Category Archives: anthropomorphism

Blogging the dissertation

It has again been quite some time since I’ve posted here, and the last attempt to post a string of abstracts never quite came to fruition. So. I thought I would post a new introduction to my project that makes some sense of what I’ve been up to for the last year or so of research; it’s going to be a long post. It’s also very much still in progress and mostly unedited, with some wonky blog formatting.

Anyone who is interested and who has access to academia.edu can also go to my page there for the new version of this prospectus draft. Or just email me. Here goes.

 

Living well with animals in the posthuman polis:

Aristotle, biosemiotics, and the turn to animals in contemporary political theory

This is an account of what it means to come to know, respect, and live well with other animals. It is an effort to make sense of which kinds of beings exist in what kinds of worlds, and how ethics and politics relate to a given ontology and epistemology. It is also an inquiry into the consequences of thinking politically after the animal and “posthuman” turns, which are approaching the mainstream of geography and anthropology but remain mostly ignored in political science and much of political theory.1 When not ignored, the most prominent innovations seem to be shoehorning nonhuman animals into a liberal shoe designed and built for humans. The neo-Aristotelian account developed here will instead emphasize joint trans-species action toward collective ends which acknowledges mutuality, animal agency, and co-evolved and two-way power relations. To live well together between species, I will argue, we need to both come to know and work towards respect and recognition of other animals and the cultivated forms of our coevolution and mutual domestication. But first: a foray into the relevance of some bigger questions, to better understand how the research program is built around some core motivations.

This project presents a way to see forward by looking back. It is developed as a way through and beyond three conceptual blockages that interfere both with epistemologically accurate and normatively persuasive thinking about human-animal relations: the case of binary thinking, whether between humans and animals, humans and nature, or mind and body; the siloing of, and deep opposition between academic disciplines studying sociocultural vs. biological phenomena; and the inability to find the right balance between reductionism and anti-reductionism in the evolutionary study of emergent systems.

The sociocultural and biological divide is most starkly apparent in anthropology, but to varying degrees present in much of academia. Individual agency falls away at either end of this spectrum, at the “hard cores” of either social or biological construction.2 Against these stark dualisms, it is both more accurate and and more ethically and politically fruitful to acknowledge continuity, embodiment, and embeddedness, and to problematize the ways that human-nature, human-animal, and mind-body dualisms have both falsely and wrongly taken the human out of its ecology and the animal out of ethics and society (Plumwood 2012, 16).

In addition to these three conceptual blockages, there is a central problem which this project is designed to examine and address. The problem is contained in the disconnect between what it means to live at once in a posthuman world but also in the so-called anthropocene. That is, in a “more-than-human”3 world that is at once conceptually decentered away from the human and increasingly subject to human influence. These influences are both direct and indirect. And at least with regard to most nonhuman animals, the directionality of influence is deeply asymmetrical; human activities influence nonhuman animal worlds much than those other worlds influence ours. In this new kind of world, the “hands-off” approach to human-animal relations4 is increasingly untenable, as are the many hands-on approaches advocating for radical anti-hierarchical egalitarianism between species. This project develops another way.

Because too much of our inherited vocabulary pushes us toward the incomplete and misguided way of thinking structured by the conceptual impasses above, this research is motivated by two complementary and corrective aims. First, to “look back,” to revisit Aristotle and to see how he has been understood and misunderstood on the topic of animals and politics. And second, to “look forward,” to fertilize political theory with a diverse but converging array of work in anthropology, geography, and biosemiotics. The first aim explains the many things Aristotle got right, the second both incorporates these into contemporary discourses and explains the things he got wrong.

The purpose of “looking forward by looking back” is twofold. First, to acknowledge just how much Aristotle got right. And second, to see just how wrongly many of his exegetes and interlocutors have read pieces of his work without understanding their necessary linkage to the rest of this theoretical apparatus, and how deeply these misreadings have influenced our intellectual history.

