Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

Moral Animals

CanAnimalsBeMoralFor all of my life that I can remember, I have felt an affinity with animals. Even when I was relentlessly taught that evolution was wrong—Satanic even—I still held onto the idea that animals are more like us than they are different. I know this is partially the great sin of anthropomorphism (although I secretly doubt it is a mortal sin), but when I’ve interacted with animals, or watched them interact with each other, they’ve convinced me that they’re thinking. Since, however, we are the very top of the food-chain, we can’t allow such things. That’s why I turn to philosophy. Perhaps public transit isn’t the best place to appreciate fully a book of philosophy, but it’s the only time I have. Those who think categorically and with such rigid logic surely must have something to say on the issue of our fellow creatures. Mark Rowlands’s Can Animals Be Moral? is one of those books that might not be best read on a bus. I found myself constantly wanting to draw diagrams to visualize the course of his thought as we hit another pothole, or an angry bird killed a green pig in the next seat over.

While the animal stories that make such an engaging case are not a major part of Rowlands’s book, they nevertheless, for many of us lesser thinkers, seal the deal. When an animal acts in a way that shows its own lack of self-interest (how un-human!) we should sit up and pay attention. The question of morality, however, is thorny. Philosophers of ethics and religious analysts of the same seldom come near one another in their conclusions. We don’t know why we think morally, but it is clear we often do. It is obvious that it isn’t solely because of religion, although religion sometimes has a hand in it. It is, at the end of the day, a matter of feeling what is right. I feel that it is right to treat animals as thinking, feeling creatures. But are they moral?

Rowlands shows that some of the implications of animal morality can be serious. It was not that long ago that some animals were put on trial for the harm they’d putatively caused. Some were executed. (I wonder if they were eaten afterward?) If we attribute morality to animals, can they be blamed for their actions? Here is where the brilliance of Rowlands’s carefully argued book comes out—animals can be moral subjects without being moral agents. That is to say, they can act morally, but they can’t reason it out. I’m sure that I’m not saying this right, but the basic idea still appeals to me. Reading his final chapter on how moral Martians might view the naked apes of this planet gave me the chills. When we take ourselves off the top of the food-chain, the view becomes very sobering indeed. Would we want to be treated by Martians the way we treat animals on our own planet? Morality lies at the answer to that hypothetical question.

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.