in their day-to-day lives. When I asked when they are reminded of being an animal, I got responses that ranged from situations of survival (sense of danger or needing resources), sexuality (attraction or sexual desire), physiological/body-related (eating and sleeping), being outdoors, social interactions, when feeling empathy for other animals, when feeling intense emotion, when being protective of family, etc.


For me, I'm usually reminded of my animal-ness when I'm going to the bathroom, following a large herd of people, or at risk of being attacked by another animal!


Interestingly, the different animalistic situations evoked different feelings. For example, participants reported that being outdoors provoked feelings of belonging, vulnerability, and empowerment, however, situations surrounding extreme emotional states were paired solely with feelings of vulnerability or being disturbed and upset.


(You can check out the full study here, where I ask how beliefs about human origins and support for animals in public policy play into all this, too!)


 

My path toward becoming Animal


I imagine it doesn't take any formal training in biology, ecology, or animal behavior to see humans as animals, to identify the self as "being animal". But for me-- raised as a girl in the 90s in rural-suburban Indiana by half-assed Catholics with Western European ancestry, my debut to thinking of self-as-animal was largely left to being academic-- a slurry of college courses in animal behavior and anthropology. Plus, maybe it helped having grown up with a border collie who my life was intertwined with. I began to see animal behavior in all of us, at every moment. The mating behaviors, the nesting, and the competition for resources.


The messiness of evolution became apparent too: I learned there is no goal for evolution. "Evolution" is a word that only describes a process of change, specifically the change in the number of alleles (genes) in a population over time. There is no right or wrong combination of these alleles/genes, and because of this, nothing can be "evolved", or complete. Humans aren't the finished result of evolution, not more evolved, not more capable (capable of what, anyway?), not better, not more of anything. No more "special" than the life in the body of a slug or giraffe.


To me, there is no god or omniscient being that says any matter is better than any other matter. We all matter and nothing matters.


We are all just biotic matter; interacting, surviving, dying, decaying, and transforming through time and space.


human in a nest

SATELLITE kimono robe by Charlie Darwin Textiles

 

Rethinking our approaches to human-animal relationships


In college, circa 2014, I was introduced to a concept called "One Health", which itself was pretty revolutionary, as it emphasized that human health is linked to animal and environmental health, and vice versa. The traditional model is typically illustrated like this, with human, animal, and ecosystem health all overlapping in the center.

one health venn diagram

But from my perspective, humans are one of many animals that are interacting in the ecosystem, and the relationship looks more like this...

Variation of One Health venn diagram

But we aren't the center, the bullseye, or the most important. So maybe I'd actually draw it like this...

Variation of One Health venn diagram

And we also aren't siloed off in our own little human-bubble. We're interacting constantly with microbes, bacteria, pollen, pets, animals as food, and plants as food. On an individual level, we (our brain, muscles, skin, and blood) are literally made from the recombination of biotic materials from other organisms. So maybe I'd draw it a bit more like this...

human animal and ecosystem health

It's fun to open ourselves up to new combinations and ways of relating!


 

Animal Identity and Clothing Choices


woman wearing linen in the woods

ISABELLA TIGER dress jacket and braided scarf by Charlie Darwin Textiles


I know that these two things (animal identity and clothing) might not feel related in an obvious way, but stick with me! I think about all of this even as I design clothing for my linen fashion brand, Charlie Darwin Textiles (yes, I am both a researcher and a fashion designer, it's a busy life!)


When I create clothing, I make choices about two things:

1) what materials/fabrics to use, and

2) how I want to feel when I wear them


This story starts with #2...

How do I want to feel when I wear clothing?

There are very few things that I interact with more than my clothing-- It covers almost the entire surface area of my largest organ- my skin, and I wear it pretty much 24/7 !


Like the participants from my 2018 study, I've discovered that I feel emotionally and physically content when I engage in safe connections with earth stuff. Whether hiking among plants and animals, sitting in the warm sun, or even indoors near a solid wood coffee table and house plants, these interactions evoke a sense of belonging and well-being. To optimize and amplify these positive experiences, I choose plant-based fabrics and dyes for my clothing, intentionally evoking that same safe and joyful connection with the environment, and radiating that energy to others.


I opt for fabrics derived from plants, such as linen, over synthetic materials like polyester.


linen pants for hiking

SWALLOWTAIL pants by Charlie Darwin Textiles


This conscious decision aligns with my desire to foster an ongoing relationship with plants, acknowledging our mutual transformation and co-creation throughout time and space.


Linen fabric originates from a flax seed that underwent a remarkable journey, interacting with various elements like soil, sun, air, humans, and pollinators. Harvested, retted, spun, and dyed with plant-based pigments, the fabric undergoes constant transformation—from its creation by my hands as a seamstress to its interaction with our bodies, transforming to sweat, pH changes, shedding fibers, staining, and even tearing. And even when we part ways with it, this fabric continues to transform as it returns to the earth, nourishing worms and bacteria, becoming part of a new substance.


My own body has gone through transformations too

and will continue to transform, and that's okay. It is not right or wrong to transform, and linen fabric, specifically plant-dyed linen fabric, reminds me that my fluid, aging body is okay to transform too.


When it feels like there aren't many other avenues to have conversations about these things, I think our clothing choice is an easy way to start the conversation.

Wearing plant-dyed linen tells stories about being biotic matter and transforming as such.


wearing linen in the woods

MOTHER OF PEARL top and CAPUCHIN pants by Charlie Darwin Textiles

 

Feelings before logic...

To be clear, I think this logic about choosing my fabrics -- all this writing and explanation-- came after a more physical attraction. If someone asked me on day-one why I chose to sew with linen, perhaps all I could've said about it was that "I like the look and feel of it". But on day 800, I'm starting to be able to put it into more words.


I didn't always, but I'm now choosing my clothes with intention. As a seamstress, I like to be here to support other people who want to do the same.


clothing designer of charlie darwin textiles

Leah Widdicombe - Social Scientist and Clothing Designer for Charlie Darwin Textiles

 

Final thoughts...

If you've made it this far, I hope this post has been an enjoyable read, and gives you some new ways to think about your clothing, transformations, and your relationships to biotic materials. I love to think and talk about this stuff, so if you do too, let's make space for it!


If you haven't yet, consider learning more and signing up to participate in the Shirt-to-Dirt citizen science experiment that I'm running from June-September 2023. We're exploring how long it takes linen fabric to biodegrade, all while reimagining what it means to transform and co-create with the earth.


Or...

Stay in the loop about my linen clothing brand for earthy humans! Sign up for my email newsletters here:



2 Comments


Guest
Oct 28, 2023

Greetings, Ms Widdicombe :


I love the recognition you give to our fellow creatures, our co-Earthlings. We have different niches and skills, different sizes and ways of existing, but we are all important to our environment. Who knows what will happen in the long run now that so many Earthling species have been driven to extinction? The softer and softer we tread on the Earth, perhaps we will be able to do some healing before we ALL become extinct like so many of our ancestors.


I hope your readers soon realize that we are also apes; it is a noble lineage, full of special and unique Earthlings. Reaching back, we are also primates, mammals. and eukaryotes (most people have not…


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Guest
Aug 09, 2023

We are not animals. When did an ape write a novel? When did a monkey write a symphony? Was Shakespeare a dog? Who created sounds with their mouth and turn those into an alphabet? Who developed the studies of astronomy, mathematics, physics…a traditional animal? No, you and I humans, special and unique, but not an animal.

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