Aristotle was also wrong about many things; given the scope and breadth of his inquiry, the sociocultural particularities of his lived environment, and the developments of the intervening two and a half millennia, this could hardly be otherwise. This is thus a neo-Aristotelian account, one that is particularly influenced by a particular philosophy of biology and subfield of semiotics called biosemiotics, which I will argue threads the needle between reductionist and anti-reductionist ways of thinking by explaining how living systems co-create their inner and outer worlds through deeply relational and co-constitutive processes of sign relation and meaning-making. Without overstating the case, and with critical attention to the limits of Aristotle’s texts and approach, this project also argues for the compatibility of Aristotle and biosemiotics in seeing beyond binary thinking about humans, animals, and nature, and in thinking about the deeply puzzling and too often dismissed status of what is broadly called the normativity of nature.

It is in this vein that the Neo-Aristotelean approach developed here is strongly influenced by the core concepts of embodiment, evolutionism, and emergentism. With the development of this dissertation project, I seek to demonstrate that many emerging approaches across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are converging on a broadly compatible view of the human relation to other animals and to our natural environment, a view that problematizes the above-mentioned dichotomies and dualisms. This is particularly the case with regard to embodiment, and, with some caveats, to emergentism (Deacon 2011). In the case of evolution, however, the academic siloing problem remains, and appears as entrenched as ever;5 like Ingold’s research program (2000), this project is centrally concerned with bring these warring camps out of the trenches, with coming to help socioculturalists see the value of evolutionary thinking and biologists see the myriad ways that culture complicates and scaffolds new meaning and new ways of being on biological substrates.

The division between animal and environmental ethics is an illustrative example of how thinking along continua can begin to address the legacies of dualism, and how political theory might be “fertilized” by such thinking. Environmental ethicists tend towards methodological holism and animal ethicists toward individualism. But as Peterson (2013) rightly argues, building on Clare Palmer’s work, this and other binaries—such as that between wild and domestic—should instead be understood as a series of overlapping and interpenetrating continua.

Thinking relationally about such binaries also helps us see how relations themselves generate value. This is the most helpful place to introduce an epistemological framework that is little-known in many disciplines but which is central to this research project: the branch of semiotics called “biosemiotics.” The semiotic view of living systems is the most epistemologically compelling unified framework with which to view the coming into being, development, and change of different forms of life, including the human.6

Biosemiotics is a particular philosophy of biology which adopts some of tenets of mainstream evolutionary biology but pushes for a much broader interpretation of what constitutes intentionality and sign relations among living and possibly even nonliving7 systems. In this view, life by its very nature is compositional and thus deeply relational, where evolvability may be an attribute of information itself as embedded in relation with other living organisms and nonliving material as influenced and channeled by physical laws and the “tinkering” of evolutionary constraints.

I will also argue that this view of life suggests a way through the relativism that appears to follow from strong ontological perspectivalism, and that the roots of this solution can be traced back to Aristotle and the Hellenic cosmology. The “solution” to this puzzle is a deeply complex and metaphysical question, one that requires much more attention both than I can give it here and than I have been able to give it in general. Tentatively, though, this is to say that all living systems start by differentiating between an inside and an outside (Portmann 1967), a process that began with the opposing hydrophobic and hydrophilic tails of the phospholipid bilayers which form cell walls. These first “bodies” interact with each other in a process of sign relation—this attribution of communicative meaning to cell-to-sell signaling processes is one of the ways in which biosemiotics is distinct from standard evolutionary biology—that results, eventually, in a much more complicated inside-outside boundary: human (or other animal) skin (Hoffmeyer 2008).

How we got from nonliving to living systems, and from single-celled living systems to human civilization and technology is one of life’s biggest questions; I can’t claim to answer it here! (But for a biosemiotic attempt at an answer, see Deacon 2011.) We do appear, however, to be discovering more and more ways8 in which we are not so contingent after all. Pace Stephen Jay Gould, if we were to rewind and replay the tape of life, we may indeed get something quite like us, or at least something enough like us to likely share a recognizable system of social, moral and political rules. That is to say, with de Waal (2009), some of the sociobiological program, and Kant’s “unsocial sociability,” that the rudiments of morality are likely to emerge in any social system that requires a means of balancing the competing needs of individuals and groups. How we are to connect these “proto-”moral views to our own abstract and universalized system of morality will be developed in dissertation research (See below, at III, for an incomplete start).

