Monday, 15 March 2010

What kind of an animal is man?

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Is there a contradiction between being a humanist and being a Darwinist? Raymond Tallis doesn't think so, and using the example of the finger he points to what makes us special. But there are many who are critical of humanism's so-called "speciesism". Is thinking that we are higher than other animals akin to a kind of racism? We sent John Appleby to explore the borderlands between man and beast where he meets some strange species of anti-humanism, elephants with post-traumatic stress disorder and a philosopher with the heart of a border collie.

Let us know what you think by posting a comment here


Matt M said...

Is pointing really unique to humans?

A dog "points" with its nose to direct a hunter towards game. My own dog (a Golden Retriever) can also be directed towards a stick or a treat by my pointing to it.

Or is this a fundamentally different thing going on?

Tom Rees said...
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Tom Rees said...

Somebody needs to define humanism, because the statement:

"One of the grounding principles of humanism, agreed upon by both its supporters and detractors, is some form of anthropocentrism"

Is not one that I agree with, and I consider myself to be a humanist. I suspect this is a non-debate based upon straw men and conflicting (out of date) terminology.

But it's hard to tell.

Seriously Soulless said...

What kind of animal is man?


johneffay said...

Tom Rees wrote:
Somebody needs to define humanism

You'll find a broad definition of humanism in the opening line of my article. This is certainly the terms on which this particular debate is currently carried out on both sides of the fence, so it seems unlikely that there are straw men involved. Perhaps you'd like to tell us what a non-anthropocentric humanism looks like?

johneffay said...

Oops, should point out that I am John Appleby. Something appears to have gone wrong with my profile.

Tom Rees said...

John, according to the BHA, humanism "Humanism is the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs."

The 19th century philosophical roots of humanism are indeed in the idea that humanity can be deified, but you'll find few humanists these days that support this view.

Of course, humans are unique, in some ways. But so are all animal species. All humanists I know recognize the close affinity and shared heritage between humans and other animals.

Hence my suspicion that these are straw man arguments. No humanist I know is anthropocentric in the sense you write.

johneffay said...

Tom, the claim that humans are unique in some meaningful manner is not anthropocentric because it attempts to deify the human. It is anthropocentric because it places humanity at the centre of the universe, inasmuch as the only possible access we can have to the universe is from a human perspective. As you say
we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human

Certainly some posthumanist theorists deny that this is either necessary or sufficient and specifically criticize humanists for holding such a view. Furthermore, there are other branches of philosophy and critical theory which would also attack such a position.

As for your claim that you do not know any humanists who are anthropocentric in the stronger sense you interpreted me as meaning - Did you read the article by Raymond Tallis? I would suggest that he is, although it is certainly not a position that I would want to defend myself.

Tom Rees said...

John, when I used the word deification it was because there is a strand of 19th humanism that claims something like that ("Man is a god to man" - Fuerbach). I hadn't read Tallis's article, but now I have I can see he's stuck in the old fashioned tradition of what it means to be a humanist. That understanding of the term dropped out of common parlance over 100 years ago!

Whilst humanists that I know would agree that humans differ in some ways from other animals, that hardly defines humanism.

To me the judaeo-christian religions are the bastions of anthropocentrism (humans are at the centre of creation both literally and metaphorically). The great project of humanism (aka rationalism) has been to systematically dismantle these preconceptions.

The people I would consider to be the popular voices of the modern humanist story - Sagan, Gould, Singer etc - have all contributed to the destruction of these religious misconceptions.

The bottom line is that Tallis is ploughing his own field. He has his own definition of humanism, but who cares?

Take a look at the Humanist Manifesto. That's the generally accepted definition of humanism.

johneffay said...

I think your dismissal of Tallis looks suspiciously like the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy. I used him as an example because he was ready to hand, but I have come across plenty of other people with similar views.

Of course, I agree with you that one of the main strands of humanism is the dismantling of religious misconceptions and that the Judaeo-Christian religions are relentlessly anthropocentric. However, it does not necessarily follow that humanism is not anthropocentric to some extent or other. To take an example from the Humanist Manifesto (I'll just quote the header):
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

Opponents of humanism criticize this for being anthropocentric. In fact they often say that it is basically still stuck in the Judaeo-Christian rut that humanism claims to have escaped from (i.e. humanism dumps God, but clings on to religious values). To cite one example relevant to my article, posthumanists will point to work in the field of animal studies which purports to demonstrate that many different species not only have some sense of virtue, but also that individuals within those species function as moral agents. They will then go on to argue that one should not derive ethical values from human needs and interests, but from a broader perspective in which human needs and interests are given no greater weight than than those of other species.

