Another hammer blow resounded through the chilly confines of the office. It was the signal to dunk my head once more. As I slipped beneath the numbing surface of the water, freshly squeezed from where it had lain dormant in February pipes, and heard on the recording that the whole thing didn’t really mean anything, I realised: “He’s only going to win a bloody prize for this”.
I first met Award-Winning Performance Artist Joe Frost just under three years ago, when he was still plain Joe Frost, fresh up from that London. I had no idea then that I would eventually be crouched over a box of water in a dim space on the fourth floor of Elizabeth House, having become his Art Gimp.
Grabbing onto the coat-tails of other Leeds Met Fine Art students, who had diligently applied and been accepted based on merit, a ragged handful also managed to gain entrance to the Departure Gallery Art Competition. The venue was Elizabeth House, an empty office building across the road from the Job Centre; a threat and a warning to the newly minted artist, a remedy against hubris.
Having no realistic expectation of winning myself and having continually reneged on a past offer to perform with Joe, I was first in the queue when he asked for three volunteers to help him with his piece. There was nobody behind me.
Joe’s plan was to sit behind a table, dressed in a suit, with a twenty pound note taped over his mouth. He would offer passers-by slices of cake while periodically banging a hammer on the table top. Three volunteers, crouched over water-filled containers, would submerge their heads when the hammer struck and would not raise them out until the hammer blow sounded again.
Half-an-hour is a long time to spend on your knees, shivering in your t-shirt, holding your breath underwater at the hammer-wielding behest of a besuited tyrant while everyone else gets cake.
How did he get me to agree to this? How did he manage to get a further two people to take on the Art Gimp mantle? How did he manage to persuade a fourth when, after he’d won his prize and everyone knew how cold it was, I took my leave?
Despite the lack of cake, terrible working conditions and exposure to ridicule, I’m curiously grateful to Joe. Art is not just made by people, it is made of people. Experiencing a piece of art is not restricted to looking at in a gallery; for the three Art Gimps, it became apparent that the performance did not just involve them, it was for them -there just happened to be some other people watching.
A piece written for the degree show publication, describing my experience as part of an art performance. ‘Art Gimp’ was my original and preferred title, but it was published as ‘At the Mercy of the Young Dictator’.
ARE WE NOT MEN?
Meeting and Exchange at the Animal-Human Identity Interface.
The title question comes from H. G. Wells’ 1896 horror/ science-fiction classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau. In the novel, the protagonist (Edward Prendick) finds himself stranded on the titular island, dominated by the said doctor, a scandalous vivisectionist. Moreau’s experiments have produced a population of Beast Folk, human-like creatures derived from animals. ‘Are We Not Men?’ is the refrain the Beast Folk cry out between each stricture against bestial behaviour that form the Law and which Prendick is forced to chant alongside them. After various tribulations, including the inevitable reversion of the Beast Folk to bestial behaviour, Prendick is able to escape the island. Following these experiences, he is never again truly comfortable amongst humanity, unable to rid himself of the conviction that his fellow humans are nothing more than Beast Folk, and might revert to their animal nature at any moment.
For the Beast Folk, within the context of the novel, the question ‘Are We Not Men?’ is either answered ‘No’ or it is ironically rhetorical. For Prendick, as representative of humanity, it is desperately fearful, if it is taken seriously, because what does it mean if the answer is not ‘Yes’? In fact, what does it mean if the answer has to be qualified, forms a discussion, is made the subject of examination? The question of identity at the interface of animal and human is what I propose to explore in this essay.
This essay is not an attempt to definitively answer the question of what it means to be human or means to be animal, rather it is a discussion of the animal-human identity interface with particular attention paid to the idea that the interface is less of a boundary between the two and more of a meeting point. I will argue that the human and the animal are part of a continuum, rather than a dichotomy, and that attempts to maintain the latter are arbitrary measures based on a perceived need for separation, rooted in a perceived superiority (or need for such perception) of humans over animals. These measures for separation are largely artificial and have always been in something of a state of flux due to developments (to use as neutral term as possible, as some of these are redefinitions of the boundaries of ignorance rather than advances) in human knowledge, whether Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection or the burgeoning field of contemporary biotechnological research. Within this wider context, I will be looking at some of the implications of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. I will also be looking at the concept of becoming-animal, as put forward by Deleuze and Guattari, which is a useful framework for exploring this territory, in which category boundaries are shifting, fluid and permeable.
