How much of an animal are you?

6 September 2016 | Léa Salje (University of Leeds)

I’m an animal, and so are you. We might be rather special animals, but we are animals all the same: biological organisms operating in a particular ecological niche.

For most of us, this is something we’ve known for a long time, probably since primary school. It’s perhaps surprising, then, how little it seems to permeate our everyday thinking about ourselves, for many of us at least. I’m hardly minded to earnestly contemplate the fact of my animality in my dealings with myself as I go about my daily business of coffee-ordering and Facebook-posting.

There’s also a question about how deeply the fact of our animality genuinely penetrates the conception of ourselves that guides our philosophy of mind, even among those of us happy to accept it on its surface. This was the question at the heart of the Persons as Animals project – an AHRC-funded project at the University of Leeds that I’ve been working on for the last year led by Helen Steward, that aims to explore the ways in which certain areas in philosophy of mind might be illuminated by a perspective that forefronts the fact that we are animals. A couple of things (at least) follow from taking such a perspective seriously. 

The first is that if we are animals, we are thereby not Cartesian egos, or brains, or systems of information, or functional systems, or bundles of mental states. We are entire embodied wholes, such that an understanding of ourselves requires a much more holistic perspective than that which is often taken in philosophy of mind. 

And second, if we are animals then our powers and capacities must be related in an evolutionary way to those of other creatures. This means that a decent understanding of those powers and capacities – even relatively hifalutin powers like language and the capacity to make choices – should benefit from a perspective that takes account of what is known of animal perception, cognition and agency.

Clearly, mere knowledge of the biological fact of our animality is not enough to mobilise these sorts of changes. One of the central planks of the project was that we need new and better ways to articulate our place in the animal kingdom if we are to make philosophical progress in these areas. And before we can do that, we need to understand what sorts of obstacles might have so far prevented such an animalistic self-conception from really taking hold.

To this end, the Persons as Animals project came together earlier this year with conservation social scientist Andy Moss from the education department at Chester Zoo to run a series of semi-structured focus groups, designed to explore how we think of ourselves and our relation to the animal world. 

What sorts of things get in the way of animalistic thinking about ourselves? How might it be encouraged? We ran 12 groups in all, 6 made up of zoo visitors, and another 6 of students from Leeds University.

What we found was a striking absence of any univocal narrative about our sense of our own animality. Instead, we found a deeply fractured and uneasy picture: we do see ourselves as animals, and we don’t. And many of us struggle to reconcile these two viewpoints.

Interestingly, this sense of unease came out in different ways for different participants. Some began with a firm sense of their own animality, often accompanied by expressions of indignation at the very suggestion that we might think otherwise. (Of course we’re animals; how dare we count ourselves as special?) 

The discussion of these participants tended to highlight the intelligent behaviours of other animals, and to downplay our own behaviours and capacities as largely instinct-driven under a flimsy veneer of civility.

This is, of course, to forefront the fact of our animality in a way. But by so magnifying our continuity with the rest of the animal world, these participants seemed to face a special challenge: they seemed to struggle to absorb into that animalistic self-image our alienation from and – even more troublingly – domination over the natural world around us. How can we reconcile this self-conceived status as one species of animal among others on the one hand, with the eye-watering extent of our damaging impositions on the world around us on the other? 

It’s one thing to think of ourselves as a special category of being, perhaps one that has the right (or even the duty) to organise things for the whole of the natural world. But that option is ruled out by a robust insistence on our lack of specialness, of continuity with other animals. 

The only option remaining, however, seems to be infinitely more disturbing – that we are mere animals who have simply spiralled out of control. In the end, we often found these participants adopting the rather ingenious solution of moving from first personal locutions to speaking in generalisations when discussing power asymmetries with the rest of the natural world; ‘I don’t think we’re special, but the problem is that people do’.

Others, by contrast, began from a heightened sense of fundamental distinctness from other animals. Even if we’re animals (sotto voce), we’re obviously special. No danger among these groups of failing to celebrate the special complexity of human beings. But these participants faced another challenge, of reconciling this self-conception as fundamentally different from other animals with knowledge of the biological fact of our animality.

Typically participants expressing this sort of view reported that their knowledge of their animality is highly muted or recessive as they go about their daily lives. Indeed, some reported not only that it normally faded into the background, but more strongly that it took considerable cognitive effort to bring it to mind and make it fit with how they really see themselves. 

In one particularly memorable articulation of this feeling, one participant recalled finding out that she was an animal, and thinking of it ‘as more of a classification like fitting everything into bubbles, like when I realised the sun was a star. It has all the same properties as the other stars and that’s weird to you because you regard them very differently in your everyday life.’ Our animality, the idea seems to be, is a matter of indisputable scientific fact which is nevertheless somehow completely at odds with our everyday conceptualisations and categorisations.

Through discussion, these groups too found creative ways of dissolving the tension. An extreme minority reaction was to give up on the claim that we are animals as simply ‘not ringing true’. 

Another strategy, observed in an extended discussion by a group of physics students, was to redraw the conceptual boundaries of what it is to be an animal. If we abandon the idea that animals must be biological organisms, then we create more space to comfortably hold together both the fact that we are animals and the conviction that we are importantly different from other members of the animal kingdom. To say that we are animals, after all, might now be to position ourselves us just as closely to computers as to caterpillars. 

A third sort of resolution was to associate animality with a very basic form of existence; one that we have, by now, transcended. We might once have been animals, the idea is, but we’ve now moved beyond it. With this response, participants were able to bracket out uncomfortable facts about our animal natures as part of our evolutionary history, rather than presenting themselves as calling for incorporation into our live self-conceptions. 

For the most part, however, all of these responses were given with observable unease and frank statements of felt difficulty in incorporating the fact of our animality into their everyday self-conceptions.

Among yet other participants there emerged a quite different viewpoint, this time one that seemed much better able to accommodate our claims to both animality and to distinctness. For this group, the traits, behaviours and capacities that might at first glance seem to separate us from the rest the animal kingdom are really just the results of evolutionary processes, like any other. 

Cinemas, religion, prog rock, iPads, sarcasm, nuclear weapons, cryptic crosswords and Shoreditch apartments don’t cut us off from the natural world; they are part of it. We are, on this view, placed unflinchingly alongside other animals in the natural world, but not at the cost of a denial or deprecation of human complexity.

One of the central aims of the Persons as Animals project was to better understand our relationship to our own animality, so that we might in turn better understand how to instil more deep-rooted ways of thinking of ourselves as animals into our philosophy of mind. Our results seem to suggest that for many of us the answer is that the relationship is a profoundly awkward one; we seem to be far from finding a stable resting place for our sense of position in the animal world. 

This finding ought to put us on our guard in our philosophical practices. We are not insulated, as philosophers, from the uneasy and conflicted animalistic self-conceptions that seemingly underlie our everyday thinking about ourselves.