Notes on the Eighth Meeting — ON BEING ANIMALS


Yann brought a number of delicious dishes, and we mingled around the dining room for a half hour. Then, as usual, we moved to the living room at 8:30 pm.

Anne’s Presentation

Anne gave a thoughtful presentation on Carl Safina’s book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

She talked about how Safina challenges the long-time taboo against anthropomorphizing animals. In an admirable attempt to be scientific and rigorous, most researchers have focused exclusively on animals’ observable behavior, without informing their observations with what they know vividly about their own experience of being alive.

They have therefore, unintentionally or not, treated ghost crabs, meerkats, dolphins, lions and the like as mere automotons, going about their lives as discrete clusters of data instead of as potentially sentient beings.

As a result, we have neglected the inner lives of animals.

Safina says that perhaps, at this point, a little anthropomorphizing is in order.

To the extent that anthropoids, like us, share much of our genetics, chemistry, biology with all of the other animals on this planet, then we can begin to make some inroads into understanding their subjective states of mind, too, their emotions, their unique perspectives. We can began to see them as “whos” rather than “whats.”

Not that we want to anthropomorphize them merely as a metaphor for ourselves. This is Safina’s crucial point: it’s not to understand ourselves better; it’s to understand them better.

My Embarrassing Lapse

When, in this context, Anne mentioned that all mammals share a common ancestor, I felt an urge to speak up, to my infinite regret.

I asked how it could be, in that case, that we are told chickens descended from dinosaurs? Wouldn’t that be a different common ancestor, then? Silence. I gazed around the room, and my eyes met expressions that ranged from pity to incomprehension. Finally, Heather ventured a response.

“Tom,” she said, “Chickens aren’t mammals.”

“They aren’t?” I said, laughing to cover up my embarrassment. “Not even those fuzzy little chicks?”

“Not even those fuzzy little chicks.”


“Mammals drink milk. Birds don’t have breasts,” Devyani intoned.

“Not even — not even — penguins?”

“Not even penguins, Tom,” Heather answered, steady as ever.

At this point Yann had a gleam in his eye. Perhaps he was imagining what a penguin would look like with breasts? Or maybe he was just hungry for some avian meat? We’ll never know.

In any case, we moved on. For the record, I will never mistake chicks for mammals again, and I would like to apologize to the group for my momentary lapse.

Seeing Animals as Individuals

We talked about how humans share with all other animals — mammals and those who flock together — many of the same “deep brain” structures; the same chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin and cortisol are active in the brains of many living things. Same, or very similar, neural wiring too.

So why, Anne asked, would we presume that our experiences of the world are so very special, so sophisticated, so distinct, compared to other animals?

Walden mentioned how he was struck by Carl Safina’s throwaway line that, of all species, only humans seem capable of “self-loathing.” He wasn’t sure if it is even true, but it haunted him to think that it might be.

Others objected that we likely aren’t even special in that regard. Dogs, for example, show a capacity for self-loathing — certainly they act guilty when reprimanded. Anne concluded her presentation by saying that research into other animals’ minds and distinct subjective experiences is so rudimentary, the field is so young, that many of these questions have not even been asked yet in a serious way.

“What is that shark doing?” is standard.


“What is that shark thinking?” is wide open.

Safina’s book is a welcome start, as he looks closely at the current research on elephants, wolves and killer whales, and tries to get under the surface of observable detail to the individuals within.

Homo Sapiens as “Special” vs. “Superior”

Yann spoke up to say that he still considers human beings inarguably “special,” in the sense that we have acquired spoken and written language, computational skills, abstract reasoning, record-keeping, and the consequent ability to control our environment far beyond other animals.

He insisted that it is nonsense to deny that we have “evolved more” than other animals over the last 150,000 years. Whereas they have remained largely static in their relationships with the earth and its resources, humans have advanced by leaps and bounds. The end result may be destructive and regrettable, but it is undeniable that we stand alone in our achievement.

He ended by saying that although he believes we are “special” under any reasonable definition of that word, he does not consider us morally superior in any way.

I pushed back, saying that Yann’s urging of a moral equivalence between humans and other species seemed too quick to me. Sure, if you define morality as something species-independent, something that exists apart from human needs and preferences, then we are not of greater “moral” value than other animals at all. No doubt, as he points out, we have done untold damage to other species — and continue to do so. So how could we possibly be considered morally “superior” (on a utilitarian calculus, or a rights-based calculus) if we consider the effects of our actions on all living things?