It is in this sense that I understand the title to Stuart Kauffman’s book, At Home in the Universe. That is, that living systems tend universally toward greater flexibility (rather than just adaptability), and some kinds of constraints and deconstraints on adaptation appear in systematic and predictable ways. In other words, through their interaction and the evolutionary processes through which new forms emerge and some old forms fade from being, the kinds of forms that emerge are already constrained, already patterned. Not only by the folk Darwinian conception of competitive struggle between organisms, but by the co-constitutive interactions between genetic code, organisms, and environment (what Lewonton [1998] calls the “triple helix”), interactions in which the prominence of competition over cooperation within and between groups is conditioned not by “evolution” but by the parameters of the selection environment and relative openness that is available to new forms of semiosis, new ways of being in the world.

Every step in the formation and evolution of living systems that has occurred on this planet has been proceeded step-by-step, one thing after another. This is the obvious but important lesson of what Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible;” given evolution and emergence (and the periodic table and laws of physics), the long-term avenues for change are constrained only by physical limitations such as the second law of thermodynamics. This applies looking forward, too—while we can conceptualize distant and radically changed futures in imaginative fiction and speculations, from where we are now we can only get to some adjacent place. And from there to some other adjacent place, and so forth.

And some “places” in the book of life are structured in particular and systematic ways. For instance: at least in the case of social mammals, one expects an openness to cognition, to increasingly more flexible behavioral repertoires. This follows from what sociality as an evolutionary strategy is, and from the way social animals use social learning, cooperation, competition, and play to navigate between the (at least sometimes) competing demands of individuals and groups.

Similarly with the very constituents of what constitutes a good life for a given animal, a concept I will argue has been problematized in the anthropocene. The parameters of what constitute a good life for a mouse, for instance, were co-developed in dynamic relation to predation-avoidance strategies and corresponding counterstrategies by such predators as owls and birds of prey. In an era of increasing human influence on the more-than-human world, however, the question of whether and how humans should influence particular animal teloi is becoming increasingly unavoidable. As Dominique Lestel puts it, this is a “paradox of preservation,” where to allow animals to survive is to modify them in order to allow them to live as they are. Rollin (1998) controversially argues the flip side of Lestel’s paradox, that there would be no problem to engineering sentience out of livestock animals—changing their telos.

This challenge of navigating nature in a biotechnological world, a world that is in some ways “post-nature,” is both a central challenge to Aristotle’s teleology and conception of nature and an invitation to look back, to see if we can find, if not a “grounding,” then at least a rudder or a banister. At least when it comes to respecting both different animal ways of being and the human good by coming to know and live well with other animals, this is, in short, a project of expanding “the politics of the mixed community” (Plumwood 2012).

The result of all of this, I will argue, is a view of life that challenges, on the one hand, entrenched beliefs about both the disembodied cogito, mind-body dualism, and the discrete realms of subject-object and immanence-transcendence binaries, while on the other hand acknowledging both the unity of living systems and the dynamism of different ways of being and lived experiences. It problematizes any simple hierarchy of “higher” and “lower” forms of life, speaking instead of animal sensoriums that are “familiar” or “unfamiliar,” in which superiority and inferiority are context- and domain-dependent concepts but often track a given organisms’ level of cognitive and gestural flexibility and corresponding semiotic openness or closedness.

In this way, the biosemiotic research program presents a means of examining what a given creature’s innenwelt and umwelt—its inside world (what philosophers call qualia) and its perception of its lived environment, its outside world—are likely to be like. This is the central insight of Baltic German biologist Jacob Von Uexküll Umwelt-Forschung; as Beever and Tønnessen (2013) put it, “according to Uexküll, we can extrapolate biological plans, or the natural teloi of each living organism, based on scientifically-testable examinations of their physiology and behavior.” In this spirit, the empirical work in chapter three explores what we can know about animal cognition, social organization, and the possibility of animal morality and even politics.

To return briefly to the motivation for undertaking this project: I am skeptical that existing frameworks of human-animal relations proposed in political theory are capable of making sense of the “mixed community.” Liberal politics concerns itself with equals, or at least with potential equals. Human-animal relations are instead characterized by inequality and asymmetric power relation, relations that can turn to forms of domination all too easily, even under the guide of affectionate relations. As Tuan (1984) documents, even our affectionate relations with animals—such as that of pet-making—entails a kind of domination, of reducing.

