There Is No Magic Wall

3,057 total words    

12 minutes of reading

When I used to see bats flying

in the California twilight
their intricate zigzag voices
went flickering with them
but they fell silent with the years
and without that tiny sonar static
to see them flicker
in and out of being
is a kind of blindness

—Ursula K. LeGuin, from So Far So Good

Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language. We can be compelled to recognize the existence of such facts without being able to state or comprehend them.

—Thomas Nagel, from “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

This essay is called, “There Is No Magic Wall.” You may be wondering, “What is a magic wall?” A magic wall is a wall between humans and everything else—a wall which frees us from accountability, dependency, and responsibility toward those beings on the “other side.” A magic wall allows us to disregard, manipulate, and exploit other beings, to appoint ourselves dictators or stewards, to say, “Humans first, humans always.” But there really is no magic wall. So what does that mean for how we are in the world? One often hears and says, “Humans are a part of nature,”“humans are embedded in ecosystems,” or “humans and non-humans are interwoven in deep relationships of kinship and reciprocal obligations.” But have we all thought about what that really means? The image above is how humans might be imagined, once we realize that there is no magic wall.

Humans, non-humans, and DNA; boats and beaver dams and human dams; dinosaurs, mitochondria; mountains and rivers; cyanobacteria, oxygen, and hydrogen—all together, entangled in webs of ecological, evolutionary, and perceptual connections and interactions and dependence and kinship, all existing as mosaic beings, with no circles around groups, no dots representing species, and nothing labeled “nature” or “humans.”

This is congruent with Charles Darwin’s tangled bank, Paul Watson’s continuum[1], and David Abram’s more-than-human world. It is the mesh, as described by Tim Morton in The Ecological Thought:

All life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. We know even more now about how life forms have shaped Earth (think of oil, of oxygen—the first climate change cataclysm). We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts. Iron is mostly a by-product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen. Mountains can be made of shells and fossilized bacteria. Death and the mesh go together in another sense, too, because natural selection implies extinction.[2]

The mesh represents a radical break with how many of us imagine the human. Most of us, it seems, continue to bump up against a magic wall we think is there, like mimes pressing their hands against an invisible screen. Even those panicking about climate change, depressed about our current mass extinction, or desperate to start working toward what Val Plumwood calls “a richer world, (where we) can begin to negotiate life membership in an ecological community of kindred beings,” still talk and act as though there is a magic wall.

Here are a few examples from ecosystem services, human-animal interaction, and philosophy, followed by some examples of the wall in common phrases, illuminated by replacing the word “human” with words we use for other beings.



Why do we call this a magic wall? Others have written about “a divide” between humans and everything else—but that suggests that humans are innocent, and just found an ontological division that already existed, when really humans fortify the idea of a wall every day. Generally, we pick something we like about humans and say, “This is the thing that separates us!” Or we choose or invent something that only humans are allowed to have or do. Or we say that the doings of human beings are more complex or better than the doings of non-human beings.

The following image shows examples of stones with which we try to build a wall.

Some might see in this image of a wall justification for believing that there is a magic wall between humans and everything else. We certainly used to think some of these concepts provided us a magic wall. However, gathering what we have learned from many fields[3] has made clear that light gets through the magic wall in cracks of many dimensions. Exploring three of these dimensions will show that there is no magic wall. The first dimension is evolution, the second dimension is our mosaic being, and the third dimension is traits and characteristics.

Evolution. Many humans may consider this the first and most obvious place to look for a magic wall—around Homo sapiens. But there are dozens of different definitions of what constitutes a species, and so species exist, not in some magic way but simply as a useful way to talk about the history, development, and behavior of organisms. The evolutionary tree is tangled and messy.[4] In the following figure from a recent paper (pink circles drawn by us), we can see that even the human story has taken many complicated pathways.