In the context of this essay, when I deal with animals or ‘the animal’, I will almost exclusively be restricting this to the mammals. This is a deliberate measure to keep contained what is already a wide-ranging field of investigation. There are two simple reasons for this. The first is that humans, as animals, belong to class Mammalia. It is within this larger group we would most immediately look to find the closest, most viable relationships: ‘after all, similarity between humans and non-human animals is just what we should expect on the basis of an evolutionary account of the origin and diversification of life on the planet’ (Mitchell 2005: 102). The second is that most of the relevant source material for my research deals with other mammals in relation to humans, most likely for the former reason.
Our relationship with other mammals is probably the longest, beyond that of our symbiotic relationship with the countless microscopic organisms that inhabit the human body and living environment (Lingis 2003: 166). We ride horses, we load donkeys and camels with goods, we eat and wear sheep and cattle, we share our settlements -even our homes- with mice, rats and bats, and we bring dogs and cats into our families, just as the human race has done for millennia. The human association with dogs, for instance, is of such duration that it is likely that the ‘two species have moulded each other over a long period of co-evolution’ with ‘some archaeological finds [putting] humans and wolves in the same place 400, 000 years ago’ (Hambling 2010: 14). After all, what are wolves if not just the wildest dogs we know?
We are able to interact with mammals on a more immediate level than the vast majority of other forms of life, and are more ready and able to recognise ourselves, our own fears and desires, in them. That is not to say that the other classes of living creature should not be considered in relation to the question. Indeed, biotechnology is allowing “plants and animals that could never breed” (Tomasula 2002: 139) to do so in the laboratory, which means that the potential grows for a new kind of relationship with squid or tomato plants or crocodiles or mushrooms. However, for our purposes, these other classes are outside the parameters of this project, as to take it to extremes leads us into even stranger territory:
To my knowledge, not even the most radical animal rights activist has ever made a case for the rights of AIDS viruses or E. coli bacteria, which human beings seek to destroy by the billions every day. We don’t think to accord these living creatures rights because, not having nervous systems, they apparently can’t suffer or be aware of their situation (Fukuyama 2003: 146)
Some examination of the rights of both humans and animals is inevitable in addressing the topic of the animal-human identity interface and not to do so would be a disservice to the subject. Throughout my research, the consideration of the relative rights of humans and animals was a recurring and visible theme and this will also be true of this essay, as various points cannot be made without making reference to the issue of the rights of the animal. However, if “human rights are… whatever human beings say they are” (Fukuyama 2003: 112) then it follows that animal rights are also merely whatever human beings say they are. It cannot be helped that any examination of the animal-human identity interface is always going to be from a position of power of human over the animal, whether this is favourable to the animal or otherwise: for it is in the different treatment of animals and humans, based on this supposed difference, that we can see the immediate consequences of what it means to be human or not.
Any examination of the animal-human identity interface -in fact, any study involving animals at all- requires some degree of consideration of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is generally used as a pejorative term, which has its roots in its original -blasphemous- meaning as the attribution of human form to the divine (forbidden under a number of religions). An element of this seriousness (though it could also be argued it is pomposity) is still retained since coming to mean the ascription of human characteristics to things not human, namely animals (Daston & Mitman 2005: 2). This is particularly true in the sciences, where it has been deemed wholly inappropriate since the Victorian period (White 2005: 60). A great deal of time and effort has been put into persuading ourselves that we are different to the other animals (Cox 2005: 19) and the stricture against anthropomorphism is one of the methods by which we do this. Despite this, it has been frequently remarked on by animal ethologists that the tendency to anthropomorphise the animals increases rather than decreases the more experience they have in the field (Daston & Mitman 2005: p. 7-8). Anthropomorphism in some form is necessary to make the world of the animals accessible to us (Bekoff 2004: 73). In order to engage and empathise with, and ultimately understand, animals and their lives we have to be able to relate their behaviour, their emotional states and their quirks to our own.
The concept of becoming-animal is particularly relevant to the question of animal-human identity. It immediately accepts that the categories are not closed to one another and does not regard transfer between them as impossible or undesirable.
‘A particularly complex example of philosophical thought about the relation of humans and animals’ (Baker 2000: 102) is how Steven Baker describes the concept of ‘becoming-animal’, developed by Gilles Deleuze in collaboration with Felix Guattari in their books Kafka (1975) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). A simplistic explanation of ‘becoming-animal’ is that it is not a literal transformation but rather a meeting and exchange of sensation or similarity of action. Or as Deleuze and Guattari have it ‘becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 39), although they are exhaustively telling us what becoming isn’t.
