chapter  7
35 Pages


Study of the relations between animals and humans in the humanities is split between the analysis of the representation of animals in history and culture, or animal studies, and the philosophical consideration of animal rights. While much of this chapter will focus on animal studies, which is close kin to ecocriticism proper, it will begin with the ethical questions, ancient debates that were given renewed impetus by Peter Singer’s revolutionary Animal Liberation (1975). Singer draws upon arguments first put forward by Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who suggested that cruelty to animals was analogous to slavery and claimed that the capacity to feel pain, not the power of reason, entitled a being to moral consideration. Singer gives the label ‘speciesism’ to the irrational prejudice that Bentham identifies as the basis of our different treatment of animals and humans. Just as women or Africans have been mistreated on the grounds of morally irrelevant physiological differences, so animals suffer because they fall on the wrong side of a supposedly ‘insuperable line’ (cited in Singer 1983: 8) dividing beings that count from those that do not. Yet it turns out to be impossible to draw that line in such a way that all animals are excluded and all humans are included,

even if we appeal, as many have, to the faculties of ‘reason’ or ‘discourse’: for Bentham ‘a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old’ (ibid.: 8). The boundary between human and animal is arbitrary and, moreover, irrelevant, since we share with animals a capacity for suffering that only ‘the hand of tyranny’ (ibid.) could ignore. The Utilitarian ‘principle of equality’ states that everyone is entitled

to equal moral consideration, irrespective of family, race, nation or species, and for Singer ‘If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration’ (1983: 9). Differences between the objects of our concern will make a difference to what, exactly, we do, so it would be senseless to campaign for votes for animals, but Singer contends that the suffering of a human should not automatically count for more than the suffering of an animal. His argument derives from the Utilitarian tradition in ethics, which holds that actions are not right or wrong in themselves, but only insofar as they bring happiness or cause pain. Singer’s inclusive version of it is presented in the first chapter of his book, while the remainder is devoted to the promotion of vegetarianism and the exposure of horrifying vivisection and factory farming practices, arguing throughout for the liberation of animals. A less radical position than Singer’s ‘liberationist’ stance is espoused

by Mary Midgley, whose book Animals and Why They Matter (1983) remains an excellent introduction to animal ‘welfarism’. She qualifies the principle of equality, arguing that we are sometimes right to prefer the interests of our human kin, and criticises Singer’s analogy of racism and speciesism:

Bentham, Singer and Midgley stand together in opposition to Descartes, who, as we have seen in Chapters 2 and 4, ‘hyperseparated’

reason from emotion and mind from body, and claimed that animals were effectively complex machines. His ‘Cartesian rationalism’ encouraged scientific physiologists to discount the distressing sounds made by animals during vivisection as equivalent to the ringing of a mechanical alarm clock. The cries and laughter of human emotion, too, were seen as merely automatic responses, as distinct from the rational speech that epitomised the human soul. Female, non-white, disabled or very young people who were considered less rational were also therefore less than human. Jeremy Bentham was by no means the only eighteenth-century

intellectual to contradict Descartes, however. As Philip Armstrong suggests, ‘the greater part of English writing on the subject scrutinized it sceptically and, more often than not, rejected it’ (2008: 7). For many, Cartesian rationalism contradicted their daily experience with working and wild animals, as well as running counter to the celebration of cultivated ‘sensibility’, an attitude of refined emotionality popularised in the early years of the century. For the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), though, the abyss posited by Descartes between humans and animals – most obviously, the apes – was countered by the enormous weight of evidence already available of our underlying similarities to them. Our anatomical ‘homology’, as it was later called, led Linnaeus to categorise humans among the Antropomorpha (or ‘man-like’) apes, in his Systema Natura (1735, first edn). He anticipated outrage, writing to a colleague: ‘It is unacceptable because mankind has been categorised among the Anthropomorpha, but man knows himself.’ (Linnaeus 1747, my trans.). Linnaeus’s binomial system of classification is still in use today, but, under pressure from theologians, humans were later given the genus Homo, of which we are the only surviving species. Some biologists believe that, but for anthropocentric prejudice, we would today be classified in the genus Pan alongside the (other) two species of chimpanzee (Diamond 1992), providing scientific support for the effort to eliminate the ‘insuperable line’ in ethics. While environmentalism and animal liberation are united in

opposition to anthropocentric morality, they may conflict in both theory and practice. Animal liberationists generally draw the line of moral consideration at the boundary of sentience or feeling,

which, for Singer, is somewhere between crustaceans and molluscs. Environmental ethics, on the other hand, places far less emphasis on the individual organism, but demands moral consideration for inanimate things such as rivers and mountains, assuming pain and suffering to be a necessary part of nature (Curry 2006). These ethical conflicts have practical consequences, in that liberationists are generally opposed to hunting, whereas ecophilosophers argue that exploding populations of a certain species must be culled if they threaten a local environment as whole (see Callicott 1995: 39). Such disagreements are especially pressing in cases where non-native predators or destructive herbivores threaten fragile ecologies. However, since intensive livestock farming is objectionable on both environmental and welfare grounds, animal studies may be seen as an important ally of ecocriticism if not strictly a branch of it. Animal studies scholars might agree with either Singer or

