In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:
Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.
Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.
Scientists may be surprised that animals can remember things or use tools to accomplish tasks, but any one raised on children’s tales of Lassie or Black Beauty knows this well, as does anyone whose pet dog opened a door knob, brought them a newspaper, or barked at intruders. The problem these studies address is less our societal view of animals than the overly reductive view of animals that de Waal attributes to his fellow scientists. It’s hard to take these studies seriously as evidence that animals think in the way that humans do.
Seemingly more interesting are experiments with self-recognition and also facial recognition. De Waal describes one Asian Elephant who stood in front of a mirror and “repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead.” Apparently the elephant recognized the image in the mirror as herself. In another experiment, chimpanzees were able to recognize which pictures of chimpanzees were from their own species. Like my childhood Labrador who used to stare knowingly into the mirror, these studies confirm that animals are able to recognize themselves. This means that animals do, likely, understand that they are selves.
For de Waal, these studies have started to upend a view of humankind's unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece. “Science,” he writes, “keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”
The flattening of the distinction between animals and humans is to be celebrated, De Waal argues, and not feared. He writes:
Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.
DeWaal has long championed the intelligence of animals, and now his vision is gaining momentum. This week, in a long essay called “One of Us” in the new Lapham’s Quarterly on animals, the glorious essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan begins with this description of similar studies to the ones DeWaal writes about:
These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”
With nuance and subtlety, Sullivan understands that our tradition has not drawn the boundary between human and animal nearly as securely as de Waal portrays it. Throughout human existence, humans and animals have been conjoined in the human imagination. Sullivan writes that the most consistent “motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago,” is the focus on “animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear.” In these paintings and sculptures, our ancestors gave form to a basic intuition: “Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom.”
Religious history too is replete with evidence of the human recognition of the dignity of animals. God says in Isaiah that the beasts will honor him and St. Francis, the namesake of the new Pope, is famous for preaching to birds. What is more, we are told that God cares about the deaths of animals.
“In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29.
What changed and interrupted the ancient and deeply human appreciation of our kinship with besouled animals? Sullivan’s answer is René Descartes. The modern depreciation of animals, Sullivan writes,
proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants.
Too easy, however, is the move to say that the modern comprehension of the difference between animal and human proceeds from a mechanistic view of animals. We live at a time of the animal rights movement. Around the world, societies exist and thrive whose mission is to prevent cruelty toward and to protect animals. Yes, factory farms treat chickens and pigs as organic mechanisms for the production of meat, but these farms co-exist with active and quite successful movements calling for humane standards in food production. Whatever the power of Cartesian mechanics, its success is at odds with the persistence of the religious, ancient solidarity, and also deeply modern sympathy between human and animal.
A more meaningful account of the modern attitude towards animals might be found in Spinoza. Spinoza, as Sullivan quotes him, recognizes that animals feel in ways that Descartes did not. As do animal rights activists, Spinoza admits what is obvious: that animals feel pain, show emotion, and have desires. And yet, Spinoza maintains a distinction between human and animal—one grounded not in emotion or feeling, but in human nature. In his Ethics, he writes:
Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.
Spinoza argues against the law prohibiting slaughter of animals—it is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason”—because humans are more powerful than animals. Here is how he defends the slaughter of animals:
The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.
Spinoza’s point is quite simple: Of course animals feel and of course they are intelligent. Who could doubt such a thing? But they are not human. That is clear too. While we humans may care for and even love our pets, we recognize the difference between a dog and a human. And we will, in the end, associate more with our fellow humans than with dogs and porpoises. Finally, we humans will use animals when they serve our purposes. And this is ok, because have the power to do so.
Is Spinoza arguing that might makes right? Surely not in the realm of law amongst fellow humans. But he is insisting that we recognize that for us humans, there is something about being human that is different and, even, higher and more important. Spinoza couches his argument in the language of natural right, but what he is saying is that we must recognize that there are important differences between animals and humans.
At a time that values equality over what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “pathos of difference,” the valuation of human beings over animals is ever more in doubt. This comes home clearly in a story told recently by General Stanley McChrystal, about a soldier who expressed sympathy for some dogs killed in a raid in Iraq. McChrystal responded, severely: “"Seven enemy were killed on that target last night. Seven humans. Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died? The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."” Many, no doubt, are more concerned, or at least are equally concerned, about the deaths of animals as they are about the deaths of humans. There is ever-increasing discomfort about McChrystal’s common sense affirmation of Spinoza’s claim that human beings simply are of more worth than animals.
The distinctions upon which the moral sense of human distinction is based are foundering. For DeWaal and Sullivan, the danger today is that we continue to insist on differences between animals and humans—differences that we don’t fully understand. The consequences of their openness to the humanization of animals, however, is undoubtedly the animalization of humans. The danger that we humans lose sight of what distinguishes us from animals is much more significant than the possibility that we underestimate animal intelligence.
I fully agree with DeWaal and Sullivan that there is a symphony of intelligence in the world, much of it not human. And yes, we should have proper respect for our ignorance. But all the experiments in the world do little to alter the basic facts, that no matter how intelligent and feeling and even conscious animals may be, humans and animals are different.
What is the quality of that difference? It is difficult to say and may never be fully articulated in propositional form. On one level it is this: Simply to live, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a human life. In other words, human life is not simply about living. Nor is it about doing tasks or even being conscious of ourselves as humans. It is about living meaningfully. There may, of course, be some animals that can create worlds of meaning—worlds that we have not yet discovered. But their worlds are not the worlds to which we humans aspire.
Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. Man, Sophocles tells us, can travel over water and tame animals, using them to plough fields. He can invent speech, and institute governments that bring humans together to form lasting institutions. As an inventor and maker of his world, this wonder that is man terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. As he invents and comes to control his world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?
Sophocles knew that man could be a terror; but he also glorified the wonder that man is. He knew that what separates us humans from animals is our capacity to alter the earth and our natural environment. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment…” Not only by building houses and erecting dams—animals can do those things and more—but also by telling stories and building political communities that give to man a humanly created world in which he lives. If all we did as humans was live or build things on earth, we would not be human.
To be human means that we can destroy all living matter on the Earth. We can even today destroy the earth itself. Whether we do so or not, it now means that to live on Earth today is a “Choice” that we make, not a matter of fate or chance. Our Earth, although we did not create it, is now something we humans can decide to sustain or destroy. In this sense, it is a human creation. No other animal has such a potential or such a responsibility.
There is a deep desire today to flee from that awesome and increasingly unbearable human responsibility. We flee, therefore, our humanity and take solace in the view that we are just one amongst the many animals in the world. We see this reductionism above all in human rights discourse. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of a politics of life—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the meaningful life, human rights rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.
Hannah Arendt saw human rights as dangerous precisely because they risked confusing the meaning of human worldliness with the existence of mere animal life. For Arendt, human beings are the beings who build and live in a political world, by which she means the stories, institutions, and achievements that mark the glory and agony of humanity. To be human, she insists, is more than simply living, laboring, working, acting, and thinking. It is to do all of these activities in such a way as to create, together, a common life amongst a plurality of persons.
I fear that the interest in animal consciousness today is less a result of scientific proof that animals are human than it is an increasing discomfort with the world we humans have built. A first step in responding to such discomfort, however, is a reaffirmation of our humanity and our human responsibility. There is no better way to begin that process than in engaging with a very human response to the question of our animality. Towards that end, I commend to you “One of Us,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.