How to be Animal: a new history of what it means to be human

Humans are the most inquisitive, emotional, imaginative, aggressive and baffling animals on the planet. But how well do we really know ourselves?

How to Be Animal writes a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our psychology is a profound struggle with being animal. As well as piecing together the mystery of how this psychology evolved, this book examines its wide-reaching effects on our lives, from our politics to the ways we distance ourselves from other species. We travel from the origins of Homo sapiens through the agrarian and industrial revolutions, the age of the internet, and on to futures of AI and human-machine interface. We examine how technology influences our sense of our own animal nature and our relationship with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet.

Drawing on new evidence from a wide range of disciplines, Challenger proposes that being an animal is a process, beautiful and unpredictable, and that we have a chance to tell ourselves a new story, to realise that if we matter, so does everything else.


“Melanie Challenger’s wonderful book teaches me this: our blazing continuity with the depth of time and the whole of life. It is a huge, complex and triumphant thing: challenging, but also celebratory, courageous, mournful and apprehensive. Her language is lovely: exact and lyrical and sparklingly full of suggestion and implication. It is a hymn to generosity. I know it will be something I will return to again and again” — ADAM NICOLSON ― author of The Seabird’s Cry

“Deepened my understanding of the world . . . An illuminating, beautifully written and unique philosophical inquiry by a wide-ranging and original thinker and a powerful call for a new ethic for our relationship with the rest of the living world . . . Quite simply, a rare and important marvel” — LUCY JONES ― author of Losing Eden

“What an interesting book! The recognition that we are animals should come less as a slap in the face than as a welcome reminder of the great resources that can come from paying attention to the ways we and our various cousins handle our journeys on this difficult but beautiful planet” — BILL McKIBBEN ― author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

“With this book, Melanie Challenger fearlessly plunges into the biggest question of our time: how can we rediscover our animal selves, before it is too late? How can we discover our true place in the wider world we are destroying? Each of us has to answer this question for ourselves. This book is a guide for you on the journey” — PAUL KINGSNORTH

“Erudite, lyrical, delightfully troubling and full of unexpected convergences. A wonderful exploration of the tensions that beset the human animal trying to find our way. I was entranced by this beautiful weave of history, biology and philosophy” — DAVID GEORGE HASKELL ― author of The Forest Unseen

“Animals are sometimes given a “mirror test” to gauge their capacity for self-awareness. How To Be Animal is the literary equivalent of that test. Melanie Challenger’s book is a deep and beautiful reflection of our own awareness as a species. It is also a reminder that human exceptionalism can be a dangerous beast. After reading this book you will not only become more “animal,” but ultimately, you will become more human” — ZIYA TONG ― author of The Reality Bubble

“Melanie Challenger offers poetic and erudite meditation on the relationship of our species to the rest of the organic world, and especially to the species to which we are most closely related . . . Compelling” — HARRIET RITVO ― Arthur J. Conner Professor of History, MIT

“Melanie Challenger’s erudite book confronts the refusal to embrace our animal nature and wrestles with the delusion and fear that underlie that refusal. In a time when so much of “the rest” is collapsing, deconstructing the myth of human specialness, and the ways it is implicated in nonhuman suffering and destruction, is urgent. Challenger shows us that our moral awakening is not only about changing how we treat the Earth, but also about transforming how we see ourselves” — EILEEN CRIST ― author of Abundant Earth: Towards an ecological civilisation

“Praise for On Extinction: Wide-ranging and often beautiful . . . Challenger is an exquisite writer” — OLIVIA LAING ― Observer

“Amid solid research, there is fine and truly poetic prose. The big loops of this peregrinating work intersect in interesting ways . . . A strangeness is evoked, a strangeness that conveys how, in spite of all our erudition, we walk the earth in the twenty-first century as in a dream” ― New York Times