Midgley on questions of practical morality, but they question the liberationist conceptual model in which rights are extended to some or all animals from a position of superiority that remains axiomatic. Singer is right, in other words, to challenge the ‘insuperable line’ on ethical grounds, but in seeking to move it so as to exclude mussels and include prawns he leaves the imaginary evolutionary ‘ladder’ in place. The great insight of animal studies, in its productive encounter with the biological sciences, is not that there are no differences between humans and other animals, but that differences are everywhere: not only are individual humans and animals different to each other, but all species are different to each other as well. Uniqueness is not unique, because differentiation is one of the things evolution does. Even so, one cannot help but agree with Frans de Waal’s wry observation that claims of human uniqueness are as predictably unreliable as ‘advertisements for squirrel-proof bird feeders’ (2001: loc.2939): very often a human activity or ability, such as opposable thumbs or lying, is proposed as the defining characteristic of humanity, but turns out to be shared with at least one other species (pandas have opposable thumbs, and vervet monkeys give deliberately deceptive alarm calls). The philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) made a crucial

contribution to contemporary animal studies, predominantly in an essay whose title deliberately plays with Descartes’ assertion

‘I think, therefore I am’: ‘The animal that therefore I am.’ Derrida accepts the ethical significance of Bentham’s argument, acknowledging the ‘unprecedented proportions of [the] subjection of the animal’ (2008: 25) and exploring more deeply the significance of his central question:

At the same time, Derrida goes beyond the utilitarian position in challenging the very notion of ‘The Animal’, a word humans have ‘given to themselves, … at the same time according themselves, reserving for them … the right to the word, … to a language of words, in short to the very thing that the others in question would be deprived of ’ (p. 32). With his customary genius for coining words that encapsulate entire philosophical arguments, Derrida invents l’animot, which includes in a singular term the sound of the French plural for animals, animaux, while at the same time drawing attention to the way in which the word (mot) itself implies the symbolic language of which animals are thought to be deprived, and which defines them – in Descartes and elsewhere – as inferior (see Wolfe 2003). We must therefore think, not (or not only) in terms of the elimination or reposition of the ‘insuperable line’, but of the proliferation of differences within a schema of unfixed hierarchies. In both evolutionary and moral terms, ‘better’ must always be ‘better at something’. In Animals in Translation, the autistic animal scientist Temple

Grandin (writing with autism researcher Catherine Johnson) explains why her disability enables her to see the world from a farm animal’s point of view more easily than a neurotypical person: ‘I think many or even most autistic people experience the world a lot the way animals experience the world: as a swirling mass of tiny details’ (2005: 67). In certain contexts, such hypersensitivity can be a problem, but, as she points out, it can make autistic

people exceptionally good at, for instance, quality control on production lines. The hypersensitivity of dogs has allowed some to sense the epileptic seizures of their human companions before they happen, and warn them, yet remarkably, ‘the dogs acquired their skills without human help’ (p. 290). The intimate coevolution of humans and dogs provided the infrastructure for mutual understanding, but the individual dogs used their sensory acuity and intelligence to develop this skill. Grandin’s examples suggest the common work of animal and disability studies: to challenge the deficit model according to which animals and people are judged according to what they cannot (in some context) do, as in the term disability and even, as Derrida suggests, in the word ‘Animal’ (Wolfe 2008). Both encourage us to dismantle imaginary, pernicious and simplistic hierarchies, much as Darwinian evolution does, if rightly understood: as de Waal points out, ‘Every organism fits on the phylogenetic tree without being above or below anything else’ (2001: loc.675). Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007) epitomises this

radical revision of anthropocentrism and the conventional duality of culture and nature. Whereas for Derrida and John Berger (see below) the encounter of humans and animals may be profoundly alienating, for Haraway:

Animals, in other words, make us human in a continual process of reshaping, just as we affect the evolution of both domesticated and wild species. As she asserts, ‘To be one is always to become with many’ (loc.162). Haraway does not underestimate the asymmetry of power that often pertains between humans and other animals, but the love and deep knowledge of dogs that pervades her understanding of species encounters encourages her to emphasise the pleasure and freedom that the mutual discipline of animal companionship can engender. A particularly emotive example is the Animal Planet documentary Cell Dogs, which depicts

recalcitrant shelter dogs being trained for release by human prison inmates. Both species act as teacher and student, as ‘dogs and people model nonviolent, nonoptional, and self-rewarding obedience to an authority that each must earn in relation to the other’ (loc.1130). Recognising, with Derrida, the limitations of our ordinary rhetoric of animality, but determined to generate a positive vocabulary that embraces our intimate technologies as well as companion species, Haraway prefers the term ‘critter’ to encompass the ‘machinic, human, and animal beings whose historically situated infoldings are the flesh of contemporary naturecultures’ (loc.4286). For Haraway, both the threat and the promise of modernity lie in the intimacy or ‘infolding’ – sometimes marvellous, sometimes appalling – of our bodies and selves and what we misleadingly call ‘the environment’, critters included. The nature/culture duality is not only harmful, in her view, it is also redundant, because we dwell today among interpenetrating naturecultures.