Evolution is messy. Some Homo sapiens had kids with Neanderthals, some had kids with Denisovans, and some Denisovans had kids with a “mystery species,” who then had kids with Neanderthals, who then had kids with “humans” in Europe and Asia. Notice in this figure the authors say, “non-African humans carry traces of Neanderthal DNA,” which seems to imply that there is some sort of “pure human” that has a little sack of Neanderthal DNA that they carry around with them. But DNA evidence shows that modern European and Asian humans are the grandkids of humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans, all hybridized and mixed up. Should all our ancestors be included on the human side of the wall? (The way we do this, as shown in the image, is by circling branches of the evolutionary tree that go back to a single branching, which is known as the most recent common ancestor.) Moreover, are chimpanzees inside the wall (though they are outside the scope of the figure), since it appears we have them as ancestors well after what we consider the species divergence?

In the last few sentences we have been discussing “picking,” an invented classification of convenience rather than a discovered pattern of being. And that is the major problem with trying to use evolution as a way to place a magic wall; we end up just “picking” who gets to be included inside. If you might say, “I pick all humans including Neanderthals and Denisovans,” then I might say, “I pick all Finnish humans.” Both are just “picked” out of the tangled tree—one can see how this is a dangerous zone of racial prejudice. We believe that dismantling the magic wall is a critical component of the contemporary journey of liberation and global justice.

Mosaic Being. We think of ourselves as individuals, but our mosaic being of symbiotes and our fuzzy boundaries show that there is nowhere to find a magic wall within or amongst the beings that are us. Where would we find a magic wall between us and the myriad beings which make “us” up? On the surface, we are full of and covered by symbiotic microbes that mediate our interactions with other beings. Our guts are full of microbes who are involved when we interact with all the other species we eat, and these microbes affect not only our metabolism, but our cognition. As an example, you might say, “There is a magic wall around humans because we have morality.” But how much of our morality is attributable to our microbiome? Will this knowledge lessen our sense of freedom and responsibility, or shed a whole new light on those concepts? Deeper into ourselves are mitochondria, who were once free-living bacteria and now exist with/as us as symbiotes—neither of us exist without the other. Are they inside or outside the magic wall? And even in our DNA, we have transposable elements, endogenous retroviruses and other genetic elements, which have been incorporated into our genome over the course of evolution and make up the current composition and functioning of the human genome. We may believe that only humans can feel or think in a certain way, but how can we know how much of that feeling or thinking is attributable to our mitochondria or the viruses in our genome? There is nowhere to put a wall between us and the mosaic of beings of which we are.

Evolved Traits. Evolved species traits are also known as characteristics or attributes. We have learned, more and more in recent years, about the ways in which all the traits we often assign to humans only are spread throughout many species. As Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us, there have been no studies that show that other beings are dumber than we thought, but there are many showing that they are more capable than previously believed. If we attempt to say that a certain trait or ability forms the basis for a magic wall between humans and everything else, we find that there is no trait that allows all whom we consider human to be inside the wall, and all who we do not consider to be human to be outside the wall[5]. Traits that have been thought to provide criteria for walling in and walling out include culture and social organization, tool use and technology, language, and self-awareness. Not all humans are able to use tools or language, while many crows are. Whatever criteria one tries to use, we find that the magic wall ends up including or excluding beings whom we did not intend to include or exclude.

Moreover, every trait that we might use to differentiate humans is itself something that has evolved and is a part of our embodied being. It is not part of a timeless essence, a substance only and forever accessible only to Homo sapiens. Any trait we choose—be it love, suffering, morality, or intelligence—all we can experience is the human (and more so, our own individual) version of that trait. But all living things similarly have experiences that are afforded by their own evolutionary history and species-being, biotically entangled and hybrid as it may be. Our mistake is to assume that humans experience the “true” version of the trait, and other beings are automatons, machines, or objects rather than subjects. We wonder, “Do dogs feel love?” or “Do orcas feel grief?” Humans experience feelings that we describe as love or grief, and we all feel and experience those in unique ways as species, with certain capabilities and behavioral repertoires, and as individuals. But so do members and individuals of other species. Onyx (our friends’ dog), and Tahlequah (the orca) both feel “a thing like what we call love” and “a thing like what we call grief.” These feelings and perceptions are all rooted in evolution and the mesh.

