Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

If We Could Talk to the Animals…

There is a line in “Like Animals,” by Savage Garden, that goes:

Animals and children tell the truth, they never lie. Which one is more human? There’s a thought, now you decide.

Animal lovers have always known the answer to that question, but now it seems researchers, scholars, and scientists are starting to catch up:

Animals are “in.” This might well be called the decade of the animal. Research on animal behavior has never been more vibrant and more revealing of the amazing cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of a broad range of animals. That is particularly true of research into social behavior—how groups of animals form, how and why individuals live harmoniously together, and the underlying emotional bases for social living. It’s becoming clear that animals have both emotional and moral intelligences.

Philosophical and scientific convention, of course, has pulled toward a more conservative account of morality: Morality is a capacity unique to human beings. But the more we study the behavior of animals, the more we find that different groups of animals have their own moral codes. That raises both scientific and philosophic questions.

Researchers like Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society), Elliott Sober, David Sloan Wilson (Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior), and Kenneth M. Weiss and Anne V. Buchanan (The Mermaid’s Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things) have demonstrated that animals have social lives rich beyond our imagining, and that cooperation and caring have shaped the course of evolution every bit as much as competition and ruthlessness have. Individuals form intricate networks and have a large repertoire of behavior patterns that help them get along with one another and maintain close and generally peaceful relationships. Indeed, Robert W. Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues Paul A. Garber and Jim Cheverud reported in 2005 in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology that for many nonhuman primates, more than 90 percent of their social interactions are affiliative rather than competitive or divisive. Moreover, social animals live in groups structured by rules of engagement—there are “right” and “wrong” ways of behaving, depending on the situation.

The broader implications are rather fascinating. For one, animal studies is now a distinct academic field — one that crosses traditional subject boundaries:

Bringing together many different species of academic research, animal studies has become a force to be reckoned with in philosophy, literary and cultural studies, history, and other fields with a traditionally humanistic bent.

“All too human”: For these scholars, the phrase sums up the limitations of their disciplines. Why, they ask, should it be all about us, when we are only one link in the great chain of being? “Humans are animals, too, and a lot of our existence is shaped by our evolutionary history, our biology, our circadian rhythms, the very narrow climate bandwidth in which we flourish,” says Cary Wolfe, a professor of English at Rice University and one of the leading theorists in animal studies.

Spurred on by a shift in consciousness that has been going on for several decades, beginning with the environmental and social-justice movements of the 1960s and 70s, scholars like Wolfe and Acampora are finding new ways to tackle “the question of the animal”—or, more accurately, the flock of questions that circle around the term “animal.” These scholars want to break down the categories and distinctions that have defined how we think about our relationship to everything that is not us. Some of them see it as nothing less than a revolution in how to think and how to live.


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This entry was posted on October 28, 2009 by in Animals, Book Reviews.
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