Investigating Perceptions of the Animal ‘Other’

(A great deal of my research involves uncovering and analyzing the wealth of factors- historical, cultural, psychological, socioeconomic- that influence varying human perceptions of nature and animals, so that we may work towards dismantling that final barrier: the human-animal divide. This piece provides a glimpse into this field and sheds light on some of the underlying mechanisms at play that influence how we view ourselves in relation to the natural world and our coevolutionary kin.)

“Through traditional Western ethical and legal positions designating when specific types of animals may be killed, and under which circumstances (deer during hunting season, foxes if they threaten crops or livestock, pets if they become aggressive, pests whenever they’re an inconvenience)…laws (and by implication traditionalist ethics) construct a number of story lines about them: ‘good animals’ and ‘bad animals’, there can be too few, too many, or ‘just enough’ (always with humans and their interests as the reference point); animals that count because they are beautiful or useful…the primary underlying factors in these sorts of narratives is that, ‘animals are the individual or public property of humans, and their fate is ours to decide. We are on the road to progress; they had best stay out of it if they can’t be of use” (Vance, 1995, pg. 168;69).

Key historical drivers of the physical and psychological rift between humans, our natural support systems, and our animal kin are highly variegated and complex, yet there are a few that have been cited as among the most significant. Going back to the early dawn of human civilization, the emergence and development of hierarchy (Bookchin, 2005) within human groups, fist along the basis of age, then gender, followed by species and later class with the development of stratified civilizations, gave rise to one of the most insidious and all-pervading historical developments, what social ecologist Murray Bookchin (2005) refers to as the ‘antagonistic structuring of otherness’, wherein ‘different’ began to be construed as ‘inferior’. Thus, ‘male’ gained ascendency over ‘female’, the ‘civic sphere’ over the ‘domestic sphere’, ‘culture’ over ‘nature, ‘white’ over ‘black’, and ‘human’ over ‘animal’. Similarly crucial was the development of anthropocentric and dominance-based interpretations of Judaism and Christianity, wherein, as Medieval historian Lynn White famously yet controversially declared in what has come to be known as the ‘White Hypothesis’: “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Eastern religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (1967, pg. 52). These hierarchical relationships were further reinforced by Descartes’ depiction of a machine-like world wherein humans became the sole possessors of minds and souls, and animals were transformed into mindless automata utterly devoid of agency (Ponting, 2007; Drengson, 1980). In more contemporary times, the development and spread of industrial capitalism, whose rapacious logic, hyper-individualistic ethos, commodity-based modes of relationality, and the profligate consumption of energy and other natural resources engendered by it in order to fuel its maxims of ceaseless growth and profit maximization, have further exacerbated the cavernous physical/psychological rift between humans, animals, and nature.

“They [philosophers and theoreticians such as Descartes] have taken no account of the fact that what they call animal could look at them and address them from down there, from a wholly other origin”…Their discourses are sound and profound, but everything goes on as if they themselves had never been looked at, and especially not naked, by an animal that addressed them”…”they made of the animal a theorem, something seen and not seeing….In sum they have denied it as much as misunderstood it.” (Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am)

Such myriad and often mutually reinforcing factors to varying degrees work to shape perceptions of ‘the other’, particularly the ways in which  we views ourselves in relation to the natural world. However, the precise social-psychological/neurological mechanisms by which we construct ‘otherness’ are highly complex, and have been the subject of much empirical research. In her penetrating analysis of the cognitive and neurological processes of categorization employed by humans in order to ‘dehumanize’ and ‘exclude’ other humans from spheres of moral concern, Mackenzie (2011) explores the extent to which these same mechanisms are at work in human-non-human animal ethico-political relations. She notes that to be excluded and relegated to the inferior status of ‘out-group’ member is not necessarily species specific, for certain beloved pets are often ‘included’ while certain types of humans such as slaves, refugees, and prisoners can be dehumanized and classed as ‘out-group’ members. These dehumanized humans often occupy a peculiar ‘intermediate zone of exception (2011, pg. 411) wherein, neither entirely animal nor fully ‘human’ in terms of rights and status, they are ‘denigrated as nonhuman animals’, often deprived of civic and legal rights, and subject to oppression (2011, pg. 409; 11). Indeed, throughout history, marginalized out-groups perceived as ‘other’ have often been portrayed as ‘animal-like’, as in the case of blacks as ‘apes’, Jews as ‘vermin’, and American Indians as ‘savages’ (Costello & Hodson, 2013, pg.3), suggesting the incredibly low moral status occupied by animals as the ultimate realm of ‘otherness’ to which only the most detested humans are relegated.

