Looking nonhumans in the eye.
Image: Elephant Man by Chris Gallucci
In 1927 Bertrand Russell wrote his now famous essay “Why I Am Not A Christian” and outlined the general reasons for why he rejected such an ideology. This approach has been followed by other writers such as Ibn Warraq in Why I Am Not A Muslim, Ramendra Nath in his essay “Why I Am Not A Hindu” and David Dvorkin in his “Why I Am Not A Jew.” My own choice of title is not in the same tradition as these other writers (since I agree with much of what humanism has to offer), but I do share with them a concern over how a system of thought frames peoples interactions with the world around them.
I first read Russell’s essay a few years after being confirmed as a Lutheran and, of the many reasons offered for his views, it was the moral argument that stuck with me:
You will find that in the Gospels Christ said: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of this sort into the world.
Such arguments, along with the incompatibility of evolutionary biology with the Christian tradition, led me to abandon my faith.
However, feeling incomplete without a way to define myself, I quickly came across the concept of humanism through the work of my favorite author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He had been bestowed with the honor of being honorary President of the American Humanist Association, so he clearly knew what he was talking about. In his final book before kicking the proverbial bucket, A Man Without A Country, he had this to say on what being a humanist was all about:
How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do. “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.
But something always sat uncomfortably with me about the term (let alone the slight to poor rattlesnakes). My studies in evolutionary biology revealed that, far from privileging humans as separate from the web of life, we were intricately interwoven within it. Furthermore, the difference between any human and any chimpanzee was less than between that chimpanzee and a gorilla. We are, in fact, the third chimpanzee, a naked ape who donned fine clothing and manners as a way to mask our animal heritage. Humanism, at least in the view of many adherents, removes supernatural justifications for human uniqueness yet emphasizes the importance of “civilized man” as something separate from mere beasts.
This aspect of humanism is discussed in the latest issue of New Humanist magazine with John Appleby’s article entitled “Man & Other Beasts“:
Consider Richard Dawkins. As a prominent supporter of non-religious causes his humanist credentials are impeccable. In his most recent book The Greatest Show on Earth he elegantly gathers together all the current (overwhelming) evidence that evolution is a far more reliable account of the genesis of humanity than any form of supernaturalism. He discusses how species are born; detailing the way in which most species have more in common with each other than many suppose, and how the boundaries between species are blurred rather than fixed (this is known as “biological continuism”). While such an account strengthens the first humanist thread in providing an alternative to biblical explanations of origins, it simultaneously weakens the second one, in that it undermines the idea that humans are somehow unique, let alone “superior” to other species.
Much of Appleby’s article discusses the work of such theorists as Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway. I have read Foucault and Haraway the way a heron might swallow a bird: as a task that doesn’t come naturally but which you choke down because you already started. As you might imagine, it wasn’t very satisfying. I find much of their writing needlessly opaque and I haven’t read any of the other theorists that Appleby mentions. However, I think the larger issue is an important one. Humanism is a response to theism and seeks to find a meaningful existence for our fellow human beings without the supernatural. But I prefer to have a worldview that incorporates all of the natural world.
Towards the end of his article Appleby addresses this through the work of psychologist G.A. Bradshaw in her book Elephants on the Edge. Bradshaw’s study of elephants shows how neuroscience is already becoming a “trans-species discipline” and that aspects of behavior that were once thought exclusive to human beings are being found in nonhumans. In her book Bradshaw seeks to understand the behavior of rogue male elephants that display unusual aggression towards each other and odd behavior towards other species (different individuals either attempted to attack or have sex with a rhinoceros). Her conclusion is that many are displaying signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As Bradshaw wrote in the journal Nature:
How PTSD manifests has long been a puzzle, but researchers today have a better idea as to why the effects of violence persist so long after the event. Studies on animals and human genocide survivors indicate that trauma early in life has lasting psychophysiological effects on brain and behaviour. . .
Elephant society in Africa has been decimated by mass deaths and social breakdown from poaching, culls and habitat loss. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are only half a million left today. Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human PTSD: abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour and hyperaggression.
Elephants are renowned for their close relationships. Young elephants are reared in a matriarchal society, embedded in complex layers of extended family. Culls and illegal poaching have fragmented these patterns of social attachment by eliminating the supportive stratum of the matriarch and older female caretakers (allomothers).
In an earlier era, the idea that human psychological conditions could be diagnosed in other animals would have been immediately rejected by many biologists as anthropomorphism (a few may still object today, though that number is receding dramatically). The objection would have been that we can’t know the psychological state of other animals so using human terms applied to them is inappropriate. While it is certainly important not to fall into the kind of crude anthropomorphism that reflexively assumes other animals experience the world the same way humans do (they don’t), it is equally important to avoid what primatologist Frans de Waal has called anthropodenial. When common behaviors are the result of the same or comparable experiences in different species, it is reasonable to assume a common state of mind. This is especially true when these species are closely related to one another.
In his article Appleby points out how this trans-species commonality has traditionally been a problem for humanism, but that a more inclusive view of human beings as part of the natural world may actually help us better understand ourselves as well as our nonhuman cousins.
Thus in allowing ourselves to imagine the inner life of the elephant, to allow that they have one and that it can be scarred by the way it is treated in a way analogous to human trauma, we can develop both a deeper understanding of the quality of our relations to them and a deeper understanding of ourselves.
I’m happy to see that my humanist friends are opening their vision to incorporate other species in the qualities they admire. Rather than creating a division between “man and beast” it’s far more inspiring to view all living beings as sharing a biological continuity. Understanding our “bestial” nature needn’t undermine our positive qualities, if anything it can help us create conditions that limit those behaviors while emphasizing others. In the human zoo we’ve designed for ourselves we need all the good ideas we can muster.
*With apologies to Bertrand Russell