My argument, on the other hand, is that yes, we should engage in this broader perspective, but that because we are human, not only is it ethically correct to accord greater weight to human needs and interests, but that it is unavoidable because of who and what we are.

Tom Rees said...
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Tom Rees said...

I've never come across a humanist with Tallis' views of what defines humanism. But perhaps that's because the people I mix with are scientifically minded, and not a cross-section of the tribe. It would be interesting to know how many agree with that perspective (perhaps a topic for a NH poll!).

Tallis' definition of humanism "being a humanist means believing that ... we are profoundly different from all other living creatures." does not tally at all with the AHA or BHA definitions. They do not even mention anything like that.

However, I agree that the quote you picked from the AHA manifesto is anthropocentric. My suspicion is that is an error of omission caused by the fact that they are focussing on a response to the Judaeo-Christian norm. Their intention is to make the point ethical values should, in their opinion, not be based on received wisdom but be determined logically and validated empirically).

The natural outcome of that is, of course, to some extent anthropocentric (because animals can't do logic and empirical validation, and you can specify ethical rules to animals all you like but they are unlikely to listen!).

But I think that all the authors of the manifesto would agree that animals share basic moral traits with humans, and that we are essentially similar in that regard. And they would all agree that human rights are restricted when it comes to animals (e.g. you can't torture them, no matter how much fun you think it is).

So I think that humanists would agree with your perspective.

And furthermore the fundamental point is that humanism does not start from anthropocentric assumptions (unlike what Tallis argues). However it is constrained by empirical reality.

johneffay said...

the fundamental point is that humanism does not start from anthropocentric assumptions. However it is constrained by empirical reality.

Exactly. Some posthumanists, however, think that we can slip out of these constraints. I wish them luck, but I think they are wrong.

Jon Michie said...

I haven't read Raymond Tallis' book, however I am aware of evidence that it is not merely humans which are possessed of the capacity to point. Chimpanzees and Bonobos are similarly capable of pointing, in both the protoimperative and protodeclarative sense.
Admittedly this appears to be the case only in enculturated apes, with whom humans have engaged for the purpose of socialising "their attention".
Nevertheless, it is an entirely anthropocentric paradigm which recognises, and therefore which denies, the ability of non-human animals to point. Recognising alternatives to the human/anthropocentric paradigm broadens our ability to recognise capabilities in others to which we would otherwise be blind.

Stephen said...

It irks me whenever I come across such self-congratulatory and ill-informed twaddle on human "difference." I'm astounded an entire book is devoted to it. Where is the science, the references to animal studies? Examining them will reveal how we consistently underestimate the intelligence and capabilities of other species because of our "unique" self-centred ignorance.

Raymond Tallis said...

Dear Bloggers, I have come rather late into the debate and will not be able to pick up on all the points that have been made.

First, I think John Appleby's article is a brilliant synthesis in a very small space of several very complex positions. I don't think I will be able to summarise my own position so succinctly!

My notion of humanism is one that accepts the manifest, profound differences between humans and other living creatures. Those who need these spelling out or who feel that our apparent difference conceal underlying similarities should be obliged to read my 1,000 page trilogy on human consciousness published by the Edinburgh University Press, beginning with The Hand. A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being. This may be thought of as a cruel and disproportionate punishment for denying their own distinctive humanity; in which case they may read Michelangelo's Finger, where I examine in some detail a seemingly trivial human gesture. Those who seek our distinctive human nature in things like symphonies and sonnets have already conceded too much. We are different all the way down and it is there in the act of buying a can of beans or using toilet paper or - pointing.

Pointing is a much more complex action than it appears and when you look at it closely it becomes very significant that it is a) a universal human gesture and b) not seen in any beasts. What pointer dogs do is not pointing: they are one trick ponies who 'point' only to one kind of item and they do not understand what humans are doing when they point. As for chimps, they do not point in the wild; even in captivity they do not point for each other, and they do not understand the meaning of pointing. For more information on this, read my book and (if you are not convinced) read Daniel Povinelli's brilliant work summarised in Folk Physics for Apes (2003).

