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05/03/2013

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Jaimey

Thanks, Tom, for good summary of the heated discussion at the end.

I think we are having an on-going discussion of what it means to underscore human's animal nature. It sounds to me that you are reading a lot of this work, which is certainly compelling (it is going on a lot in the theoretical circule in lit crit/theory as well), but I think, like most simple statements, "humans are (just) animals" is a reductive statement that can be used and abused in various ways.

First, I don't think you'd find many people who would dispute "humans are animals." This is not exactly news, and, in fact, much 18th-century philosophical discourse was obsessed with the meaning of this question and the status of humans (not a mistake that it emerged when science and secularization was becoming more widespread).

But the question is what does that kind of statement mean? One still has to decide on what to focus within the definition of "animal." And besides, are not animals, esp. species, themselves highly differentiated? Is a chimp one or another thing because it shares some (human) classificatory scheme with a fly? I don't really think so. In fact, the chimp would likely be offended at an emphasis on what it shares with the fly rather than its own species' unique attributes.

To give an idea of the ideological stakes to the discussion, see an article like this about what makes humans (generally) different than its animal brothers and sisters:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/health/04iht-snangier.1.20589891.html?pagewanted=all

pull quote: "(about humans') relative pacifism. . . Chimpanzees are pretty smart, but were you to board an airplane filled with chimpanzees, you "would be lucky to disembark with all 10 fingers and toes still attached," Hrdy writes."

The emphasis on our animal natures can all too easily become (as it often has, see late 19th-century social darwinism) an emphasis on how animals compete with one another and how we humans should do more of this, how competitive (Verdurin?) behavior like that is "natural," etc.. On the other hand, by emphasizing our cooperative characteristics, the slant/emphasis goes in a different direction (like that on Marcel and his grandmother).

At a philosophical (and social/political level - aka allocation of limited resources,including our attention), I'd rather focus on what makes us different from (many) animals, namely our cooperative characteristics, than our competitive ones. Of course both of those can be said to belong to our animal natures, but the emphasis on one over the other shows how important the definition we use/emphasize is. It is a (crucial) question of how we define the animal in ourselves and in what theoretical basket we put the eggs of our attention and efforts.

Tom

Agreed that different animals and species are very different. Thank god we are not monkey, nor flies. ("Thank god" meant ironically, or course.)
And agreed that we shouldn't be reductive in how we speak (or think) about the fact that we are "animals." (This trope, so familiar, is actually, I think, a product of that same binary thinking of Man vs. Wild -- it just takes the "animal" side, and not the "human" one. This is just as dangerous, I agree, as taking only the "human" side of this false distinction.)
I am hoping, rather, to expand the associations people have when they think "animal," so that we don't think of it as a primitive or reflexive or stinking or unmannered or a sexually wild state of being. It is simply what we are. I want people to think of everything they do as "animal," not some narrow subset of their behaviors. When we do this then we can more easily jettison the supernatural, other-worldly verbiage that clogs our moral discourse.

Tom

More food for thought: the brilliant biologist Robert Sapolsky on the effects of different environments and resources (one is almost tempted to say culture) on baboons -- and how they alter their behavior when moved to a new setting:

http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2008/04/05/peace-among-primates-by-robert-sapolsky/

It makes you think of Morel. Or Odette. Or the way Swann is described as changing (at the start of The Guermantes Way), as he changes social sets.

Heather

Yep, I agree that it is important to be humble to the fact that we are biologically driven animals, and not just because this helps with portion control. All our our moralistic drives are themselves adaptations (ones which happen to have been fantastically, devastatingly successful). It’s a good reminder not to hold our convictions too seriously and to remember we believe what we believe because we must perceive the world from a limited perspective. Nobody gets to have a ‘God’s eye view’. But after you’ve nodded to this fact, then what? You’ve got to put your head down and get back to the business of meaning-making. Aren’t you making a straw man of our dear Proust? Yes, maybe he is a snob just like the snobs he criticizes, fraudulently invoking moral authority for his solution to existential despair. That’s ok, he doesn’t have to be perfect. Isn’t this sort of like discovering that the 8th grade history teacher you idolized smokes in the teacher’s lounge? Can’t we engage in adaptive double think, and concede that we just have to pick some meaning system and then fight for it? Otherwise, how do you bear the truth that as a high school friend put it, we are just ‘leaky bags of dirty water’, and all of life on Earth is just a freaky anti-entropic crust in an impersonal universe that really doesn’t give a fuck.

By the way, to add to the reading list here, Michael Tomasello has written about what he believes are uniquely human cooperative capacities, and how these may underlie our remarkable cognitive abilities (language, complex culture, institutions such as marriage and government). http://www.eva.mpg.de/psycho/staff/moll/pdf/Tomasello_et_alll.pdf Is he valorizing human abilities over those of other creatures? Sure! Because he is human, and so cannot escape human narcissism. We humans want to know what makes us unique and special, just like everyone else. Except not just like everyone else! I am pretty darn sure that no other species of animal cares how and why it is special. So nyah nyah to those spiders and their cool webs. They don’t have the neural structures that underlie the capacity to valorize.

Renee Clyde

I love you all. You rock... now back to the Vikings episode....

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