Consciousness or sentience is also subject to our embodied and evolving being. Yet again we often mistakenly assume that humans experience “The One True Consciousness” that can attain an objective, outside-of-ourselves perspective beyond the reach of other species. But what about clam consciousness and tree sentience and river awareness? Our idea of consciousness is based on how we are embodied as social mammals, and the way we access the world is with hands and talking and thinking. But other access modes are equally full for other beings—a slug’s way of sliding and eating and tasting (and who knows what else) is as equally full an experience as ours is. Thomas Nagel, in his influential article, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” discusses how it is almost certainly impossible for us to imagine what it would be like to experience and feel the world as another being.[6] However, we can acknowledge that our individual world of experience is a certain range of abilities limited by our embodied form, which has some overlap with the world of experience of a bat, and a different overlap with the world of experience of a slug, and so on for all beings. Slugs have slug consciousness and slug experience and slug self-awareness, just as humans have human consciousness and human experience and human self-awareness.

There may be some for whom considerations such as these do not undermine the notion that humans have a special something, a uniqueness to their being. There may also be those who think, “Well, okay, but since we can’t really know what a bat or a slug or a papaya tree or a zooplankter wants, experiences, or feels, then there is no point in considering them when making decisions.” Borrowing again from Tim Morton, we reply, “You might think that you have self-awareness/morality/ethics/love/language, but can you show that you are not an android programmed to behave in exactly the way that you behave? And what would be the difference if you could?” We are always guessing and assuming about what other beings, humans included, want and experience and value.

So those are three dimensions (though we imagine there are more) in which a magic wall cannot be. Humans can put up other walls, of course, such as walls of chain-link and barbed-wire, but these are full of holes and divide things up in terrible, awkward ways. Any wall we put up is going to have problems, which is why there is no magic wall that frees us from accountability for the choices and actions that we take. That there is no magic wall means that we cannot make decision after decision, forever, for the sake of those we consider human, and absolve ourselves of the outcomes of our actions. We make decisions every day, and for most, if not all, we cannot know the outcomes of those decisions on all past, present, and future beings of the mesh. Even for those decisions that most humans would consider okay, like exterminating mosquitos, we can’t know how that changes the mesh now and seven million years from now. If, by exterminating the mosquito Aedes aegypti (who spread Dengue fever and other serious illnesses) to save our children, we cause a swamp to be drained, a forest to be cut, and a leopard’s children to starve, we don’t get to walk away. We have to stay with the trouble. This isn’t to advocate for not exterminating mosquitoes; it is to advocate for wallowing in the uncertainty. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.

That there is no magic wall means that there is no center. This means that what Val Plumwood calls a “centric thinking” model cannot hold. In this framework, “the center” (in this case humans) is placed in contrast to “the other.”[7] The other is excluded and considered inferior to the center, stereotyped and homogenized into an undifferentiated group (for example, trees, mosquitos, nature as a whole). The other (in this case, “non-human” beings) is often deemed inessential, and dependencies between the center and the other are denied. A centric framework also includes pathways for incorporation into the center without dispelling the notion of a center, such as including certain beings (whales and apes, or species whose suffering we can empathize with) into the center. But a center relies on a magic wall to maintain itself, and so, because there is no magic wall, decentering is necessary.

That there is no magic wall also means that we cannot use definitions to shirk our responsibility to take into account all kin when making decisions and taking action. For example, the definition of ecosystem services is “the benefits humans receive from ecosystems.” So it seems like we can just think about humans and walk away. However, we could define eating as, “what humans do when they ingest food.” But that doesn’t mean that it is different in any meaningful way from the way other beings ingest food. A human can enjoy a sandwich as a benefit from the ecosystem, but if a raccoon steals and eats that same sandwich, it is still a benefit from the ecosystem. We could instead expand our framework to say that ecosystem services are “the benefits received from ecosystems,” which allows all beings to be recipients or valuers of those services and benefits. If we wish, we could still study “ecosystem services as experienced by those I consider human” as a special case.

