by Adam Robbert
One of the topics I’ve been taking up lately (at the recommendation of friend and colleague Sam Mickey) is the field of cognitive ethology, or more simply, the study of animal interiors, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. As anyone who has waded into these waters knows, the go to person for research on cognitive ethology is evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff. Bekoff’s work has me contemplating several important issues, not the least of which is the notion of “animal” itself. I’m struggling to think through several strands of overlapping problems here: the need to better think human-animal relationships, the problems set up by constructing human-animal binaries, and the larger difficulties in balancing criticism with the strategic use of what is by and large helpful information.
First, I want to both recommend and applaud Bekoff’s important and reliable research. So far I’ve only been able to take in his book The Animal Manifesto (a mostly popular book with a good message- animals are sentient too!) and a few scattered online articles that relate generally to cognitive ethology. The book is a strong mix of empirical scientific research spanning from observations done on animals “in the wild” as well as laboratory experiments in neural imagining and behavioral observation. In addition to this, the book also marshals first-hand accounts of human-animal interactions, newspaper articles and other anecdotal evidence to support the book’s central claim: animals are sentient, logical, emotional, empathic, vengeful, manipulative, linguistic, moral, and mournful. In other words, for Bekoff, the human-animal dichotomy has more to do with justifying certain cultural practices related to the treatment of animals than it does with anything that actually resembles empirical scientific evidence of the actual lives or experiences of animals.
For this I applaud Bekoff and others working on these important issues. The implications for law, politics, and justice vis-à-vis the rights of animals are impressive and important. Why then do I still launch it critic mode when I read his work? The answer: it is necessary. But how necessary? The temptation to be too critical is just as great as being completely uncritical, of lapsing into a complacent “life is a just a hot shower that I’m trying to enjoy” mode, which, for whatever reason, I simply detest. So where do we draw the critical line?
Criticism is an art, a practice done in the field not in the lab; it is a front line encounter with the present that makes as many mistakes as it makes helpful corrections. It is field medicine, surgery without anesthesia or the proper tools. Critics, to be sure, can carry sharp swords, but such sharp tools can cut the wrong artery, amputate prematurely, or even stop the emergence of something new and beautiful. Criticism is always a response to something already unfolding; criticism happens in real time within uncertain conditions, and this makes it inherently unwieldy. But criticism is what we have to do when we confront issues of justice, ecology, and politics. So what is it that has me irked about Bekoff’s work? Well, nothing that’s actually rooted in Bekoff’s research, but more to do with the general climate of American ecological and political discourse.
Charles Taylor, of who I am unabashedly a huge fan, introduced us to the idea of a “social imaginary,” those ideological environments within which we construct our notions, discourses, arguments, and identities. The social imaginary (like Gadamer’s horizon), is more an active environment than it is a lens. Imaginaries are ecological systems within which the subtle worlds of ideas and perceptions are given space to grow and evolve, or conversely, are constrained and conditionied. I’m wondering if we don’t need something like a new imagination of the animal, one that actually doesn’t use the word at all. In this vein I would point to Derrida’s work in The Animal That Therefore I am and Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, or When Species Meet. I know there is also a great deal of other literature on the topic, of which I have only scant knowledge, but I’m assuming those works argue along similar lines as well. So what would a new “animal imaginary” look like if we drop the notion of animal all together? I think there are grounds to suggest that the human-animal boundary is different only in degree rather than in kind from the similar human-nature boundary. Both dichotomies have similar solutions proposed, and I’d like to suggest that both are kinds of correlationist biology.
Correlationism, Meillassoux’s clever term for a mode of thinking which suggests that human and world can only be thought of as correlates of one another, rather than as entities that exist in their own right, can, I think, be used as a template for understanding the misconceptions that arise in thinking human-nature and human-animal binaries. The human-nature binary is obvious, this is the “ecology without nature” Tim Morton suggests: we see canaries, pineapple trees, oak groves, and golden retrievers, but never do we see “nature.” (Side note: I am also largely in agreement with Adrian’s recent post over at Immanence about allowing a more complex reading of “nature” such as the one offered by Alfred North Whitehead et al. I don’t think we need to trash nature all the time. If we are to be rigorously ecological about our thinking we would need to concede that the concept “nature” has multiple effects, positive and negative).
The commonly proposed solutions to both the human-nature/human-animal split are similar as well. In one direction are the strong dualists (nature is everything that is not culture); on the other we have the strong monists (everything, including humans are nature). Likewise, the human-animal correlate takes the frame of humanism (humans are everything the animal is not) or reductionism (humans are just another animal). I dislike both for similar reasons.
When we setup nature as everything that is apart from culture we make a few untenable assumptions. We pretend to know what nature actually is, what its characteristics are, how it operates, and how we can distinguish those properties from how human cultures behave. If we call volcanoes, chimpanzees, tornados, spiders, rats, and blades of grass equally “nature,” then we are tasked with finding out what they all have in common, which will not be much at all. Thus “nature” is a kind of lazy thinking, an injunction that assumes we know more than we know about nature. I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing in common about these different phenomena, but only that what they do have in common is not worthy of being lumped together in such an undifferentiated way. If we do the opposite and pretend that humans exist in some sort of vacuumed sealed, solipsistic plastic bag, without any access to the nonhuman, we are in equally unhelpful position.
We need a thinking that does not relativize nature only to human thought, or equally, does not entrench human beings in a homogenous unity. Lets not reduce everything to “nature” as though we know what that means, and lets not relativize everything to culture so that everything becomes a correlate of human thinking. Lets instead engage in some genuine cosmopolitics and encounter the various objects and entities in the world in their own bizarre manifestations. From an OOO perspective nature would have to be a sensual object (hyperobject?), which is ironic because nature is suppose to be “the real thing” and not a sensual interpretation, but I just don’t see a way out of this.
In this way, the nature problem is the same as the animal problem. If we extend language, logic, and love to the animal world, then we are also multiplying difference and uniqueness (both good things mind you). Plasticity explodes and differentiates. If animals have personalities, then it follows that they also have unique biographical histories, conditioned and learned behaviors, and culturally acquired systems of belief. The “animal” and the “natural” are politically negotiated terrains, not because everything is about human bureaucracies and power plays, but because life on earth, in it’s physical and biological entanglements, is a negotiated reality with a huge diversity of players engaged in knowledge production, terraforming, psychological imprinting, and coevolution.
So, back to correlationist biology then. We see it whenever there is a simple distinction between humans and animals, or between humans and nature or the environment. The old adaptationist paradigms of evolutionary theory are forms of correlationist biology. The human-animal split is correlational, the reduction of humans to animals is correlational; simply the thought of “the human and the X” is correlational. We can think more carefully than this, and we will have too if we are to sort out many of the issues Bekoff points us to in his work.
These are problems I am still finding words and sentences for, so please excuse the somewhat meandering quality of this post. Also be sure to check out Bekoff’s work, which despite my current tone and sentiment is excellent.