Surprisingly few scholars are working on this issue in a constructive rather than predominantly critical frame. That is, in a way that acknowledges, with Foucault, the danger of domination and the ubiquity of power relations but also looks beyond inward-looking “care for the self” and an emphasis on resistance to find ways to expand the “mixed community” or to think about animal welfare beyond suffering and toward forms of flourishing and living well. (Another longstanding motivation, finally, for engaging in such a constructive project9 is to take seriously the heart of Singerian “equal consideration of interests” even as I have in other ways moved away from utilitarianism. Much of what follows in this project is an attempt to grapple with the competing demands of interest- and relation- based theories of ethics and politics.)

I have already mentioned how many animal abolitionists and critical animal theorists prefer a hands-off approach. Animal biopolitics also engages with these issues, but there is rarely any positive program addressed, any means of structuring relations in a different way. One recent work, however, helps to set up the Aristotelian orientation of this project: Ralph Acampora’s Oikos and Domus (2004). Acampora argues, correctly, that many kinds of human relations ought maybe to be structured by “cultivat[ing] an inter-species oikos that is not already (nor becomes) an oppressive domus.” He walks through different “modes of presencing” ourselves to, over, and with animals and defends “constructive-co-habitation” as “a mode of being in relation to others marked by reciprocal surrender to the dictates of intersubjectivity.” I am broadly sympathetic to this approach, and will argue in this project that it can be enriched by looking back to Aristotle, and to the role of agonism and conflict in the Hellenic cosmology and the relation of parts to wholes (homeomeiric and anhomeomeiric states) and certain sciences to others in what Johnson (2015) calls “Aristotle’s architectonic sciences.”11

To wrap up this overlong introduction: at its core, this is an an attempt to address the implications of a perspectival ontology12 for the nature and compatibility of human and animal “goods.” While at least some anthropocentrism is unavoidable given our status as the kind of beings that we are—we can only “see-as” humans—we can meaningfully understand the “grammar” of different animal ways of being and seek mutual recognition that is neither one-way domination nor a collapse of one animal world into another. In the language developed in recent anthropological innovations in the subfield of multispecies ethnography, we can use “trans-species pidgins” to bridge the worlds between beings with familiar and unfamiliar sensoriums.

The questions and concepts that loom largest in this discussion concern what sets humans apart from other animals—and some other animals from yet others—and whether the relevant differences are differences in degree or kind, of continuity or discontinuity. Any attempt to address this question hinges on three central concepts and their relation to each other rise to prominence: agency, morality, and politics. Are animals other than humans agents? Can other animals be moral? If so, which ones, and in what way? Can they be political? And what does it mean to be political?

The answer to these questions is often taken to hinge on the claim that animals have perceptual awareness but humans also have conceptual awareness. Recent empirical work,13 however, on the cognitive complexity, understanding of reference, sense of self-agency, and morality in nonhuman social animals complicates this understanding. Rather than being dichotomous, an on-off switch, the kind of cognition required for politics and political agency appear instead to be continuous, at least in part, or if not continuous then structured by a series of punctuated breaks. This is congruent with an emergentist reading of human and animal evolution that acknowledges coevolution and shared homology14 as well as the particular “breaks” afforded by symbolic language, but also those afforded by gestural flexibility and complex social relations.

Recapitulating the themes developed here and linking them directly to political theory and to the contribution section which follows: a final motivation and goal of this project is to argue that political theorists are centrally engaged with the questions raised here, and have been for a long time. This is particularly the case with the broadly republican tradition, feminist political theory, hermeneutics, and the “affective turn.” While the field as a whole has not yet come to terms with the animal and posthuman turns, many of the central themes and concerns of these traditions—conceptions of freedom, vulnerability, dependence, recognition, and co-creation—are ripe for “fertilization” across species, a fertilization that is well underway in the disciplines of anthropology and geography.15 This is the challenge of the “posthuman polis” presented by Plumwood and Peterson’s call to “expand the mixed community.” The upshot of this challenge is slowly becoming visible in political theory, albeit in fits and starts.

