Modern Hunting, Ancient Philosophy

Hunting is an instinct, one that has fueled our species’ inventiveness and that affirms our natural-born love of nature. When done right, hunting means hard work, respect and no guarantees.

| September 21, 2011

  • Man Made Of Elk
    Why do we hunt? For meat, trophies, challenge, companionship, the simple pleasure of being outdoors? In part, we hunt because we are biologically and psychologically predisposed to do so. And just as we need them, the animals we hunt need to be hunted in order to stay wild, healthy and free. In “A Man Made of Elk,” accomplished nature writer and avid hunter David Petersen looks at our human hunting history, the role of predation in a thriving ecosystem, and what it means to be an ethical hunter in today’s culture of “techno-hunting,” convenience and ego. Petersen also shares insightful anecdotes and sage advice gleaned from his decades of traditional bowhunting.
  • Modern Hunting
    Without the precise sort of physical and intellectual exercise provided by predation and evasion, spectacular prey species such as elk, deer and antelope — so beautifully sculpted by the artful knife of natural selection — would devolve into mere meager shadows of themselves, as pampered park and suburban deer are even now becoming in many parts of North America.

  • Man Made Of Elk
  • Modern Hunting

The following is an excerpt from A Man Made of Elk by David Petersen (TBM Inc., Boise, Idaho, 2007). In this beautifully written exploration of the hunter’s heart, Petersen, former Western Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, traces humanity’s evolution in cooperation with wild creatures and shares his own personal tales of the hunt — tales in which meat and antlers are secondary rewards compared with the pleasure of just being out in the wild. Petersen also presents ways in which we can shape stronger and more meaningful hunting ethics for ourselves and for the next generation of hunters. This excerpt is from Chapter 28, “Modern Hunting, Ancient Philosophy.” 

The out-of-doors is our true ancestral estate. For a mere few thousand years we have grubbed in the soil and laid brick upon brick to build the cities; but for millions of years before that we lived the leisurely, free and adventurous life of hunters and gatherers. How can we pluck that deep root of feeling from the racial consciousness? Impossible! — Edward Abbey

Why do we hunt?

More precisely: Why do so many among us want to hunt, and why does it feel so deeply satisfying when we do it well? Digging as deeply into our hearts and minds as we can manage and bear, what might be the ultimate source of our shared need to hunt, the prime mover underlying all other, more visible and measurable motivations? What hidden engine powers the more obvious drives — those things we so often name as “reasons” for hunting but which in fact are merely among its more easily identifiable rewards — including meat, trophies, challenge, companionship, and the far-flung pleasures of being outdoors?

Assuming that such a prime mover can be identified, we then must ask whether it provides a suitable foundation upon which to base a revitalized hunting philosophy today. If not, we may well be in trouble. But I say yes, and yes. There is a universal, bottom-line reason we hunt, and it does provide a rock-solid base for rethinking and revitalizing our current hunting philosophy, which is horribly crippled.

As often as possible in mid-August, just before elk season opens, I visit the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado to camp and bowhunt the wily pronghorn. It’s a vast, eerily beautiful place, wrapped around by blue-green mountains, with the big beige crotch of Great Sand Dunes National Park anchoring the northeast corner. The area I hunt is heavily vulcanized, sparsely vegetated, dramatically lonely-looking, and holds a special attraction in that it, like the Alaskan tundra, makes me feel that I’ve time-traveled back to the Pleistocene. And in fact, the San Luis Valley is rich in deep-time archeological sites.