Example is likely the better means of explanation, though they do also state that ‘if evolution includes any veritable becomings, it is in the domain of symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms, with no possible filiation’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 39) and this helps make the mechanics of becoming-animal clearer: the orchid pollinated by the wasp is no longer entirely orchid at the point of meeting and the wasp is no longer entirely wasp; deterritorialised, the two are a reproductive process, a function of an organism although there is no organism there. They are becoming (Sutton & Martin-Jones 2008: 6).
In relation to the question of animal-human identity, becoming gives us a novel method for examination of the interface, not as a point of resistance but of exchange. With this in mind, one might reconsider the pairing of horse and rider.
Horse trainers often speak as though it were a matter of horse and rider becoming one body, in which the human is the head that commands while the horse is the body that executes the movement. Hearne suggests that the relation is even closer, not simply the control of one part by another but “the collapse of command and obedience into a single supple relation.” (Patton 2003: 90)
Although the horse and the rider constitute individual units and have existences independent of each other, there is a point at which they are something else, a meeting in which they become what could be styled the ridden-horse or the horse-rider (a centaur?), and which would be negated by their separation. For the ridden-horse/ horse-rider to exist, the human and the animal must be in some sort of harmony, both must learn (to ride and to be ridden) in order to combine.
In contrast to what might be construed as a romanticised idea of the horse/ rider relationship, one might consider the frog. More specifically, consider the frog, not as a living creature, but as a something-else. For those of us lucky or unlucky enough to have dissected them in biology class, it is unlikely that any thought was given to the pedigree of the laboratory frog. In the nineteenth century, frogs were the subject of choice for scientists interested in reflex physiology and the effects of electricity on the nerves and muscles. In these experiments, the frog stopped being a frog and instead became a generic animal. Furthermore, it could be broken down into its component parts, which would still operate disconnected from the whole. In the apparatus of the Victorian laboratories, eventually they became ‘indistinguishable from machines’ (White 2005: 61). They were even used in experiments to locate the soul (White 2005: 61-65). From this we can see that the category of frog is not stable: it is a diagram, it is all living things, it is not the sum of its parts, it is a machine, it is something like a human being. And human beings are something like frogs, as similar reflex physiology experiments (though without dissection and dismemberment) were carried out on ‘hypnotic patients and asylum inmates’ (White 2005: 66).
It could be argued that becoming-animal (indeed, any other type of becoming) is not real, it is merely a philosophical tool, an intellectual game, just another way of saying that not all categories are static -something that most of us already know. But the point about becoming is that, through its application, it destabilises boundaries (in this case, between the animal and the human), showing them to be mutable, revealing that said boundaries may only be arbitrary constructs. Becoming provokes -maybe even promotes- anxiety by taking away the certainties of category divisions (Thompson 2005: 8).
While part of my argument is that the interface of animal-human identity is a point of contact and exchange, it is necessary to also consider it as a divide. For most people, for much of the time, it is obvious as well as convenient that ‘the animal is distinct, and can never be confused with man’ (Berger 2009: 14). It is equally true that, though ‘we are surely a type of animal… we have spent an enormous amount of time and intellectual energy convincing ourselves that we are something different’ (Cox 2005: 19).
There are a number of ‘old saws of anthropocentrism… language, tool use, the inheritance of cultural behaviours’ (Wolfe 2003: xi) that are used to demonstrate our separation from the wider mass of non-human animals. It is these gifts that make us more than animal and they less than human, but ‘many of the traits said to be universal to humans and uniquely characteristic of our species are in fact neither’ (Fukuyama 2003: 133-134), just as once flight was the sole domain of the birds or the ocean depths that of the fishes.
The primatologist, Frans de Waal, points to the potato-washing macaques of Japan as an example of non-genetic transfer of learned behaviour across the generations (‘the inheritance of cultural behaviours’). In the 1950s, Japanese primatologists encountered a macaque (part of the population of a small island) that would wash potatoes in a stream and also use the stream to separate out barley grains that had become mixed up with sand; neither potatoes or barley formed a normal part of the traditional diet of this type of macaque, having been introduced by humans. All very interesting, but the real surprise was that this novel behaviour was later observable among the other macaques on the island, years after the original washer-monkey had died (Fukuyama 2003: 144). The only way this could represent a genetic transfer is if Lamarckianism had somehow suddenly replaced Darwinian evolution.