But here’s the rub. Morality, to my mind at least, is, whether we like it or not, a species-dependent term. For talk of morality to have any meaning for us, it must be limited to a certain species of bipedal primates called homo sapiens. When we speak of the “good” and the “fair” and the “just,” we are talking about our obligations to one another in a social setting, as fellow primates. Anything else is just a confused symbolic representation of our neurochemical urges.

So, contrary to Yann, I would argue that we are, inescapably, morally superior to other animals, on our own terms.

Just as elephants are morally superior to us, on their own terms.

Just as killer whales are morally superior to us and elephants alike, on their own terms.

Any attempt to create a universal morality collapses into incoherence. For what would be the standard that supports it? How would we reconcile the empathy — or lack thereof — of a crow towards a worm? The devotion of a mallard for his life-partner? The touching maternal instinct of a hairy tarantula towards her eggs? We couldn’t. We are, each species, morally superior on our own terms. Nobody protects a cluster of tarantula eggs quite like a mama tarantula. She means it, she really means it.

JGT_120925_01425 septembre 2012

As for “special,” which Yann does grant us… there I disagreed the opposite way. We may be morally superior, worthy of special pleading as it were, in my primate-centric view, but we are not, in this view, special in any important sense. Certainly we are different. We have language, nuclear warheads, skyscrapers and sewer laterals, true. But being “special” implies something intrinsically better, doesn’t it? Can’t we agree that humans are notably different from other animals on this planet without falling into the trap of feeding our egoistic urge to consider ourselves better?

In short, Yann holds that we are special, but we are not morally superior (in some impartial, universal estimation of value).

I hold the opposite: that we are not special — just different — but that we are morally superior (in our own species-dependent estimation of value).

Is this merely a semantic squabble? Or does it have consequences for our relationships with animals and the larger world? I think it does have consequences, as we will see when we come to the question of vegetarianism.

So if We Finally Accept That We Are Animals, How Will That Change Our Lives?

As Yann and I demonstrated our species’  seemingly insatiable urge to consider ourselves “special,” at the top of a Great Chain of Being, or, alternatively, morally “superior” (even if I acknowledge that this is only on our own terms) — the group started to inquire whether we can ever hope to drop this way of thinking entirely.

What if we were to see ourselves simply as one particular species of ape, noisy, randy, a little hairy, good at manipulating the natural world for our short-term gain (and long-term loss). Nothing special or superior at all.

What happens then?

How does that change us?

From Vegetarianism to Cannibalism and Back

Yann insisted that once we drop our claims to moral superiority we should all become vegetarians, on the basis of the suffering of animals in factory farms and the like. Devyani insisted that vegetarianism causes a great deal of animal suffering as well — as in India, where the clear-cutting of forests and damning of water sources and use of pesticides have all contributed to the decline of animal species. So even eating plants has its attendant suffering. I spoke up to say that since I favor primate concerns (again, since my morality is not universal, like Yann’s, but human all the way down), I am okay with eating meat, despite the suffering it entails. I would feel bad to see it up-close, and I try to buy organic, grass-fed for that reason and others, but my concern is not categorical against suffering of all kinds, when it gives me nourishment.

Walden spoke up to say that he thought there was a spectrum at play here. Certainly, he said, most of us can agree that nobody should kill an elephant simply for its ivory tusks (though millions upon millions across Asia and much of the world would disagree with this… Walden was, I think, meaning people in the room presently). Yet, he continued, some of the other ways that we exploit animals are more difficult to reject out of hand, and this includes the eating of meat. While reading Safina’s book, Walden stopped eating meat for three days, but then he resumed it under pressure from his wife. It gets harder, he argued, to make these distinctions as we move along the spectrum… away from greed and towards need.

I took another stab at the middle of the spectrum. I emphasized that I do care about another animal suffering, whether a cow, a pig, a chicken, or even a cat or a monkey. Yet my compassion only goes so far. It’s different when it comes to humans. I draw a line at human suffering — I consider it more actionable — for the simple reason that I can imagine myself in another person’s position so easily.

Perhaps it is other people’s ability to communicate with me that makes the difference? (A human behind a chain-link fence could argue his case against factory farming of his flesh for consumption; a cow can’t.) The fact is, when it comes to a cow… or a cat… there is a gap between us just wide enough for me to tolerate eating that cow’s… or cat’s… meat (for the record, I have never eaten a cat — but Yann asked about these more rare delicacies, trying to get me to budge my “morally superior” line away from humans).

