Salvador Dalí with his pet ocelot

This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist

The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology (Allen Lane) by John Bradshaw

Humankind (Verso) and Being Ecological (Verso) by Timothy Morton

Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Pelican) by Graham Harman

If you set a lot of store by the idea of humanism, you are bound to feel uneasy about the status of non-human animals. If you think that nothing matters morally apart from human happiness, then you will regard concern for animals as a sentimental category mistake, like worrying that your bedroom will miss you if you go away. You will be beguiled by the quirk of linguistic fate that led Victorian campaigners to call for “humane” treatment of animals, as if they saw cruelty as a derogation from human dignity rather than a violation of animal rights. You will be driven to despair by people who give money to animal charities, and you will endorse Mao’s celebrated line about pet-keeping: a bourgeois extravagance, and a relic of ancient superstitions. But are you really sure? Can’t a humanist be an animal lover too? Can a humanist keep a pet?

In The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw argues that we are living in an unprecedented age of mass pet-keeping. Bradshaw is one of the architects of a discipline called anthrozoology, which studies the whole range of relations between human beings and other animals. He approaches the topic from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, and cites ritual burials of animals as proof that our emotional involvement with other species goes back at least 50,000 years. He also argues that human–animal relations have had a decisive influence on social development. When our distant ancestors started taking an interest in wolves, they initiated a process of selective breeding that eventually gave rise to domesticated dogs, which then became part of the technical infrastructure of hunter-gatherer societies. With the transition to agriculture, dogs were trained to guard human settlements, while cats were enlisted to protect food stocks from vermin. Before long animals of other species were domesticated as beasts of burden or sources of food and clothing, and the human race was ready for economic lift-off. If our ancestors had not had a knack for relating to animals, we would still be living in the the early Stone Age.

According to Bradshaw, anthrozoological evolution has affected us at least as much as our animals. Human beings who had instinctive affinities with other species fared better than those who did not, eventually outbreeding them and leaving us with a yearning for animal company that is not easily satisfied within the mechanised routines of modern life. Hence the irresistible rise of petocracy.

People in advanced countries are now beginning to be outnumbered by pets, many of them answering to personal names – Charlie or Lucy, Hilda Ogden or Buster Keaton – and costing around £2,000 a year to maintain. What is the meaning of 21st-century petmania?

Unlike most books on pets, The Animals Among Us is rigorously unsentimental. Bradshaw finds no evidence for the claim that a pet brings health benefits to its owners – and he insists on calling them “owners”, even if they would prefer “guardians”, “carers” or even “parents”. Personally, he admits to taking pleasure in the “wet nose and wagging tail” that greet him when he gets home from work, but as a scientific rationalist he deplores any tendency to treat pets as if they were people. You may think he goes too far in lambasting owners who address their pets in baby-talk, buy them birthday presents or indulge in bouts of unrestrained fondling; but when he mentions Maori and Ainu practices of breast-feeding dogs, pigs and bears, and women in rural Brazil who suckle monkeys, even the most passionate petophile may squirm.

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As Bradshaw sees it, our attitude towards pets rests on the mistaken assumption that they are capable of intellectual processes comparable to our own. The mistake strikes him as fairly bizarre: the habit of “guessing what other people are thinking” appears to be “uniquely human” and – “given that we are the only bipedal hairless primate on the planet” – we ought to find it quite easy to tell whether or not our cuddle-partner is “a member of our own species”. From the point of view of modern scientific reason, moreover, the mistake has had unfortunate consequences in the form of “superstition, and subsequently religious belief”. From an evolutionary perspective, however, the misapprehension has been advantageous: when our Stone Age ancestors projected mentality onto the natural world they began to imagine it as intelligible and tractable; they started trying to bring it under control, which increased their chances of survival and reproduction. We now live in more enlightened days, but our brains evolved “before science”, and are still primed for an “automatic lapse into anthropomorphism”. Hence our compulsion to imagine that the non-human world has characteristics which – as we very well know – “science would restrict to our own species”. In spite of living in a scientific age, therefore, we persist in seeing non-human objects as having mind-like properties – the kind sun that smiles on us, the sadistic computer-programme that treats us like idiots, and above all the cute little animals that we adopt as pets.

Bradshaw’s argument is ingenious, but if you are not a humanist fundamentalist, it may strike you as superfluous. Why build a conceptual wall between ourselves and other species in the first place? Why assume that inter-species relationships must be invalid, perverse or deluded? Why not accept that love and mutuality can rise unbidden from contingencies of proximity and unreflective affection, enhancing the lives of all involved without reference to the proprieties of biological classification? Meaningful relationships between biological strangers are attested by common experience, and they have been analysed in several astute works of philosophy: for example The Philosopher’s Dog (2002) by Raimond Gaita, The Philosopher and the Wolf (2008) by Mark Rowlands and Other Minds (2016), a glorious account of the inner life of octopuses by the scuba-diving philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith. Bradshaw claims that such species-bending relationships depend on “imaginary constructions”, as if there was no more to them than a child’s fixation on a doll; but I would have thought that imaginary constructions are also involved in ordinary friendships between fully certified members of the human race. Without imagination, we would surely all be doomed.