Tool-use amongst animals should not be surprising to us. There are many well known examples: the sea otter using stones to break open shellfish, chimps ‘fishing’ for termites and grooming with sticks, even crows surprising us by imitating Aesop’s fable and using stones to displace water to get a drink. However, material culture (i.e. tools and tool-use) has been ascribed to some common ancestor of the orangutan and African ape, about 14 million years ago; much older than the most recent common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans. This would mean that material culture/ tool use pre-dates the existence of the earliest humans, in any form (Van Schaik et al 2003: 109).
More subtle examples of supposedly unique characteristics would be the ability to smile, to sing and homosexuality (which ironically manages to be both ‘beastly’ and ‘unnatural’ to some), but even in these less obvious cases we find a lack of exclusivity. Beluga whales, for instance, ‘have facial muscles that allow them to smile’ (Ogilvie 2010: 24), ‘the whale, the lowly mouse, and who knows what other forms of life can sing’ (Vining 2008: 68) and Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999) extensively catalogues both homo- and bi-sexuality amongst the mammals and the birds.
For John Berger, it is the animal’s inability to talk that sets it apart from humanity: ‘its silence… guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man’ (Berger 2009: 14) and Fukuyama points out that, to some extent, the capacity to use language is important in deciding on the apportioning of rights: we deny voting rights to animals, but not mute humans (Fukuyama 2003: 146). It is for this very reason that the artist, Joseph Beuys, extended membership of his 1967 German Student Party to all animals, so that someone could speak for them politically as they could not speak for themselves (Adams 1992: 30). Or, if you like, because it is very difficult to get humans to listen to animals.
The idea of the talking animal -and not just talking, but thinking- is a long standing staple of mythology and folklore, and actual attempts to communicate with animals are taken seriously. In the first half of the twentieth century, chimpanzees were taught in the hope that they would learn to speak, though it was eventually found that their vocal tracts were unsuitable for human speech. Since then, it has been found that chimps can be taught sign language and that they are capable of constructing new word combinations to describe things not covered in their original vocabulary -some form of language without a doubt (Berger 2009: 40).
Sign language is a human construction and the chimps are somewhat limited in how much of this artificial behaviour they can assimilate. That they can adapt within the parameters given to them suggests a very real possibility of language-based cross-species communication. Whales and dolphins are also capable of cross-species communication: they talk to each other and also to us. However, this is complicated by the fact that when we communicate with a dolphin, we are not using the language that dolphins use amongst themselves or the one we use amongst ourselves. Yet there is communication and maybe one day we will be able to ask what it is like to be a dolphin, what it thinks about humans and how it would like to be treated (Doniger 2005: 32-33).
Even those who are more open to the idea of human and animal sharing a common identity may be inclined to see the human as the principal actor in relationships, asserting dominance over the animal. This has been the norm for humans as hunters, herders, pet owners. Communication of another sort also acts to bring humans and animals closer together, that of learning from one another.
It was found, through experiments in 1964 involving the administration of electric shocks to rhesus monkeys, that it is not just humans who have a sense of fairness: ‘a hungry rhesus monkey would not take food if doing so subjected another monkey to an electric shock’ (Bekoff 2004: 76). Less harmful experiments carried out more recently at the University of Vienna have shown that this sense is by no means restricted to the primates and has been identified in dogs. Dogs also have capabilities in gaze-following and pointing (to see what another is looking at; to physically indicate something outside of another’s immediate awareness) that are considerably more developed than those of other animals, including those close relatives of the human, the chimpanzees. Furthermore, the habit of dogs to bark is not shared by wolves, leading to the conclusion that barking is actually an attempt to communicate with humans, who of course have evolved alongside dogs for -potentially- hundreds of thousands of years. These facts have raised the idea of the dog as a possible role-model for the human, rather than the other way round, with the concept of fairness, ability to follow a gaze and use pointing all learned from dogs and reinforced through long and intimate association (Hambling 2010: 14). Incidentally, the Victorians considered the dog among the better sorts of animal because of its perceived moral nature, rather than its intelligence or any perceived biological closeness to humanity (White 2005: 68). While this would have once seemed to be simple anthropomorphism, such a charge now seems less certain.
