How much of an animal are you?

Baby chimpanzee

by Léa Salje- Lecturer in Philosophy of Mind and Language at The University of Leeds

I’m an anim­al, and so are you. We might be rather spe­cial anim­als, but we are anim­als all the same: bio­lo­gic­al organ­isms oper­at­ing in a par­tic­u­lar eco­lo­gic­al niche. For most of us, this is some­thing we’ve known for a long time, prob­ably since primary school. It’s per­haps sur­pris­ing, then, how little it seems to per­meate our every­day think­ing about ourselves, for many of us at least. I’m hardly minded to earn­estly con­tem­plate the fact of my anim­al­ity in my deal­ings with myself as I go about my daily busi­ness of coffee-ordering and Facebook-posting.

There’s also a ques­tion about how deeply the fact of our anim­al­ity genu­inely pen­et­rates the con­cep­tion of ourselves that guides our philo­sophy of mind, even among those of us happy to accept it on its sur­face. This was the ques­tion at the heart of the Persons as Animals pro­ject – an AHRC-funded pro­ject at the University of Leeds that I’ve been work­ing on for the last year led by Helen Steward, that aims to explore the ways in which cer­tain areas in philo­sophy of mind might be illu­min­ated by a per­spect­ive that fore­fronts the fact that we are anim­als. A couple of things (at least) fol­low from tak­ing such a per­spect­ive ser­i­ously. The first is that if we are anim­als, we are thereby not Cartesian egos, or brains, or sys­tems of inform­a­tion, or func­tion­al sys­tems, or bundles of men­tal states. We are entire embod­ied wholes, such that an under­stand­ing of ourselves requires a much more hol­ist­ic per­spect­ive than that which is often taken in philo­sophy of mind. And second, if we are anim­als then our powers and capa­cit­ies must be related in an evol­u­tion­ary way to those of oth­er creatures. This means that a decent under­stand­ing of those powers and capa­cit­ies – even rel­at­ively hifalutin powers like lan­guage and the capa­city to make choices – should bene­fit from a per­spect­ive that takes account of what is known of anim­al per­cep­tion, cog­ni­tion and agency.

Clearly, mere know­ledge of the bio­lo­gic­al fact of our anim­al­ity is not enough to mobil­ise these sorts of changes. One of the cent­ral planks of the pro­ject was that we need new and bet­ter ways to artic­u­late our place in the anim­al king­dom if we are to make philo­soph­ic­al pro­gress in these areas. And before we can do that, we need to under­stand what sorts of obstacles might have so far pre­ven­ted such an anim­al­ist­ic self-conception from really tak­ing hold.

To this end, the Persons as Animals pro­ject came togeth­er earli­er this year with con­ser­va­tion social sci­ent­ist Andy Moss from the edu­ca­tion depart­ment at Chester Zoo to run a series of semi-structured focus groups, designed to explore how we think of ourselves and our rela­tion to the anim­al world. What sorts of things get in the way of anim­al­ist­ic think­ing about ourselves? How might it be encour­aged? We ran 12 groups in all, 6 made up of zoo vis­it­ors, and anoth­er 6 of stu­dents from Leeds University.

What we found was a strik­ing absence of any uni­vocal nar­rat­ive about our sense of our own anim­al­ity. Instead, we found a deeply frac­tured and uneasy pic­ture: we do see ourselves as anim­als, and we don’t. And many of us struggle to recon­cile these two viewpoints.

Interestingly, this sense of unease came out in dif­fer­ent ways for dif­fer­ent par­ti­cipants. Some began with a firm sense of their own anim­al­ity, often accom­pan­ied by expres­sions of indig­na­tion at the very sug­ges­tion that we might think oth­er­wise. (Of course we’re anim­als; how dare we count ourselves as spe­cial?) The dis­cus­sion of these par­ti­cipants ten­ded to high­light the intel­li­gent beha­viours of oth­er anim­als, and to down­play our own beha­viours and capa­cit­ies as largely instinct-driven under a flimsy ven­eer of civility.

This is, of course, to fore­front the fact of our anim­al­ity in a way. But by so mag­ni­fy­ing our con­tinu­ity with the rest of the anim­al world, these par­ti­cipants seemed to face a spe­cial chal­lenge: they seemed to struggle to absorb into that anim­al­ist­ic self-image our ali­en­a­tion from and – even more troub­lingly – dom­in­a­tion over the nat­ur­al world around us. How can we recon­cile this self-conceived status as one spe­cies of anim­al among oth­ers on the one hand, with the eye-watering extent of our dam­aging impos­i­tions on the world around us on the oth­er? It’s one thing to think of ourselves as a spe­cial cat­egory of being, per­haps one that has the right (or even the duty) to organ­ise things for the whole of the nat­ur­al world. But that option is ruled out by a robust insist­ence on our lack of spe­cial­ness, of con­tinu­ity with oth­er anim­als. The only option remain­ing, how­ever, seems to be infin­itely more dis­turb­ing – that we are mere anim­als who have simply spir­alled out of con­trol. In the end, we often found these par­ti­cipants adopt­ing the rather ingeni­ous solu­tion of mov­ing from first per­son­al locu­tions to speak­ing in gen­er­al­isa­tions when dis­cuss­ing power asym­met­ries with the rest of the nat­ur­al world; ‘I don’t think we’re spe­cial, but the prob­lem is that people do’.