Yann announced that the conversation was, to his surprise, making him swing to the opposite extreme of vegetarianism! Logic, he felt, compelled him to take the position that we should, and he would, if so inclined, eat human flesh as well as animal flesh. It was not clear whether it was a coincidence, but at this exact moment both Setenay and Anne, who had been sharing the couch with him, cleared out “to go refill their glasses.” Left alone, undeterred, Yann continued to insist that he would bite down on human flesh just as he would a ham sandwich.

I objected, again,  to his understanding of what “morality” means. He seems to base it on some false notion of finding a consistent and universal point of reference for it. In his case, perhaps he believes the basis of morality is logic? (I wasn’t sure.)  What I do know, I said, is that in my understanding morality is more of a loose association of social obligations, a constantly changing, fluid system of praise and blame. Eating his fellow human beings, though arguably logically sound, would have severe consequences for Yann in almost any social setting. It would pose a threat to the harmony and safety of the group. He would, therefore, find himself shamed, exiled, punished, shunned. It would therefore be “wrong.” There is no deeper sense of “wrong” available to us.

The shaming, the exile — these are not extraneous consequences. They are not merely the result of Yann’s impressive moral-logical consistency; this is, rather, how morality works in the real world. It does not operate in a vacuum. It operates in a social context (hence, as I say, it is, unavoidably species-dependent). Just to get his attention, I drew an unpleasant analogy to rape. In many cases it would feel good, right? If ruled by instinct alone, many men might choose to pursue it. But as in the case of cannibalism, such actions would not come without severe consequences. And hence most men do not, in most structured social settings, engage in rape (and thank goodness, many soldiers have become so acculturated and accustomed to not rape that they desist even in war or other chaotic settings).

Heather pointed out that our capacity for “othering” living creatures, be they animals of other species or sub-populations of our own, is enormous. She argued, therefore, that humans are easily led to cause immense suffering in many ways, cannibalism and rape being two of many possible examples of this. So Yann is right, she said, that there is no moral absolute that bars such practices. That is not the same, however, as condoning it.

I tried to steer the discussion away from these extreme cases of cannibalism and rape… back to our broader question:

How would accepting, really accepting, ourselves as animals change us?

The Animals In Our Lives

Tamara mentioned that she always has had deep and specific and meaningful relationships with animals, be they squirrels in the trees, dogs, birds. It gives her joy to encounter these other lives every day. Renee mentioned that when she was young she stared into the eyes of her grandmother’s horses, and as a result she has always been aware that they look back as much as we look at them. I talked about how my relationship with our skittish cat, Cozy, has changed, since reading this book. Whereas I had previously seen her behavior as merely that — behavior — now I see her run under the bed and I recognize that this is her character. I feel a wave of sympathy for her. I am aware that this is Cozy, and no other. She is anxious. The “who” of her finds my footsteps threatening, and she needs to take cover, regardless of the irrationality of such a response after years of living in this house with me. That’s how her brain responds, and it is real (cortisol released and all the rest).

I have taken to walking more gently when I can.

We also talked about zoos and pets. In both cases, as John Berger points out in the great article that Setenay sent in, we have framed animals in an artificial way. In zoos they are degraded and confined. In our houses they are domesticated and dependent, and to add insult to injury, wearing clothes and wristwatches in our children’s books.

I mentioned that I suddenly felt bad, while reading Berger, that we had spayed our three cats, Cozy, Rhino and Love Dolphin, when they were young. By doing so we took away their opportunity,  given to them in this brief life, for having kittens. Sure, there may be reasons not to have yet another litter of kitties introduced to the world, but this more general concern does not obviate the very personal, very intimate concerns of our particular cats, who would likely have enjoyed having their own kitties to lick and raise and cuddle. Again, here we go imposing our own morally “superior” primate outlook — save Berkeley from too many cats! — to enforce a definite loss in the quality of cats’ lives by spaying them.

If You Got a Chance to Hug a Killer Whale, What Would You Say to Her?

I posed a question for the group. If you found yourself swimming, naked, in the ocean, and a killer whale approached, and you discovered that, strangely, while hugging her close you could speak to her and be understood… what would you say?

I admitted, with sadness, that I would feel somewhat embarrassed to be a member of the species called homo sapien. I think I would have the urge to say, “I’m sorry for all we have done.” Yann agreed with this.

Gerry countered that once we accept that we are merely animals (and grieve for all of our grandiosity and exploitation of resources, and so on), then we need to step up. Why not aspire to be “Wolf 21” (an impressive wolf discussed in Safina’s book)? Why not be the best, most creative, most unforgettable primate you can possibly be?