A brief foray into this potential for fertilizing17 political theory helps segue into what follows in the section on contributions, and the seeds of this fertilization hop from one (sub)field to the next.18 The republican tradition from Aristotle to Arendt has long been interested in the relation of freedom and autonomy to sovereignty and to the politics of co-creation. Politics for Aristotle concerns living well together, for Wolin entails “a life of common involvements,” and for Arendt is a process of “collective world-making.” If Anna Tsing is right that human nature is an interspecies relationship, however, this opens up new ways to think about interspecies co-creation, animal freedom, and animal extensions of the logic of republican non-domination from imperium and dominium.

This “collective world-making” is of course also a co-constitution (Disch), a hermeneutic process of dynamic self-narration as described by Gadamer, Ricoeur, MacIntyre, and others, what Appiah calls a “lived unity.” And probably the most obvious overlaps between animal ethics and political theory, finally, are in feminism, particularly ecofeminism and the ethics of care and relationality. Wendy Brown’s work probes the politics of vulnerability19 and the violence that comes with relations of protection, and has with Patchen Markell written on the wrongs of misrecognition. The feminist relation to the “affective turn,” to captivity and the carceral state, and to the role of emotion in moral and political decisionmaking are all amenable to animal extensions, as Gruen and Plumwood have made most explicit.

Acampora, Ralph. “Oikos and Domus: on Constructive Co-habitation with Other Creatures.” Philosophy & Geography 7.2 (2004): 219-235.

Beever, Jonathan, and Morten Tønnessen. ““Darwin und die Englische Moral”: The Moral Consequences of Uexküll’s Umwelt Theory.” Biosemiotics 6.3 (2013): 437-447.

Deacon, Terrence William. Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. WW Norton & Company, 2011.

Gruen, Lori. Entangled Empathy: an Alternative Ethic for Our Relationship with Animals. Lantern Books, 2015.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper. Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Kauffman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press, USA, 1995.

Lewontin, Richard. The Triple Helix. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Portmann, Adolf. Animal Forms and Patterns, 1967.

Plumwood, Val. The Eye of the Crocodile. ANU E Press, 2012.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Dominance & Affection. Yale University Press, 1984.

De Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton University Press, 2009.

1The lumping of animal talks under “environmental” panels at conference is a good indicator of this continued ignorance, and the distressingly regular laughs that resulted from responses to my questions about otherwise ignored animal issues on panel discussions is a good, if anecdotal, indicator of continued indifference.

2See Malik (2000) and the introduction to Ingold (2003) on this topic.

3To adopt David Abram’s phrase from The Spell of the Sensuous.

4Advocated by most “animal abolitionists” and many people working in the field of critical animal studies (CAS).

5As John Hartigan writes in Aesop’s Anthropology, this turn “back” to evolution is not welcomed by many in the critical left. He writes that “we need to see culture in evolutionary terms, as an emergent phenomenon that then generates the capacity to mold evolution, as in “artificial selection.” This is squeamish territory, certainly—evolutionary discourses played significant roles in “naturalizing” racial and gender hierarchies and stereotypes. But keeping “nature as a foil for “culture”—as in assertions of social construction—does little either to engage the power of evolutionary perspectives or to learn from and potentially redeploy them, via a greater understanding of the immense plasticity of life-forms and the power of sociality to shape them.” (Hartigan 2014, 87)

6See below, at IV, for a more systematic discussion; the account here is meant to be more general, and to explain the motivation for using this framework.

7As theorized, most prominently in the recent popular press, by Jeremy England’s work on the origins of life as a process of dissipation-driven adaptation.

8Take two recent and illustrative examples from evolutionary linguistics instance that both fit this frame and illustrate the way our embodiment shapes our language (following Lakoff and Johnson 1999). First, Nichols (1992) argued that “mama-” and “dada-” type words may be so common as symbolic referents to mother and father precisely because they are among the easiest sounds for the infant human to produce. And second, Bankieris and Simner (2015) more recently proposed that attributes of a sound like hardness, softness, and even brightness will make languages gravitate towards soft sounds for rounded objects and harder sounds for more angular objects.

