In elementary school, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels were my favorite books. I imagined myself much more sophisticated than my peers, who were obsessed with Harry Potter. Of course, I grew to love J.K. Rowling’s work as well. Today, there’s not much that’s more soothing to me than Jim Dale narrating the adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
But the His Dark Materials trilogy holds a special place in my heart. I should say that while I’ve read some of the supplementary work set in Pullman’s universe, like Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, I haven’t read Serpentine or the first two entries in The Book of Dust trilogy.
I’ve read the His Dark Materials books a number of times in the past few years, as a form of temporary escape. I never finish. Most recently, I gave up on The Amber Spyglass, which didn’t come out until I was a teenager. In my view, this is where Pullman gets most explicit about his secular humanism. It’s not the secularism that bothers me; it’s the humanism.
Pullman’s humanism posits an unbridgeable divide between humans and animals, which I take issue with as an anti-speciesist. For all his lauding of science, this perspective doesn’t strike me as very scientific. In a change of pace from my activism, which you can learn about at SlaughterFreeAmerica.Substack.com, I wanted to read through The Amber Spyglass with this in mind.
To be clear, I’m not focusing on unexamined depictions of animal exploitation. Rather, I want to look at the nature of Dust, a central mystery in these books. So far as I can understand it, Dust is an invisible substance that is attracted to humans and human-like creatures, but has no such attraction to other animals.
What exactly separates these two groups? Pullman writes that Dust sticks to ‘conscious’ creatures. Of course, chickens and pigs are conscious. While he’s not using the correct word, I think Pullman means Dust is attracted to beings with minds most comparable to humans.
At one point in The Amber Spyglass, a member of a different species called the mulefa, who are similar to us in their ability to reason, explains to a human character that they are aware of Dust, which they call, sraf. “We have seen butterflies and birds, but they have no sraf,” the creature says. “You do, strange as you seem.”
Later, Pullman insists the mulefa are very different from domesticated animals. “Some of the creatures had gone to the pond to drink; the others waited, but not with the mild, passive curiosity of cows gathering at a gate,” he wrote. “These were individuals, lively with intelligence and purpose. They were people.”
Further on, a human character provides some more clarity regarding Dust, learning it comes into being with self-awareness. This character is horrified by the thought of life without Dust, which, presumably, she believes is how animals currently exist: “Thought, imagination, feeling, would all wither and blow away, leaving nothing but a brutish automatism.”
Again, I love the His Dark Materials trilogy and will probably re-read it every few years for the rest of my life. But this is speciesism. I’d say that Pullman wasn’t aware of the latest discoveries in ethology, but even the great Charles Darwin, who died in 1882, knew better.
“The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind,” Darwin wrote. “We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, &c., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”
I don’t mean to single Pullman out for criticism. The truth is human supremacism is everywhere. We need an ideological justification for our violence against animals and speciesism provides it. I just admire Pullman’s work so much, I wish he was able to overcome this prejudice to a greater extent.