Socio-cultural construction is thus key in determining how humans and/or animals classed as ‘in-group’ or ‘out-group’ members will be perceived. Most significantly for my research, Taylor and Signal (2009) note that the categorization of animals as either pets, pests, or commodities bears a strong connection to how such animals will be perceived and treated by humans. Thus, with regards to farm animals construed as commodities, “Regulation of slaughterhouse procedures reveals an ongoing commensurate preoccupation with meat quality and efficient throughput rather than reduction of suffering itself (Lavi, 2007; Burt 2006)” (Mackenzie, 2011, pg. 413). As commodities, such animals are perceived and utilized instrumentally, whereby any sense of their worth is almost exclusively measured by their monetary value, or how much profit can be yielded by each animal to further the human profit motive. No consideration of intrinsic worth even enters as a possibility. These animals are mere fodder to be processed for consumption. In contrast, animals classed as ‘pets’ are often seen as integral components of the family or household, although even their status is not impermeable to change and reclassification, given that the average household only keeps its pets for approximately two years (Palmer, 2006). What’s more, categorization of animals varies widely between and even within cultures, nations, and socio-political-economic contexts, as evinced by the historical evolution of dogs as food or hunting companions in some nations and cultures, and as guardians and beloved pets in others (Serpell, 1995).

Another key phenomenon is the correlation between the tendency to attribute ‘humanness’ and thus moral consideration to ‘the other’ and the degree to which ‘the other’ is perceived as similar to us, i.e., can be shown to live, act, and be ‘like us’. Hence, in attempting to shed light on how us humans may begin to attempt to apprehend the particular subjective experiences of bats, American philosopher Thomas Nagel justified his choice of a mammal as his subject of exploration as opposed to a ‘wasp or a flounder’ by observing that, ‘if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all’ (1974, pg. 438). With inter-species relations, support of animal rights has been linked to perceived similarity (Wuensch, Poteat, & Jernigan, 1991). Mackenzie (2011) sheds light on the neurological underpinnings of this process, stating that, “Humanization, or the categorization of another as possessing uniquely human qualities and agency, is associated with medial prefrontal cortex activity (Haslam, 2006)” (Mackenzie, 2011, pg. 415). This, Mackenzie notes, in turn correlates with research on ‘bias, prejudice, and stereotyping associating inclusion/exclusion with judgments of warmth and competence (Fiske & Borgida, 2008), whereas those seen as warm and competent are relegated to the ‘in-group’ status…those judged as neither are dehumanized as objects lacking minds, activating the insula and amygdala, as objects associated with disgust (Harris et al., 2008; Harris & Fiske, 2006) (Mackenzie, 2011, pg. 415;16).

“Hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemicals associated with human desire, fear, love, joy, and sadness are highly conserved across taxa…whether you’re a person or monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions appear to be the same” (Montgomery, 2015, pg. 115).