It is possible, by the way, to develop a biological account of how we escaped from biology - as I have done in aforementioned trilogy. A recognition of human exceptionalism does not mean that one is committed to the notion that we fell from the sky or were the products of a separate act of creation. In short one can be an atheist humanist without being in thrall to biologism. (And I speak as a biologist of sorts - a clinician and clinical scientist, focussing on neuroscience - for 40 years)

As for my reading of humanism, I am very much with the 21st century mainstream on this and would agree with the BHA account but I want to dig deeper beneath that and to supplement it. We have to understand what we mean by 'reason, experience and shared human values' and how they are different from anything in the animal world. I would broaden the definition of humanism to include an emphasis on conscious agency - based on a sense of causation - knowledge and truth (and explicit falsehood!) which are, again, not seen in the animal world or reducible without distortion to anything seen in beasts). In short, my humanism is BHA plus.

I hope that clarifies one or two things.
Raymond Tallis

johneffay said...

Firstly, I'd like to thank Raymond Tallis for his kind words about my article, although I'm not so sure that I provide an summary as a flavour of some of the arguments in the books I discuss. Haraway, in particular is a lot more complex than the article really gives her credit for, although that's not to say I found the material I did not have the space to address any more convincing - For example, she supports some laboratory experiments on animals and so recommends the abandonment of the concept of animal rights in favour of an expansion of Marxist notions of the dignity of labour to other species. It is a very strange argument.

I'm not sure I agree with Raymond's claim that
We are different all the way down
although I do think that there are some meaningful differences between humans and other animals and they do start at a lower level than sonnets and symphonies (which symptoms of these differences) - I strongly suspect that the way we use language is the fundamental key. For example, we now know that the fact we are rational does not set us apart from all other creatures (some birds, notably ravens, are demonstrably capable of employing second order reasoning to solve problems), but the way we use reason to solve problems in the abstract does seem to be unique. This abstraction appears to be what language allows us. Interestingly, it is probably also the faculty that gave rise to religions.

The question then becomes what it is about us that caused our unique use of language in the first place? If we take it as given that it is not the divine spark in our souls, then it must at least have its basis in biology.

The further question then arises as to whether this biological basis creates a qualitatively and/or ethically meaningful difference between humans and other beasts. I take Raymond Tallis's answer to be yes and that this is what he means when he talks of us escaping from biology. I am wary of this claim to 'escape' as it seems a little strong to me. I do, however, think that in some ways it could be said that we exceed our biology (we can't leave it behind without extinction, but we can certainly affect changes to it at all scales). Consequently, I do agree with Raymond's implication that humanism needs to be careful not to shunt itself into a blind alley of pure biologism.

garic said...

I have some sympathy with Tom Rees's view, although I'm very much of the view that human beings are special.

The point, I think, is that the specialness of humans is not a necessary principle of humanism. If there were other animals who engaged in rational discourse, who pointed, and exhibited those qualities and traits that humanists are keen to promote, we would not need to abandon humanism. At worst, we might consider calling it something different.

It seems to me that the grounding principles of humanism are traits and values (reason and compassion are commonly cited examples) that happen to be more characteristic of human beings than other lifeforms (of course they are—it's humans who invented humanism). It is, however, these traits and values that come first. We promote them for their own worth, not simply because they are characteristic of our species. An assumption of superiority, moreover, need not be among them for humanism to be humanism.

Humanism is a philosophy, or structure (whatever you want to call it) made by humans for humans, and this obviously influences its values. It does not rest, however, on the superiority of humans, even if it is the case that human beings are in some sense superior.

Jon Michie said...

Whilst I will certainly try to locate a copy of Raymond Tallis' book (which is my way of foreshadowing what I am about to say, because I haven't yet read it and am therefore in no position to comment on the research and/or findings therein contained), I say again that there is evidence of the ability of enculturated chimpanzees and bonobos to point in both the protodeclarative and protoimperative senses. I refer anyone that is interested in this particular aspect of the debate to Chapter 9 of "Rattling the Cage" by Steven Wise (Perseus Books, 2000), particularly at p.168 et seq.

Nevertheless, whilst I confess that I haven't read Mr Tallis' book, I can think of no rational or intelligent basis for his conclusion that chimps "do not understand the meaning of pointing."

There is a self-evident and insurmountable impasse between what we as humans 'know', and what we as humans 'understand' about what other animals 'know'. Until we develop a means of communicating with other species in a way which is mutually comprehensible, we cannot conclude with any authority what other animals know or understand. We can only speculate.

Should I eventually read Mr Tallis' book, and discover that this proposition is demonstrably incorrect, I shall return to this blog and issue a full retraction!

However, if I am wrong and this elementary indicia of the superiority of humans over other animals does bear out, my question is: what are we going to do with this superiority?

I am concerned that the establishment of a theoretical and philosophical hierarchy, which subordinates non-human animals, can be usurped by those people to whom Animal Welfare statutes are proscriptively directed.

