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.
This erosion of the argument for human uniqueness has not gone unnoticed and has led to a new spate of attacks upon humanism, not so much from the religiously minded but from those who are interested in the welfare of animals, and in establishing a properly ethical relationship between humans and other beasts.
For decades proponents of animal rights have used the scientific evidence of biological continuism to advocate a complete rethinking of our relationship to, and treatment of, other species. The term “speciesism”, coined by psychologist Richard Ryder in 1971 and popularised in Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation, was used by animal rights advocates to describe what they denounce as an immoral form of radical anthropocentrism. For them, assuming the superiority of the human, and owning and using animals for labour or entertainment, amounts to a form of prejudice akin to racism.
Human uniqueness is also under attack from a quite different perspective. The so-called Transhumanists argue that humans have now become such advanced creatures that they are able to direct their own evolution by technological means. They are excited about the possibilities of genetic manipulation, digital interfacing (like the downloading of consciousness into computers) and especially the image of the ultimate synthesis of human and machine, the cyborg. Transhumanism is critical of humanism because it doesn’t go far enough. Since humans are so special and there is no God, why not follow through by developing a “better” person through technology?
A third, more complex stream of anti-humanism derives from the poststructuralism and postmodernism of the 1980s and ’90s. Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida launched a sustained attack upon the humanism embodied in the tradition of the Enlightenment and particularly in the ideas of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s theory of human subjectivity we are the only creatures who think and feel the way we do. But the way in which we do this is the same for every individual. In other words, we are exceptional as a species, but fundamentally identical as members of that species. Poststructuralism, inspired in part by the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who called Kant a “moral fanatic” and refuted his universalism), denies the existence of this universal human subject and is thus “anti-humanist”.
There is now an even newer critique of humanism, which combines elements of these three versions of anti-humanism. It comes complete with a new disciplinary name, Posthumanities, and a book series of the same name edited by Cary Wolfe, Professor of English at Rice University, Texas. This version of posthumanism relies upon the latest findings in animal behaviour to challenge previous assumptions about the “different” character of animal consciousness and behaviour. It aims to produce a theory which would displace humanism altogether and substitute a sound ethical theory upon which to base human interactions with other species. How well do its products match its ambitions?
There is one text which is almost canonical for animal studies and that is the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, in which the great deconstructionist ponders what happens when we gaze at animals and they gaze back at us. Given the text’s dense and convoluted structure, I hesitate to offer a definitive interpretation, but within the posthumanist community it appears to be read the following way: Derrida has no truck with biological continuism. He sets man absolutely apart from other species and then talks about our relation to them as to “the animal”, i.e. we see them as something apart from us. He then claims that our ethical attitude towards animals is generated from sympathy as we project our own finitude (i.e. we know that we die) on to them and come to sympathise with their fate. This leads to us into a tangled relationship with animals that is bound together by an ethics of responsibility and compassion.
Wolfe makes heavy use of Derrida, arguing that if consciousness is closed (in that the only conscious subject I can know as a conscious subject is myself), communication with others (in the broadest possible sense) is necessarily open and, as such, transcends (goes beyond) the closure of consciousness. What he wants to say is that the same process is at work whether we are looking at other humans or at animals, hence there is no secure distinction between them. (I wonder whether he thinks it holds when we gaze at plants as well?)
We can turn to another book in the Posthumanities series for a rather more accessible argument. Donna J Haraway is the queen of posthuman theory and her influence on posthumanism is undeniable. (It replicates the impact she had upon academic feminism in her endlessly cited 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.”) Central to her book When Species Meet is her relationship with her dog Miss Cayenne Pepper: notably their progress in the sport of canine agility, in which they compete at a high level. Haraway presents this as a paradigm intermingling of species as she and Miss Pepper grow closer together through mutual training. One way she presents this case is by publishing her emails on the subject in which we learn, amongst other things, that Miss Cayenne Pepper is a “Klingon Warrior Princess” and Haraway “a border collie at heart”. While she is undeniably capable of great theoretical rigour (she has a background in biology), the emails are symptomatic of a general trend in Haraway’s work – a sort of West Coast 1960s utopianism, where everything will get better if we could all just hold hands (or paws).