“Do you mean like… Donald Trump?” I asked.

“I’m not going to specify what constitutes flourishing for any one, individual primate,” Gerry answered. “Sure, in Trump’s case, his public persona, his hotels, his money, may indicate that he is flourishing. In another person’s case, being ‘Wolf 21’ may look very different. My point is not to use our acceptance of our animality as an excuse for passivity.”

I explained that rather than make me feel passive, or a victim, when I acknowledge that I am “just an animal” it lifts me. For some reason it makes me more aware of the wide scope available to me, and all of us, in this life. It also reminds me that I cannot entirely control my circumstances, despite this wide scope. We have so many urges and chemical surges and language games to play and group dynamics to shape… and so many unexpected things will happen to us, too. I do want to be ‘Wolf 21’ (as soon as I figure out what that looks like to me — it’s a little clearer for Mr. Trump I think). So I didn’t think Gerry and I disagreed that much, after all.

As I write this it occurs to me that it might be useful to contrast two images.

One: a hairy primate. (I like how the stock photo says “Dreamstime” at the bottom. Is he dreamy? I can’t tell.)


Two: a marble statue of a human figure in its ideal form, as imagined by the ancient Greeks.


Both represent humans. Still, how do we get from image one to image two? How do we recognize our animal status but continue to dream of perfection? Are they both true? Can they co-exist? Or do they cancel each other out?

Can Helen of Troy be the most beautiful woman in the world, worthy of a ten-year siege of Troy, but also be (woefully? wonderfully?) a hairy primate with an attractive vulva positioned for reproduction?

The magic of sex, it occurs to me, is that both images converge into one, for a brief spell! The abstracted beauty, the idea of perfection, but also the specific and sweaty truth of the matter. Both supplement the other.

But I digress.

The Troubled State of Humankind

A few days later, I am forgetting much. (I recall a very interesting contribution from Steve, for example, with Gerry adding to it, but can’t remember the content of that particular discussion.) I do remember, however, that at the end of the meeting we got around to an assessment of human angst generally. Why, members of the group asked, do we seem to be the most troubled, the most ambivalent, of animals?

If elephants and killer whales (to name two species who, like us, have complicated social lives) show grace and love and loyalty, qualities we aspire to in our own primate relationships, then can we learn from them?

Will we ever learn to live more harmoniously with our fellow animals?

Someone pointed out that it is likely that the problem of self-loathing, of self-disgust, did not exist for homo sapiens for many thousands of years. We might have had bad days (surely we had bad hair days), but we didn’t feel ashamed at our own species.

It was with the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, that we got shunted into close proximity and saw ourselves in a new light. We began to dwell on our viscous side, our manipulative side, our deceit. All of these qualities were always with us (they are with many animals), but now they became, painfully, more obvious. Frequent interactions with other humans can bring you down.

For a while we created a myth of progress and transcendence, as a kind of compensation. Our religions promised relief from our animal nature. But as we enter the 21st century that has become a stale dream. We recognize that despite some accumulated advances in culture, in some areas of the world at least — no public executions, no general tolerance for wife-beating or rape — despite all this, we are still stuck with ourselves.

So we seek in animals, perhaps, a lost innocence. An enviable ignorance, even. We wish ourselves back to a time when we were isolated enough, busy enough, verbally limited enough, not to see our own staggering limitations. Now we look around, glance in the newspaper, and all we can see is the status-mongering, the violence, the resource-hoarding. And it hurts.

Why do we look to animals? What can we learn from them?

After our discussion I would say that I still don’t know. Except for minor changes in my perspective (more sympathy for Cozy, who sits next to me right now licking her paws and looking nervous), I don’t know how my awareness of animals’ inner lives, and my acceptance of my own animals status, changes me. Yet, as I said at the meeting, I have an intuition that this awareness is at the core of a new kind of post-supernatural human morality… Much thinking and discussing and living still to do.

You? Write in with a comment to explain more about how recognizing yourself as an animal has changed you, if at all.

Thanks for a great talk everybody. I’m looking forward to our January meeting. Part of me feels that we we should pursue this subject farther.

I also want to address at some point, squarely, the role of anti-religious, anti-supernatural advocacy… in our age of open bigotry. Can they be made distinct? Can you be against religion but not give encouragement to those who preach hate against Muslims or other religious people? Interesting times. Troubling times. But then, what do you expect from a bunch of primates?


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