Thinking About Humans and Animals

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2014

by Heather Clague

It is interesting that the question of consciousness comes up when thinking about human exceptionalism, but I agree with you that there is ample evidence that many animals have forms of consciousness that we can easily recognize as sentient experience worthy of our empathic inquiry and moral consideration.  We cannot rest arguments that humans are unique on the presence of conscious experience.  Also, even if we do have mental capacities not shared by other animals, as you have pointed out, every species is ‘special’ in it’s own way, and it would be a mistake to valorize our particular peacock tails over the miraculous adaptations of each species to its particular set of selection pressures.

But if I am ready to say that we aren’t aesthetically or morally special, there is no denying our exceptionality in terms of evolutionary success.   We have the largest biomass of any single terrestrial species, and if we include the biomass of domesticated animals, humans and the animals under our dominion have the greatest biomass of any species on Earth. Is it not reasonable to wonder at what about ourselves has allowed this to happen?  Our cognitive and social-emotional capacities may not seem that much different than those of chimps, but whatever that difference is has been enough to allow us to swarm and drive them nearly to extinction.

I believe the capacity that has allowed us to separate ourselves from other creatures is our particular capacity to cooperate.  This ability emerges from an interrelated set of faculties that extend beyond mere consciousness, and include language, sophisticated empathy and motivation for intersubjective sharing, moral sense and cultural transmission.  We can find animal examples of these individual skills, but none come close to the degree manifest by humans.  At some point, a large enough quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference.  Had humans not stumbled into settled agriculture and the industrial revolution and taken over the world, I do not believe that chimps would have done so.  Planet of the Apes was never a possibility.  It is ironic, then, that the capacity that has allowed us to achieve near complete domination is based on our ability to feel that this domination may be wrong.

Is this group then not an opportunity to articulate a sophisticated morality that appreciates our mental capacities and acknowledges our modern social and environmental perils?  We are living at densities our brains and bodies did not evolve to handle, and we are most certainly altering the globe through climate change and mass extinction.  We evolved an ability to feel concern for others to serve our reproductive self interest; I take the view that effective ethical behavior is a form of enlightened self interest. Should we extend our moral concern to non-human creatures and the environment?  To people we don’t know living places we will never visit?  I’m afraid we have to; it’s become a small world, and as this horrific ebola outbreak is showing us, what goes around comes around.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking About Humans and Animals

  1. I agree with you that we humans have a unique status among animals. Our use of language and symbolic thinking certainly sets us far apart.

    (I’m not sure, though, that we should turn to our “biomass” as the measure of our uniqueness… Bacteria have more biomass collectively than us by a long stretch!)

    Still, despite our unique capacity for language and symbolic thinking (and hence, as you point out, social coordination), I think it is useful to keep fixed in our mind that we ARE ANIMALS, and not qualitatively different as you suggest — in one important respect. It is useful to be reminded that, like all other animals, we are simply the current iteration in a long adaptive process brought about by evolution. Our brains and bodies are full of countervailing urges and contradictions, never to be reconciled in some coherent and definitive way. Or as one neuroscientist puts it, the brain is a “hack” and is full of “bugs”.

    This gives us a good starting point, I think, to thinking about how to live. We are always going to have irreconcilable values and urges at work in us. The question is not getting it “right” but creating a framework in which people have maximum freedom to pursue their various interests and socially unite to accomplish goals they seek. Remembering I am an animal doesn’t let me off the hook as a human; it grounds me more in my unique human animality without illusions of pure reason or perfect harmony. Call it the “animal sense” — or the “tragic sense” — but it allows me to see things in terms of trade-offs and context instead of some god-like Answer for us and our planet.

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  2. I thought I was an unambivalent atheist, but you caught me in a religious moment in my little blog piece, suggesting there is a ‘right’ morality, a ‘best way’ out of our current global predicament.
    Well, if my thesis is “ethics are what is useful,” of course how we measure “useful” depends on who is asking. I also believe that “Truth is what is useful,” and the God’s eye view is a handy abstraction, certainly in mathematics, but also in day to day life. God is the projection of perfection, allowing us us to smooth over defects, to escape the oppressive infinitude of reality by collapsing the dimensionality of the world into something our little brains can comprehend.

    The religious urge is also a critical psychological defense, at times used with skill and subtlety, at times used with primitive brutality, against the horror of our own mortality, individually and collectively. Animals without autobiographical memory and the ability to model the future do not have to bear conscious awareness of their own demise and so do not need God. (We may not be alone in our ability to comprehend death – Elephants appear to have rituals for their dead.)

    We use terms like “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” to maintain a sense of psychological safety in a soul-less universe. Done crassly and we have binary thinking, black and white, heaven and hell: the afterlife as a “spiritual bypass.” But perhaps we can shift our religious urges from goal oriented striving for something materialistic or concrete (if I am good I will go to heaven, if I try hard enough, I will figure out the ‘right’ ethical stance) to an engagement in a process: “I accept the challenge to continuously revise the model of my world, to not shrink from knowing and feeling what is there merely because it is painful, while also making the choice to know there is always something to be grateful for and intentionally appreciating that.” (Sorry, I don’t seem to be able to find a way to describe this without sounding like a motivational speaker.) Let me be brave enough to gaze out at the world even as it causes a “spiritual shudder.”

    “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” From Close Range, Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx:

    You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled, ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country – indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky – provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut.

    Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’d celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crusts of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only an endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.

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