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This response may look like a cop-out: leaky, pragmatic and anecdotal. You may still hanker for a precise theoretical definition of human nature – if not the biological one suggested by Bradshaw (“bipedal hairless primate”) then one rooted in moral philosophy, or metaphysics, or even ontology, the supposed science of what there ultimately is. In short you may find yourself attracted by a new book called Humankind, by a rising star of contemporary philosophy called Timothy Morton.

Morton presents himself as a communist and an anarchist, but he is also a self-proclaimed ontologist who hopes to change the world by thinking about it. Specifically he wants to discredit the idea of humanity, which he considers to be the central dogma of “Western philosophy”, which is itself no more than a “rationalised upgrade” of primitive superstition. Western philosophy, he explains, is a conspiracy to wrap us in a conceptual cocoon: a “smoothly bounded, impermeable human world” protecting us from an imaginary enemy we call “nature”. Western philosophy has, it seems, always been engaged in “the constant re-tweeting of the idea that we are souls or spirits inhabiting a body, like a liquid or a gas in a bottle”. For the past two and a half millennia, it has been pumping out a “vanilla essence consisting of white maleness”, thus confining us to a “patriarchal, hierarchical, heteronormative possibility space”.

Morton believes that this is about to change. Humanity will soon be annihilated, together with capitalism and neoliberalism, and it will be replaced by a generous and inclusive category which he refers to as humankind. But what exactly is humankind? Morton finds a clue in the last syllable of the word: humankind entails being kind, he says: and “being kind means being-in-solidarity with non-humans: with kind-red”. He backs up his hunch by reminding us that our bodies are hosts to non-human life in the form of millions of bacteria, which implies that, whether we like it or not, “humans and nonhumans are deeply connected”. It follows, he says, that humankind is “not some abstract being but a very specific one”, both “open” and “ungraspable”. Or in other words, “kind has to do with what we are”, and “humankind is humankind”.

It may be my own fault – I have experimented with various strains of “Western philosophy” over the years – but I find it hard to see anything shocking, original or even interesting in Morton’s notion of “humankind”. He thinks that his repudiation of any sharp demarcation between ourselves and other species will “upset Bertrand Russell”, but I am sure that Russell and other logicians would take it in their stride, recognising it as a set of corny old tunes from Lucretius, Spinoza, Leibniz and Emerson, mashed with a bit of Darwin and garnished with biological and etymological banalities. Morton’s would-be incendiarism looks to me like a shell without a bomb.

Morton writes books faster than most of us can read, and he has already taken the argument of Humankind to new heights in Being Ecological. He now prides himself on steering clear of the “facts” that weigh down every “ordinary book about ecology”, and sticking to high-octane ontology. (He talks very casually about Kant and Heidegger.) Old-fashioned ecologists who urge us to reduce our carbon-footprint are, he says, stuck in the same mindset that has pushed us to the brink of planetary disaster. For the last 12,000 years (or is it 3,000? Ontologists seem to disdain chronology), “we’ve been thinking we’re on top of things, outside of things or beyond things, able to look down and decide exactly what to do.” But it is time to break with this clapped-out tradition: we need to boldly admit that things are not always what they seem, and “no fact just plops out of the sky”. The components of reality may not be “totally meshed together”, and it follows that – contrary to what we have been told for 3,000 years (or is it 12,000?) – “there’s room for stuff to happen”. So stop fretting about climate change, and “start visiting your local garden centre to smell the plants”.

Really? Is there not preposterous conceit in accusing every past thinker of preposterous conceit, and still more claiming, as Morton does, to have broken free? Perhaps he should seek help from a specialist in delusions of intellectual grandeur. He is not a complete loner, however. He sees himself as following in the footsteps of another philosophical prophet: his friend and colleague Graham Harman, who has spent the past 20 years promoting an intellectual brand called Object-Oriented Ontology, known to its disciples as OOO, or Triple-O. Triple-O is supposed to cure us of the chronic philosophical disease of postulating (as Harman puts it in his latest manifesto, newly published by Pelican) “a strict division between human thought on one side and everything else on the other”. The magic of Triple-O is that it allows us to treat anything we can think of – Sherlock Holmes, humans, animals, chemicals and hallucinations, to use Harman’s examples – as equally real. And if Harman is right, this “new theory of everything” is destined to revolutionise every human activity, from art and architecture to politics, economics and theoretical physics.

Perhaps out of fear of lapsing into the sad old habits of Western philosophy, Morton and Harman do not offer any reasons for supposing that Triple-O is true. Their books are like declarations of allegiance to a cult rather than invitations to philosophical reflection. They spend their time recounting epiphanies, swapping compliments and ganging up on renegades and non-believers. They also drop names from their celebrity fan-base, which supposedly includes the leading power-brokers in high-end contemporary art, not to mention Björk and Benedict Cumberbatch. But while they hope to make philosophy great again, they risk confirming the prejudices of those who think that philosophy is a lot of stale blah-blah, promising the world but signifying nothing.

Morton dedicated one of his earlier books to a pet cat called Allan Whiskersworth, who was “very happy” conversing with all kinds of kin till he was run over by a truck. Rather sweetly, Morton performed a “Buddhist death ritual” and “buried him like an Egyptian with his favourite things”. You would need a heart of stone not to join him in feeling sorry for Allan Whiskersworth.