9It is in this light that, during a panel discussion on biopolitics, one attendee at a recent conference said that mine the only paper present that was “doing” rather than “analyzing” biopolitics. I think he meant it as a bit of a jab, but it was likely correct.

10 Discovery, intervention/influence (interference, interruption), domination, and constitution/construction.

11As with much of the work in developing Aristotle’s conceptual apparatus, this is still pending further research and writing.

12The argument developed in this paper concerns the “fit” between the human perspectival world and the external world as such. While not discussed here, I accept some form of realism—that the physical world independent of its perception does exist.

13Not reviewed at length in this paper, although some innovative and central texts have been included in the bibliography. To be discussed in chapter two.

14Species traits are developed either from convergent evolution (analogous structures) or from common descent (homologous structures).

15This is an unsurprising development in anthropology, at least, given that nonhuman animals act as agents in multispecies communities in many indigenous traditions. The anthropological turn is discussed briefly at the end of section V, below, but requires more elaboration. To telescope: in geography Wolch and others have charted a path to convivial cohabitation, interspecies sensemaking, and reconceptualizations of animal agency. And while I only here look at Kohn’s account of the turn in anthropology to multispecies ethnography, trans-species pidgins, and unfamiliar sensoriums, Helmreich, Kirksey, Hartigan, and others are charting similar paths at the “multispecies salon” and accompanying blogs.

16Kennan Ferguson’s Political Theory article “What was Politics to the Denisovan?” (2013) argues that our hominid ancestry problematizes the idea that politics and the human are overlapping and exhaustive sets. He charts out a critique of the Kantian idea that “all politics is anthropolitics,” building on evidence that Denisovan and Neanderthal forebears may well have had all of the faculties deemed necessary for “politics.” As he puts it, “if prehistorical humans had hierarchy, power, war, abstraction, tools, society, and even art, how can we deny them politics?” Rather than discussing other nonhuman animals, however, he proceeds to discuss the work of Pierre Clastres and its adoption by James C. Scott as illustrative of traditional people who explicitly reject the state but nonetheless engage in “anti-state forms of political life.” His account and project is distinct from my own, but it presents an important conceptual break from the dominant trend of viewing politics and the human as exhaustive and overlapping. (For more on this question of becoming visible, see also II, below.)

17I don’t have citations for some of what follows here, both because I still need to read some of the things referenced and because this short overview is intended simply to put the animal question in discussion with classical and current trends in the field. To be remedied.

18Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals is a good example of this cross-fertilization, drawing as it does on republican themes of co-creation, feminist themes of embodied vulnerability, and hermeneutic themes of narrativity.

19Echoed in Aristotle’s claim that we are “neither beasts nor gods,” neither fully autonomous—pros hauton—nor heteronomous—pros heteron; hence what Nussbaum calls The Fragility of Goodness.

The human, the subhuman, the nonhuman

This piece  by Art Spiegelman in the NYRB (which features both of these images) is a handy locus for the discussion of symbolic representations of the human and nonhuman. As Berger and others have described, since modernity we’ve increasingly lived without animals, so we find ways to reintegrate them as family and as spectacle. But the result can often be quite curious. The ‘cheezburger empire’ actually says quite a lot about modernity, alienation, and the longing for meaningful relationships between species, but I’d like to focus here on the role of human-nonhuman animal comparisons and what they say about the state of humanism and its discontents.

The most obvious recent incident here would be PETA’s suing SeaWorld for the constitutional protection of Orcas’ 13th Amendment rights. There’s an interesting institutional backstory here–I think some of PETA’s tactics have to do with keeping the Tilikum incident in the public memory, and capitalizing on that crisis–but many would respond with a kneejerk anthropocentrism. (And this controversy goes back to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison and beyond…) But the symbolism in question hinges on how human persons perceive nonhuman persons.

As the images above attest, symbolic representation can serve multiple purposes–in both cases, the human is being depicted as a less-than-human, inferior animal. This narrative works only when the dominant discourse is unflinchingly anthropocentric, as it arguably still is; this is one domain where the potential for speculative fiction to shift our discourse is ripe. I’ve been reading a lot of specfic recently–I’m currently on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which baldly anthropocentric, masculinist, even realist, but is otherwise a fun jaunt–and I think the works of people like China Mièville and Ursula le Guin can do a lot to reconceptualize our vision of what constitutes the human. Whether humanity 2.0 becomes transhuman, posthuman, or something else is another question.