Overall one has to wonder whether Haraway’s enthusiasm for her hobby has clouded her judgment as to its theoretical importance. One way that she attempts to legitimise her approach is to refer to creatures we live with as “companion animals” rather than pets. But despite her implicit denials, there is an obvious power relationship at work here which privileges the human: the dog literally jumps through hoops because she demands it. Her riposte is that the dog enjoys it, but this is only because she has been trained via positive reinforcement to do so. Haraway herself admits that the way she thinks and talks about her dogs is not the norm among agility handlers, but if this is a natural outcome of what happens when species meet in work and play, surely it should be a common thing? At this point Haraway’s claims for her relationship with her dogs start to look like special pleading.
While much of the ethical discourse centred around posthumanism and deriving from animal studies is focused upon compassion and responsibility, one has to question why such traits should be seen as somehow at odds with humanism. To place the human centre-stage does not really imply that one is not compassionate towards, or does not feel responsibility for, other species. Furthermore, responsibility arguably comes about via a privileged position in the first place.
The key event in Bradshaw’s book is the behaviour of a group of rogue bull elephants in Africa who became atypically aggressive both towards each other and, more strikingly, towards rhinos. These elephants started to attack and kill the rhinos; there was also evidence of an elephant attempting to copulate with a rhino. Bradshaw’s claim, which she backs up extensively with evidence from work done with elephants in the wild, in captivity (i.e. zoos and circuses) and in sanctuaries, is that elephants are intensely sensitive, social and intelligent beings. As calves, these bulls would have witnessed the majority of their social group being culled by hunters, whilst tethered to the bodies of their dead mothers to stop them escaping, before being shipped off to the unfamiliar reserve in which they now live. Bradshaw draws parallels between their behaviour and that of humans after similarly horrific events. Her conclusion is that the elephants are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. What this implies for how elephants ought to be treated does not need spelling out.
In contrast to the extravagant flights of fancy of the posthumanists, Bradshaw backs her claims with a wealth of convincing evidence. Intriguingly, given posthumanism’s desire to rally animal studies to the anti-humanist banner, the framework in which Bradshaw writes is essentially a humanist one. For example, whilst explicitly comparing the experience of indigenous Africans during and after colonisation to that of African elephants, she never claims that humans are just like elephants. Instead a behaviourist approach to the two species reveals that there are sufficient similarities between us and them to draw inferences about actions and behaviour in both directions, hence the subtitle What Animals Teach Us about Humanity.
An example of the kind of lesson she has in mind is provided in Bradshaw’s discussion of the treatment of captive elephants by their handlers. The details of how elephants are routinely subject to violence in order to get them to perform in circuses are fairly well known these days. Less well documented is that similar tactics are employed by zoos in order to domesticate their charges. Bradshaw poses a problem of psychological interpretation: how can we understand a handler who is prepared to chain an elephant and deliver a prolonged beating and yet professes love for his charge, acknowledges that it is a sensitive and intelligent creature and sheds copious tears when it dies. Her claim is that the same basic psychological processes are at work in spouse beaters and also the doctors who served in Nazi death camps, who would treat patients they then selected for the gas chamber. The implication is that if we can understand the elephant handler’s behaviour, it will help us to understand that of the others. 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.
One of the grounding principles of humanism, agreed upon by both its supporters and detractors, is some form of anthropocentrism. However, anthropocentrism is not the same thing as speciesism and while the latter may well be ethically dubious, it is not at all clear that the former is necessarily so. For example, if her apartment block was on fire, who would Donna Haraway rescue first: her dog or her neighbour’s baby? From a humanist perspective, the answer seems obvious. Yet posthumanism and some branches of animal studies would seem to advocate the dog and you don’t have to be a Kantian to find that grotesque.
Here, surely, is the question we should be asking: is it better to try to transcend a humanism we can never escape, or to embrace and work within it for the benefit of all beasts, above all ourselves?