Are humans animals?

To me, this question seems ridiculous – of COURSE we are animals! We eat, we defecate, we procreate. Surey there is no room for doubt? Yet there are still many people who would flatly deny that humans are still part of the animal kingdom.

Today I was reading a piece by Dominick LaCapra, who reflects on the desire, evident throughout human history, to separate ourselves from the animal, when I suddenly recalled an argument I’d had, on this very topic, with a high school English teacher 20 years ago. She flatly refused to accept that human beings were animals – I think for her it was a matter of semantics, and the connotation of “animal” was one characterised by concepts of beastliness and degradation, in the way that someone might casually say that “so-and-so is no better than an animal.” I still remember how upset she was by my assertion that humans were animals – and I did not mean it in the beastly sense, but in a (undeniably!) biological one.

LaCapra questions this insistence on a distinction between human and animal, and the motivations that underlie this “misguided quest for a kind of holy grail”. [1] Further, he questions whether humanism has always required an “other” against which to project negatively. As post-modernism has increasingly given voice to women and non-European/colonised peoples, animals remain the last bastion of otherness – what LaCapra describes as “the residual repository of projective alienation or radical otherness.” [2]

The ascription of animalistic characteristics – the same ones I believe my English teacher was calling to mind – often equates to a denigration. LaCapra points out that those very behaviours, negatively perceived as animalistic or beastial – such as victimisation, torture, and genocide – are in fact distinctly human in their performance. [3] Conversely, many positive descriptions of animals have humanity as their reference point – for example, the lion being constructed as ‘the King of the beasts’.

In many ways, human beings, and what it means to be human, is constructed against the animal.[4] But is the apparently insurmountable gap between human and non-human animals real, or simply another anthropocentric human construct? According to Thomas Suddendorf, scientific evidence indicates that homo sapiens occupied the planet simultaneously to other hominids, including h. erectus, h. neanderthalensis, and the Florensis and Denisova hominids. Suddendorf argues that it is because all these other hominids have been rendered extinct that the chasm between human and animal is seemingly so great. More disturbingly, he believes that these extinctions were caused, at least in part, through the deliberate actions of homo sapiens, and draws a link between those early acts of genocide and the current human campaign, which appears to be leading inexorably to the extinction of the great apes.[5]

This idea is, frankly, rather depressing. While Suddendorf still considers us (humans) to be part of the animal kingdom, he appears to accept without question the anthropocentric assumption that “there is something extra special about us: After all, we are the ones running the zoos.” [6]  For Suddendorf (and I think for the majority of people), humanity is the acme of evolution. What would happen were we to deconstruct this anthropocentric viewpoint, and completely re-frame it? LaCapra cites a National Geographic feature where Clive Wynne is quoted as saying that intelligence is “a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us.” [7]

Perhaps if we viewed ourselves within that paradigm, part of an inter-related web of life, we might create a world that more closely resembled it. To me, the explanation offered by Suddendorf for the “gap” between human and non-human animals, while scientifically plausible, is also embedded within the type of anthropocentric assumptions that see our dominance – and subsequent destruction – of the planet as inevitable.

REFERENCES:

[1] LaCapra, Dominic. History and its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, 150.

[2] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 152.

[3] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 156.

[4] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 155.

[5] Suddendorf, Thomas. “//www.googleadservices.com/pagead/conversion_async.js//statse.webtrendslive.com/dcs2tby2210000kjsmeahasl5_1d8x/wtid.js?callback=Webtrends.dcss.dcsobj_0.dcsGetIdCallbackhttp://www.abc.net.au/res/libraries/stats/webtrends-10.2/custom_attribs.js//s.webtrends.com/js/webtrends.hm.min.jshttp://www.abc.net.au/res/libraries/stats/webtrends-10.2/webtrends.min.jshttps://apis.google.com/_/scs/apps-static/_/js/k=oz.gapi.en_GB.jZP4KwfWTDU.O/m=auth/exm=plus,plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_2https://apis.google.com/_/scs/apps-static/_/js/k=oz.gapi.en_GB.jZP4KwfWTDU.O/m=plus/exm=plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_1What sets us apart from the animals?” Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, Friday 7 March 2014. Transcript and audio available at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/5303368

[6] Suddendorf, “What sets us apart”.

[7] Cited in LaCapra, History and its Limits, 154 (footnote 7).

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