10/30/2011 3:10:02 AM

Richard, I think you make a common error; you make the issue an 'either or' proposition. To a Buddhist ALL killing is wrong and yet every harvest, plants included, is a 'killing'. It is a Koan. That is, a question, often moral or ethical, unanswerable by human logic or reasoning. We must kill to live, unavoidably. Or die from starvation and thus still be killing. As abhorant as we find slavery in the past there would have been no civilization without that institution and the eventual rise of Industrialism and thus slavery's end. Another Koan. Is it more 'moral' or ethial to buy your meat in a store, butchered and wrapping in plastic for you by some stranger and unidentifiable as the animal it was or as I do, to kneel and pray and prepare myself spiritually both for the work I am about to do as well as in gratitude for the food I am about to receive for myself and my family? As I wash that animal's blood from my hands, whether as a hunter taking game or as a farmer processing my livestock, I know the creature itself and try to be a better man to honor the enormous debt I own to that creature for the price it paid so I might live another day. I don't 'take' trophies, I feed my children and wife. It's not just "meat"; it's a creature. Is it really more 'evolved' to be so disconnected and abstractly detached from the process as our modern culture wants to be or to more fully enter into and engage that process? Or is it merely moral cowardice and denial? I am so glad we are talking about this because it is critically important.

Richard McBane
9/30/2011 3:08:23 PM

I am ambivalent about this authors perspective. While I would not challenge his base assumption that our species evolved as predatory carnivores, one might equally argue that as our species has evolved more complex brains, including the ability for meta-cognition and moral sensibilities -- including an ever expanding sense of the rights of Others (those not "of our tribe"). Moral injunctions against murder were clearly more compelling when applied within one's immediate social circle. That sensibility has expanded to include all acts of intra-species killing, except en extremis. Revered moral figures such as Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that the highest moral choice is to sacrifice ones own life rather than taking the life of another [human] -- an admittedly lofty moral standard which the preponderance of humanity is not prepared to embrace. There is a reasonable argument that the physical evolution of the human brain has facilitated an expansion in our intellectual capacity... and an accompanying evolution in our ability for moral perception and moral decision making. That then begs the question of whether the killing of other species of animals for nutrition (much less sport) is an inheritance from our species earlier forms that we now -- with heightened moral awareness -- *choose* perpetuate. Is the impulse to hunt and kill animals, then eat their flesh still alive within us? I agree with the author that the answer is "yes". AND the human species has acquired the capacity to understand that not all of our instinctual urges are to be accommodated without consequence... to ourselves and others. One's desire for material gain without investing one's own effort ( slavery and/or other forms of theft vs. earning through work); one's desire for unlimited sexual coupling without long term commitment to one's partner and children ( promiscuity vs marriage); one's desire to silence one's critics and/or ideological opponents vs mutual tolerance (political oppression, assassination and civil warfare vs. contentious political tolerance) are all examples of our species agreeing that a higher moral standard is preferable to yielding reflexively to our instinctual urges. Some religions have for centuries circumscribed the eating of particular meats, and Buddhism argues that all meat eating should be avoided. The modern vegetarian movement makes both moral and health arguments against the eating of animal flesh. While I am not a vegetarian, I also do not dismiss their perspective as an aberration against human nature. Vegetarianism ~may~ represent one of the next steps in the evolution of human moral development. Hunting and the killing of animals, in general, may become yet another vestige of our ancestral past that our species one day *chooses* not to express, giving preference to the more recently evolved portions of our brains to overrule those deep instinctual urges that will (for any imaginable future) remain a part of our genetic and physical inheritance. So, in summary, I would not argue that the impulse to hunt and kill animals IS a part of our human nature, *perhaps* it is a part of human nature that we, as a species, are beginning to question as to whether expressing that urge is morally defensible. I offer the reader no definitive answer... only the question.

Bruce McElmurray
9/26/2011 9:00:47 PM

Excellent article and topic. I live in the San Luis valley and blog for Mother Earth News. Should you desire to know the weather in Ft. Garland we put an app on our personal blog site that gives up to the minute weather reports. Often I post photo's of elk on our blog site although have not lately. I drove to Pueblo this morning and passed two herds of pronghorns on the trip. Our personal blog is We see elk and deer in our back yard on a weekly basis. Great article and so very well written.


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