In a rare departure from the arts, I wanted to post this short piece I wrote a while ago as part of the Students as Scholars programme that was also published on the university blog . The programme encourages undergraduates, mentored by PhD students, to engage with the research culture of the university beyond their home discipline, and I attended this illuminating and provocative talk by philosopher Dr Helen Steward. In light of the recent furore surrounding the grim death of Harambe, the Western lowland gorilla killed at Cincinnati Zoo, it seemed appropriate to share.
Olivia Nwabali writes about the research of Dr Helen Steward, philosopher of mind. Dr Steward’s question ‘Am I an Animal?’ reflects a long debated philosophical problem, that of defining what a ‘human’ being is, but also that of determining what our inner states, our abilities and power of agency (free will?) are, in comparison to other animals. Perhaps the most renown philosophical question of contemporary times is Nagel’s ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. However, Dr Steward focusses here not on subjective experiences but on the relations of animals to their environment, and on the human models of evolution, delving in zoology and anthropology. In her account, Olivia points out the many possible ramifications of such a line of thought, from history (how were ‘humans’ conceived in the past?) to ethics (does a shared ‘animalistic’ condition of dependance on the environment change our relation to other living beings?).
Many thanks to Olivia for her excellent work, and to her mentor Samuel Perks for his support.
On the way over to the talk, I thought it prudent to answer the question for myself. Am I an animal? ‘Well, essentially, yes of course…but at the same time, not entirely.’ It turns out that a number of people polled by Dr Steward felt rather similarly about the question. Indeed, many recognise the indisputable scientific fact that we are animals, but our experience of life, so different from that of other animals, means that we do not often feel part of the animal kingdom at all. One interviewee coined a rather perfect analogy for this sense of kin and yet total distance, comparing how we relate humans to animals as how we relate the Sun to the stars. Of course the Sun is a star, but this seems too limited a categorisation for such an important part of human survival. It is a star and yet so much more.
Dr Steward received a number of interesting answers during her focus group discussion at Chester Zoo (an establishment that places a great deal of emphasis on replicating authentic environments for its animals). There were those who said that we were not animals, that we had outgrown the classification some time ago and that the word, often used negatively in our day-to-day language, described a state of primitive and uncivilised existence. Adversely, a number of zoologists passionately asserted our status as animals, keenly aware of the environmental and biological implications of our, often arrogant, existence.
The Q&A that followed the talk was small and intimate and really allowed us to further engage with the question and explore why such divergence has occurred. It was obvious that the majority of audience members belonged to the discipline of philosophy, and although I understood the more salient points or challenges they made, I’ll admit that I was a little confused with some of the terms used! One audience member brought up the influence of religion in asserting man’s superiority. Indeed, Genesis depicts man as ruling over all other creatures; creatures created solely for the edification of man. Another audience member asked what I had also been wondering: when asked if they were animals and belonged to the animal kingdom, did people think of the domestic and pastoral, of dogs, cows and bunny rabbits or did they think of the distant African savannah, of wild beasts, and of predator and prey? Furthermore, were they even considering the beetles, crows and squids of the world?
The talk was especially enlightening in relation to the module I am currently studying on Victorian Literature. The Victorians believed in the devolution of man, that while on the cusp on human achievement a degenerative fall to a troglodytic existence was a real possibility and a fear palpably felt when approaching the fin de siècle. These narratives depicted ‘degenerative’ qualities as often interchangeable with offensive immorality or depictions of cultural, physical or sexual otherness, and Darwinism was used to justify the social, racial and economic theories of the day. The idea of devolution is certainly an interesting one, but must evolution always mean a move away from what is deemed ‘primitive’? Is the arc of humanity not subject to ever shifting degrees of savagery and enlightenment in all aspects of our existence? Furthermore, who defines these parameters in a world as diverse and composite as ours?
Essentially, I think it is important to remember what we once were. We are still animals; even though we have evolved we still retain basic animal instincts and requirements and, similar to many species, enjoy touch and companionship. One only has to look at primates to dispel the idea humans are entirely unique. Dr Steward made a convincing argument for the folly of assuming that simply because animals have different patterns of cognisance, they are, and always will be, vastly dissimilar to us. Indeed, many people assign an anthropomorphic quality to their pets (or indeed to all animals they encounter, even those before whom a wary respect is perhaps more suitable) something that feels natural considering how closely we engage with them. We are comfortable in our knowledge that humans are at the apex of the food chain and the idea of man as alpha hunter evokes images often at odds with how we perceive ourselves. In many ways, we have been largely successful in removing ourselves from this uncertain climate. We have conceived ways of creating permanent shelters and established the means to bring food, water and warmth into them, providing a safe environment for our young and ensuring the continuation of our species – civilisation has, for the most part, meant our isolation from the rest of the animal world.
However, most other animals have also perfected the means to meet their most urgent needs. Furthermore, not all humans have ready access to these same essential things. We have, understandably, constructed a different set of rules for ourselves than for other animals. If an animal (not pets or livestock) does not have their basic needs met and dies, it is chalked up to survival of the fittest; it is the ‘circle of life’. The sickeningly pervasive incident of a human going without food and water is seen as the product of, in addition to environment, all manner of distinctly human qualifiers; political corruption, economic climate, social upheaval etc. Herein, I think, lies the problem with our reluctance to accept our status as animals. Indeed, culture, civil liberties and religion are just a few things that do make us distinct and unique. We have created and cultivated countless wonderful things that often make us feel as though we exist on a different plain to other animals. Yet that is simply not true, for our feet are still firmly on the terrain we share with them. Beyond poaching, pollution, farming or deforestation, our actions, big or small, have endless effects on the Earth and it’s inhabitants. Furthermore, we have, despite playing God rather well, not found a way to squash our reliance on water, nourishment and rest. If there is drought or famine or natural disaster, we, like animals, will suffer; humans will also experience hardship and death. At the inelegant and fundamental root of our existence, we are still at the mercy of the same elements and needs for our survival. Our humanity is not separate from our animalism. In fact, embracing our animalism may be essential for a form of more sustainable and compassionate humanity.