What types of questions must we think about now? What happens when all beings are allowed to experience value and benefits—when all beings are valuers, all valuing in their own way? How can we say the value of a tree? Is it the value of the tree to all beings, from the squirrels and birds and the cells of the tree itself, through all of the universe we think of as space and time? Even if beings eat or parasitize each other, how does their well-being depend upon one another? How can individuals of other species and other beings be stakeholders when we are making decisions? How are we supposed to make decisions if everyone gets to be included?

That there is no magic wall means that humans and all other beings, in our mosaic of interrelated forms, are a mesh of entangled and interwoven kinship. This makes life easier. When you know that there is no magic wall and you need to make a decision about removing a dam, then you get to look around at the fisherman and the orcas and the salmon; the teachers and the river; all the crows and the many stones; the forest, the beetles, and the fungi; the children of the humans who have lived with the river for generations, and all the other beings who will each be impacted by your choice. If this sounds challenging, look around you. Is the way we make decisions now working out for our whole family of kin?

If we allow a songbird and the whole of the mesh to also value a tree, when do we choose to change that tree into a canoe or a house, the forest into a warship or a farm, or the world into a place for some of us, or a place for all of us?[8]

Image Credits:

Images by Kristian Brevik and adapted by Kristian Brevik from the following sources: C. Comberti, et al. (2015) ‘Ecosystem services or services to ecosystems? Valuing cultivation and reciprocal relationships between humans and ecosystems’, Global Environmental Change. Pergamon, 34, pp. 247-262. 2); K.M.A. Chan, et al. (2016) ‘Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. National Academy of Sciences, 113(6) 2016: 1462-5; B. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Tufts University Institute for Human-Animal Interaction,; V. Slon, et al. (2018) “The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father,” Nature. 561 (7721), 2018:113-116 (used with permission); E. Liberman-Aiden, et al. (2009) “Comprehensive Mapping of Long-Range Interactions Reveals Folding Principles of the Human Genome,” Science, 326 (5950) 2019: 289-293 (used with permission).

[1] B. Taylor, Dark Green Religion (University of California Press, 2009)

[2] T. Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010), 29.

[3] We have in mind fields such as ecology, evolutionary biology, genetics, ethology, critical theory, phenomenology, education, philosophy, environmental studies, ecological feminism, botany, entomology, ecological restoration, ecological economics, speculative fiction, art, and multispecies ethnography.

[4] See D. Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).

[5] N. Taylor, “Anthropocentrism and the Animal Subject” in Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environments (Brill, 2011) Ed. By R. Boddice. pp. 265–280

[6] T. Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50.

[7] V. Plumwood, ‘Androcentrism and Anthrocentrism: Parallels and Politics’ Ethics and the Environment Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1996), pp. 119–152

[8] Omitted from our discussion in this essay is the question of how to balance the needs to reject both the exclusion of indigenous voices that afflicts dominant discourse and as Zoe Todd writes, the tendency towards “appropriation of Indigenous thinking in European contexts without Indigenous interlocutors present to hold the use of Indigenous stories and laws to account [which] flattens, distorts and erases the embodied, legal governance and spiritual aspects of Indigenous thinking.” This is a hard question for us, and we have been thinking about how indigenous voices can best be heard, and not simply to bolster our perspectives. To us, we feel that many of the ways we’ve come to think about the magic wall and the idea of humans are congruent and reconcilable with much indigenous thought, though we are wary of assuming too much. (See Z. Todd, “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29 (1): 4–22., 2016).

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  • Kristian Brevik

    Kristian Brevik is entangled at the shoreline where art and science meet, where he thinks about the relationships of humans with other beings in webs of kinship and dependency.


  • Lindsay Barbieri

    Lindsay Barbieri works at the interface of agriculture, environment, and technology to deepen climate change mitigation understanding within agroecosystems—from the field to the global scale.

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