Humans and animals: Are humans animals?

The area “humans and animals” is huge and has the potential to take me fumbling down many different rabbit holes.  This is one of the reasons why I’m dedicating a month to each area, at least for now.  Otherwise I think it would be very easy to turn round and realise I’ve spent a year looking at the relationship between humans and animals, or even a whole year just looking at why we differentiate ourselves.  Which brings me neatly onto my first rabbit warren.

Are humans animals?

I say yes, humans are animals.  But linguistic convention tends to separate us.  And how we speak of humans and animals informs how we think about them and what we believe about them.  Because of this, I find the OED definition of animals to be pertinent to this question:

1. A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialised sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.
1.1. Any such living organism other than a human being.
1.2. A mammal, as opposed to a bird, reptile, fish, or insect.
1.3. A person without human attributes or civilising influences, especially someone who is very cruel, violent, or repulsive.

This definition is clearly distinguishing humans from animals and the final definition is working from the assumption that animals are lesser than humans, that they are “cruel, violent and, or, repulsive”.  But if we look at the etymology of the word animal, we find a more inclusive way of thinking.  Animal comes from the latin anima – breathe – and animalis – having breathe.

The field of ecolingustics is concerned with the stories we live by and how those stories affect our thoughts and, as a result, our behaviours.  To follow the definition of animal being one that does not include humans divides us.  The stories we tell ourselves, the stories our society tells, separates humans from animals and elevates us over them.  It becomes a competition of sorts.  But one where we already treat ourselves as the obvious winner.  As an example of how words shape our thinking, what do you assume when I mention a wild wolf?  And how is that different to docile dog?  Both are neutral descriptions, but I imagine you saw the wild wolf as feral and primal but the docile dog perhaps as curled up by a fire with its owner.  I find it interesting to look at why we think like this.  Today I suspect it’s because it’s such a key part of ideology of our culture that we don’t tend to question it.  Humans as different, as superior to, animals is an assumption that often goes unchallenged.  But where did this idea stem from?

Well, my reading has highlighted a couple of areas.  One being religion and the other capitalism.

Aside: there are various arguments about humans having language or humans being cooperative or using tools etc that are used to suggest that humans are different to animals but many of these “rules” have exceptions and don’t stand up to tests.  I feel that this is more of a definition issue with scientists and philosophers seeking a definition for animals that does not explicitly have to discount us.

In terms of religion, and I am speaking very very broadly in generalisations and stereotypes here, humans are not animals.  In Judeo-Christian religions, man is created in the image of god and thus is sacred.  Apparently, the bible also separates men from nature explicitly but I confess my knowledge of the bible is very limited.  This way of thinking suggests that man, as the image of god, is infinitely more valuable than any other living thing.  As a side note, man created in the image of god and then created woman from man, thus by extension making women less valuable than men and closer to nature.  This is something that I want to unpick more when I look at gender and nature.  The bible also suggests that only humans have souls or spirits, again separating us from animals and making us superior.  It’s possible to fall into a black hole of internet pages if you wish to find out more about this.

There is also the question of evolution.  If you take the bible literally, you deny evolution and this makes it easier to deny humans are animals.  This way of thinking means we just appeared out of nowhere, or from god, fully formed as humans.  And in that context, it makes it possible that we are apart from animals.  Arguably still similar but it’s easier to separate us than if you belief we evolved from animals.  For if we evolved from animals, when did we become more than animals.

Arguably a modern version of religion, one that many many people subscribe to, is that of capitalism.  The ideology that more is good, that money is good, that we should all be maximising our prosperity and living for ourselves as an individual not as part of a community.  When it comes to nature and animals, this means seeing plants and animals as commodities, as resources, as potential profit.  It also validates the selfish, human centric approach to life.  And when nature becomes part of a production chain, it is no longer valued in the same way.  Businesses talk of trees in terms of tonnes of timber, of animals as food producing machines.  We distance ourselves from nature with the language of capitalism.  And when we distance ourselves, we’re erasing the value of nature and the importance of animals.  To talk of the many wonderful tree species in an area as a plantation takes away their individual worth and beauty and lives.  To talk of euthanizing piglets is to steal their identities and leave us uncaring about their deaths.  And to do all of this, we must separate ourselves from animals.

From a more secular or scientific perspective humans are generally considered animals.  To find a definition of animals which doesn’t expressly state “other than humans” is tricky.  We share DNA, we share behaviours, we share anatomy and so on.  The more we learn about animals, the closer our connections and similarities appear to be.

In reality, I think most people probably live on a gradient of belief when it comes to this question.  At one end, humans are humans and at the other, wild wolves are animals.  But in between, pets are considered pseudo-humans.  Then come the nice animals that we like and then right at the bottom of the scale is where the uglier animals hang out and those which we cannot relate to or empathise with.  This hierarchy of worth spans from full human at the top down to true animal at the bottom, with worth decreasing as you fall.  But even within this spectrum, the boundaries are changeable.  The beloved, part of the family, pet dog can become “just a dog” when circumstances change and there is no longer space in the family’s life for it.  And most people would put a labrador puppy in a different place on the spectrum to a vicious pit bull, for example.

The idea of a scale was actually put forward by Aristotle back in sometime between 384-322 bc as the scala naturae.  This would be developed further in the middle ages into the Great Chain of Being which placed God at the top, followed by angels, demons, stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.  This hierarchy came from wikipedia and I can’t find out much about the wild animal, domesticated animal distinction and why they would be so ordered.  To me, today, it would feel more intuitive to place domesticated animals above wild ones but perhaps that says more of our culture and our tendency towards keeping pets.

As the title of Hal Herzog’s book says, “Some we love, some we eat and some we hate”, we have an inconsistent relationship with animals.  There is a mix of logic and rationality along with emotion and intuition which shape our reactions to different species.  The line between pets and humans is blurring with the creation of doggy spas, clothes, cat houses and so on, in fact over 60% of US households have a pet.  But also, ¾ Americans support the right to hunt.  It is not that pet owners are inherently animal lovers, it is that they love that individual.  We can plough money into the plight of the panda but it would take a lot of convincing for most people to donate to helping the frog species which are plunging into extinction.

This inconsistent relationship with animals makes it hard to clearly and distinctly separate humans and animals.  But why does it matter?  Well that’s the subject of the next post!

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