Many western legal systems possess statutory schemes by which to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of non-human animals, which legislation has been enacted in response to moral and ethical concerns resident among our communities. If these moral and ethical concerns are proven to be baseless by Tallis' theory, it will not be long before big agriculture begins a winning streak in the courts seemingly without end.

If, however, you regard this concern as misplaced, and you perceive of no possibility of the theoretical or philosophical hierarchy leading to any malignant effect on non-human animal, I wonder what is the point of the hierarchy at all?

sarah said...

I have for some time felt dubious about identifying myself as a humanist, simply because of the anthropocentric implications.

To illustrate, if I were in a burning apartment building and faced with the choice of rescuing my dog or my neighbour's baby, I would, without hesitation, rescue my dog. My dog's welfare is my responsibility in a direct way, a way in which my neighbour's baby is not. Nor do I discriminate on the basis of species - I can guarantee you that our dogs and cats mean more to my husband and I than do our neighbours' kids.

Does this mean I am abnormal? I don't think so. I suspect many of us have the instinct to take care of our own, and for those of us who take other animals into our families, they become 'our own' in a way that humans - even children - not of our families do not qualify as 'our own'. I simply don't see humans as intrinsically more valuable than other animals.

johneffay said...

Sarah, I can guarantee that my dog means more to me than my neighbours' kids. Nevertheless, I would like to think that in such a situation I would choose the humans over the dog.

Why? Firstly because I think one's ethics should be at least partially predicated upon the way one would want others to act in an analogous situation, and I am certain that I would want my neighbours to prioritize my daughter over their dogs. I am also confident they would say the same thing to me.

Secondly, whilst I tend to agree that there is nothing intrinsic to humans that makes us more valuable than other animals, I do believe that, on the whole, humans are more valuable to other humans (there are particular exceptions, e.g. a camel is probably more valuable to me in the middle of a desert than another human). If we don't believe this as a species, then we aren't going to be around much longer. After all, the most positive effect we could have on the majority of life on this planet would be if we all committed mass suicide. This seems to me to be the rational conclusion of according equal or greater worth to non-humans as a general ethical principle.

sarah said...


I agree that our actions in terms of ethics ought to be dictated by what we would wish others to do in the same situation. This is after all the basis on which many of us - those of us who are thoughtful and empathetic - make decisions about how we act.

My initial response to the question of do I save my dog or my neighbour's baby is simple - of course I want to save the one that means more to me, and I would expect that others would do the same. I might prefer it if my neighbour saved my dog in preference to their child, but I could hardly expect them to do so! My point was of course that it isn't inevitable that the interests of humans should trump the needs of other animals in any and all circumstances, which seemed to be the implication of the article.

And it is extremely rare - perhaps even unheard-of - for us to be faced with moral dilemmas that are simple and straightforward. To provide a proper answer to the burning-apartment-building scenario, I would want some information about factors affecting the situation. Am I babysitting my neighbour's child? If so, I have a direct responsibility to fulfil towards the child and my neighbour. Do I have the opportunity to save both, or is it clear that one of them (most likely the dog) can take care of itself? Is my neighbour anywhere in the building, and if so, what prevented them from saving their own? Again, my point is that I personally don't respond to such a dilemma with the immediate thought that, "of course I would save the child". It's just not that simple.

Furthermore, I don't see that the logical end of valuing other species as human self-destruction. We're probably doing a good enough job of that as it is, and taking much of the rest of the world with us, all in the name of pursuing our uniquely human interests. That aside, I tend to employ the utilitarian ethic of giving the same moral consideration to the same interests. I think it would be difficult to argue the case that an infant human necessarily has more interest in remaining alive than an adult canine; that being so, we then come back to the question of the subjective values of the other parties involved in the case.

Robert Johnston said...

Having looked at the article it took less than 30 seconds to track down

Understanding the Point of Chimpanzee Pointing Epigenesis and Ecological Validity

David A. Leavens,1 William D. Hopkins,2 and Kim A. Bard3


Pointing has long been considered to be a uniquely human, universal, and biologically based gesture. However, pointing emerges spontaneously, without explicit training, in captive chimpanzees. Because pointing is commonplace in captive chimpanzees and virtually absent in wild chimpanzees, and because both captive and wild chimpanzees are sampled from the same gene pool, pointing by captive apes is attributable to environmental influences on communicative development. If pointing by captive chimpanzees is so variably expressed in different rearing environments, this suggests that pointing by humans may also be attributable to situational factors that make pointing effective in certain developmental contexts.