The ways in which animals and ‘otherness’ are ‘socially constructed’ is therefore key in the complex nexus of perception and subsequent emotive and classificatory responses. Often, animals that are depicted as human-like and embodying similar ‘bio-behavioral’ characteristics such as life cycles, social organization, size, parental investment, etc. to humans are perceived as similar or of ‘in-group’ status and thus preferred over animals that are perceived to lack these characteristics (Batt, 2009). This is likely the reason, along with deep-seated associations with disgust, why mammals and birds tend to be viewed more favorably and thus worthy of more stringent conservation measures than reptiles and invertebrates, as elucidated by the (Czech et al 1998) study of the perceptions of 8 types of animal species (amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, mammals, microorganisms, plants, and reptiles) by a random selection of 2,500 Americans. Reptiles, notably because of such factors as the ‘negative Judeo-Christian symbolism’ involving snakes, the proportion of dangerous species in the reptile class, and the evolutionary distance between reptiles and humans (beings that are likely seen as neither warm nor competent), did not fare well in terms of valuation (Czech et al, 1998, pg. 1105;10). Interestingly, however, while microorganisms were valued significantly lower than all the rest, perhaps due to their relative invisibility in terms of their impact of the daily lives of people, they were still regarded as ‘important’, suggesting the rudiments of an ‘ecologistic perspective in which the primary concern is the environment as a system and the interrelationships that constitute it’ (Kellert, 1980) (Czech, 1998).

“He orangutan eyes operate exactly like mine- each retina with its 130 million rods and cones. But her expression is the oldest I’ve ever seen” (Berger, 2009, pg. 48).

Mackenzie contends that one particularly beneficial effect of perceived similarities between humans and animals is the promotion of anthropomorphism, an ancient human device with an extensive if troubled history, whereby ‘nonhuman animals are construed in human terms’ and therefore ‘associated with affection and sympathy as opposed to perceptions determined by instrumental self-interest or utility (Serpell, 2003)” (Mackenzie, 2011, pg. 417). This conceptualization is based on the commonly held and not unsubstantiated notion that similarity breeds affiliation. To anthropomorphize, in effect, is to further include the ‘other’ within the ‘self’, to identify with others based on shared life histories, behavioral traits, and the like, and it can thus serve as an effective mechanism for engendering consideration (Tam et al, 2013). Indeed, Carl Jung’s own perspectives on anthropomorphism marched along similarly ‘deep ecological’ lines: “My self is not confined to my body. It extends to all the things I have made and all the things around me. Without these things, I would not be myself; I would not be a human being” (2008, pg. 13). However, to base attempts at generating concern for ‘the other’ solely on perceived similarity provides tenuous and precarious grounds for improving relations between human and animal ‘others’, for among other things, it can ‘represent a type of species colonialism’ (Mackenzie, 2011, pg. 420) and thereby inadvertently reinforce notions of human superiority over animals (and nature).

Rather the ultimate objective, as Vance (1995) so eloquently states, should be “not to make us care about animals because they are like us, but to care about them because they are themselves” (pg. 185). To help facilitate this, Mackenzie rightfully insists on the need to draw attention to the unique qualities that our diverse nonhuman family possess (Gruen, 2015), and advance arguments for consideration and preservation on grounds of their intrinsic worth as irreducibly singular beings. Yet perhaps the most crucial lesson to take away from Mackenzie’s work and the broader themes of this post is that the precarious nature of the ‘in-group/out-group’ dialectic and animal/human dualism is not only a source of antagonism but also potentially one of transformation and recategorization along more harmonious lines, as these ‘categories’, and the ‘technologies of governance’ that reify them such as law are ‘porous, contingent, and ever-changing’ (2011, pg. 410). Thus, a wolf categorized as a ‘pest’ by a farmer may subsequently be designated as an endangered species under legislation after lobbying activities by transnational environmental NGOs, thus ultimately shifting public perception. A pig can be ‘recategorized’ from commodity to beloved pet through a concerted effort to emphasize both its likeness to us as well as how it is a being who is a bearer of unique qualities and thus should be cherished in his/her own right. By exposing the inconsistencies and mutable nature of ‘the anthropological machine’ (Calarco, 2007), we can work to reconfigure it.

“We do not place ourselves above other animals and reject their condition and companionship by right reason but out of stubbornness and insane arrogance.” (Montaigne, An Apology for Raymond Sebond)


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