A rose by any other name

There have been lots of interesting pieces recently on humanism, morality, and the more-than-human world. My first response to Joel Marks’ supposed rejection of morality is to side with Andrew Sullivan, who has been covering a lot of relevant issues recently. My second was to realize that these issues are bound up with our discussions of secular humanism and its discontents. I agree that something like ‘secular humanism 2.0’ would be an improvement over the current anthropocentric and self-defeating myopia, and I don’t think we need to agree on the primacy of one moral vocabulary to get there.

To briefly recap Joel Mark’s “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” from last week’s NYT Stone piece: Marks transitions from being a deontologist  who fought for the inherent rights on (especially) food animals to a pragmatic/utilitarian person who, less sure of the external moral validity of their core deontological beliefs, “now focus[es] on conveying information” about the conditions on industrial animal ag facilities. I don’t always agree with Coyne, but in this case I do: this looks to me like a distinction without a difference. But that’s also because I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of us exist along a multidimensional plane balancing the poles of the above chart. The best we can do, in my view, is to maintain equilibrium — if it has shown us anything, history teaches us that single-moral-foundation graspings at utopia always tend towards dystopia instead.

As for humanism and its discount tent, well, that’s a big one. As I noted a few posts ago, the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes film is acting like a confirmation bias-y Rorshach test. To take two examples: this post from Salon argues that the human-nonhuman divide remains very large, while Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s responses to the film (as recorded in this episode of On Point) mistakes CGI ape intelligence for the considerably less dazzling real thing. My position is somewhere  between these poles, but I’m making the connection here just to point out that our position on the role of homo sapiens in a “post-Darwin” world is very likely to dictate, or at least inform, our morals–or our ethics, if you’d rather call them that.

Anthropomorphisms

 

“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” (Frans de Waal)

Views on anthropomorphism run the gamut, and three recent pieces do a good job of highlighting the terrain of this discourse: 1) Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of recent human-animal studies books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2) Michael Sims’ piece on anthropomorphism and E.B. White in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and 3) Marlene Zuk’s analysis of ‘animal cams’ in the LA Times. (And see here for an orthogonal post on animal symbols, Pieter Hugo, and Beyonce.)

Sims’ article on E.B. White captures the tension at the core of the debate over anthropomorphism: “Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White’s anthropomorphism. “White’s is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals,” he wrote; “rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children’s books, but (also in the tradition of children’s books) for being against nature.” White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as “against nature”…It’s true that “this boy,” as White wrote of himself in childhood, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.”

Zuk’s piece on animal cams raises a similar point to Theroux’s: that the eagles, etc. on live cams are “just like us” leads us to biased and thus erroneous views of animal behavior. Ehrenreich’s review is more broad-ranging, but her concluding paragraph is of particular value here: “Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.”

Ehrenreich is right to caution us against both the Cartesian ‘animal machine’ model and the Liberationist-left ‘exploited and innocent victim’ model, but we should also keep in mind that these are both caricatures. In light of a quarter century-plus of work in neuroscience and ethology, the view that all forms of emotion are necessarily anthropomorphic (i.e., human) is absurd–some of our characteristics are indeed uniquely human, but many others are primate, mammalian, and so forth. To say that an otter plays or a chimp mourns isn’t anthropomorphic, it’s merely descriptive.

On the other side of this coin, we should be wary of painting the nonhuman animal world a Marxian red with the brush of hegemony, hierarchy, and oppression–in other words, of adopting the left-social scientific vocabulary in which all relationships are hierarchical and exploitative. To ascribe revolutionary consciousness to other animals clouds our vision of their realities.

To return for a bit to Sims’ and Zuk’s pieces, I think a middle ground can be found between Theroux/Zuk’s view of anthromorphism as subjective and thus problematic and Sims’ embrace of the power of empathy–using the vehicle of anthropomorphism–to reveal moral truths. To say that this is a difficult circle to square, though, is putting it mildly.