Others, by con­trast, began from a heightened sense of fun­da­ment­al dis­tinct­ness from oth­er anim­als. Even if we’re anim­als (sotto voce), we’re obvi­ously spe­cial. No danger among these groups of fail­ing to cel­eb­rate the spe­cial com­plex­ity of human beings. But these par­ti­cipants faced anoth­er chal­lenge, of recon­cil­ing this self-conception as fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent from oth­er anim­als with know­ledge of the bio­lo­gic­al fact of our animality.

Typically par­ti­cipants express­ing this sort of view repor­ted that their know­ledge of their anim­al­ity is highly muted or recess­ive as they go about their daily lives. Indeed, some repor­ted not only that it nor­mally faded into the back­ground, but more strongly that it took con­sid­er­able cog­nit­ive effort to bring it to mind and make it fit with how they really see them­selves. In one par­tic­u­larly mem­or­able artic­u­la­tion of this feel­ing, one par­ti­cipant recalled find­ing out that she was an anim­al, and think­ing of it ‘as more of a clas­si­fic­a­tion like fit­ting everything into bubbles, like when I real­ised the sun was a star. It has all the same prop­er­ties as the oth­er stars and that’s weird to you because you regard them very dif­fer­ently in your every­day life.’ Our anim­al­ity, the idea seems to be, is a mat­ter of indis­put­able sci­entif­ic fact which is nev­er­the­less some­how com­pletely at odds with our every­day con­cep­tu­al­isa­tions and categorisations.

Through dis­cus­sion, these groups too found cre­at­ive ways of dis­solv­ing the ten­sion. An extreme minor­ity reac­tion was to give up on the claim that we are anim­als as simply ‘not ringing true’. Another strategy, observed in an exten­ded dis­cus­sion by a group of phys­ics stu­dents, was to redraw the con­cep­tu­al bound­ar­ies of what it is to be an anim­al. If we aban­don the idea that anim­als must be bio­lo­gic­al organ­isms, then we cre­ate more space to com­fort­ably hold togeth­er both the fact that we are anim­als and the con­vic­tion that we are import­antly dif­fer­ent from oth­er mem­bers of the anim­al king­dom. To say that we are anim­als, after all, might now be to pos­i­tion ourselves us just as closely to com­puters as to cater­pil­lars. A third sort of res­ol­u­tion was to asso­ci­ate anim­al­ity with a very basic form of exist­ence; one that we have, by now, tran­scen­ded. We might once have been anim­als, the idea is, but we’ve now moved bey­ond it. With this response, par­ti­cipants were able to brack­et out uncom­fort­able facts about our anim­al natures as part of our evol­u­tion­ary his­tory, rather than present­ing them­selves as call­ing for incor­por­a­tion into our live self-conceptions. For the most part, how­ever, all of these responses were giv­en with observ­able unease and frank state­ments of felt dif­fi­culty in incor­por­at­ing the fact of our anim­al­ity into their every­day self-conceptions.

Among yet oth­er par­ti­cipants there emerged a quite dif­fer­ent view­point, this time one that seemed much bet­ter able to accom­mod­ate our claims to both anim­al­ity and to dis­tinct­ness. For this group, the traits, beha­viours and capa­cit­ies that might at first glance seem to sep­ar­ate us from the rest the anim­al king­dom are really just the res­ults of evol­u­tion­ary pro­cesses, like any oth­er. Cinemas, reli­gion, prog rock, i‑pads, sar­casm, nuc­le­ar weapons, cryptic cross­words and Shoreditch apart­ments don’t cut us off from the nat­ur­al world; they are part of it. We are, on this view, placed unflinch­ingly along­side oth­er anim­als in the nat­ur­al world, but not at the cost of a deni­al or deprec­a­tion of human complexity.

One of the cent­ral aims of the Persons as Animals pro­ject was to bet­ter under­stand our rela­tion­ship to our own anim­al­ity, so that we might in turn bet­ter under­stand how to instill more deep-rooted ways of think­ing of ourselves as anim­als into our philo­sophy of mind. Our res­ults seem to sug­gest that for many of us the answer is that the rela­tion­ship is a pro­foundly awk­ward one; we seem to be far from find­ing a stable rest­ing place for our sense of pos­i­tion in the anim­al world. This find­ing ought to put us on our guard in our philo­soph­ic­al prac­tices. We are not insu­lated, as philo­soph­ers, from the uneasy and con­flic­ted anim­al­ist­ic self-conceptions that seem­ingly under­lie our every­day think­ing about ourselves.