Considering that the supposed human exclusivity of certain behavioural traits has been called into question by the ‘veritable explosion of work in areas such as cognitive ethology and field ecology’ (Wolfe 2003: xi), one might instead choose to examine the physical body. When humans apportion rights to animals, when deciding how we will treat this or that species, we consider ‘how close the animal is to the human -in gross terms, whether the animal is vertebrate rather than invertebrate, warm-blooded rather than cold-blooded, mammal rather than egg-laying’ (Vining 2008: 53). Morphologically speaking, humans are very different to animals, but then not all the mass of animals look alike any more than all humans look the same. These differences disappear as the skin and the flesh are peeled back from the bones and organs, becoming ‘less in [our/ their] deep anatomy’ (Berger 2009: 18). Open up a whale’s flipper -a creature maybe as unlike humanity as could be found amongst the mammals; huge, legless, aquatic, -and you find a skeleton uncannily like that of the human hand (Najafi 2007: 81).
More physically similar to humanity, even than the apes, are the Neanderthals. Whether Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (part of humanity) or Homo neanderthalensis (forming a separate species), the Neanderthals occupy a strange position. As prehistoric ancestors of the modern human race, as part of a historical narrative, we can marvel at how much like us they were or disregard them as a loser in the evolutionary race, but they are at such a remove that they do not confront us with the uncertainty of their designation. In 1856, when the first remains were unearthed in Germany, there was immediate argument over how this creature should be classified -was it an animal, was it human, or was it something else, something utterly other? Early reconstructions of the Neanderthal, such as that of Marcellin Boule in 1908, portrayed it as a brutish caveman and a 1909 illustration from the Illustrated London News, which draws on Boule’s reconstruction, gives us ‘a malignant ape-like monster… ferocious… a werewolf’ (Regal 2010: 48): it is neither animal or human, it is a monster and takes on the role of the ‘dark and brutal other’, in company with ‘primitive’, non-Euro-American, non-white peoples as well as the apes (Regal 2010: 48).
If we are to attempt to separate humans from animals through physical criteria, we might just as well use that of congenital human baculum deficiency. That is, the lack in the human male of a penis bone. The males of most mammal species possess a baculum, while the human must rely on fluid hydraulics. This may even have reinforcement from the Bible, as did not Adam give up his rib to produce Eve, his mate? And what, after all, is a rib if not another kind of support? (Gilbert & Zevit 2007: 76-77). With this in mind, we also find in Genesis the story that the animals were presented to Adam for naming ‘and, presumably, to consider as a potential counterpart and mate’ (Cox 2005: 19), it is only when he fails to find one that God performs the miracle with the bone. One wonders how Adam came to this conclusion, particularly in the light of the existence of species of mammals the males of which -like humans and spider monkeys- are without a baculum.
Putting aside the examination of behavioural traits or physical attributes in the determination of separate animal-human identities, there is still the question of what it is that makes an animal qualitatively different from a human (or quantitatively, because we are no nearer to an answer as to what form the ultimate determinant will take -maybe there could be a points system). This brings us back to the issue of rights. Francis Fukuyama, recognising that ‘many of the attributes that were once held to be unique to human beings… are now seen as characteristic of a wide variety of non-humann animals’ (Fukuyama 2003: 144), chooses to call this ‘Factor X’, while Tom Regan calls ‘C’ this ‘characteristic or set of characteristics that makes the attribution of rights plausible in our case and implausible in the case of, for example, clouds, negative afterimages and microfungi’ (Regan 1997: 27-28) -though he could have easily said, as this is what he is really talking about, non-human primates, whales or any of the other mammals.
Whether we choose to call it C or Factor X there is still the need to define what it is, as otherwise we are left with what is an unsatisfactory answer in the context of this essay: human (and animal) rights are whatever we say they are. Both Regan and Fukuyama offer us the possibility of this mysterious factor being that equally mysterious entity, the soul, although neither really find this suitable for their purposes.
According to Pope John Paul II, in a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Catholic Church can accept the theory of evolution. However, at some point in the five million years or so of evolution from distant ancestor to modern humans, something -the soul- was implanted into the human race at a time and in a way that remains unknown, possibly unknowable (Fukuyama 2003: 161). The presence of a soul is, therefore, a sufficient determinant of humanity, at least from a Roman Catholic perspective, if not a wider Christian one.
Regan suggests, as an alternative to the soul and as acceptable to those who hold no religious conviction, the condition of rational autonomy. However, he finds himself back much where he started. In his view, there are at least some species of animal that would fit this criterion, giving the mammals -with emphasis on the primates and the whales- as his example. While admitting that the idea of rational autonomy in some or all animals is controversial, he points out that if some possess this quality then they should have rights in the same manner as rationally autonomous humanity (Regan 1997: 27-28).
It is because of the fact that humanity makes use of animals as resources that it is necessary to maintain the divide between human and animal and to maintain it as a boundary, for the very simple reason that to think of the animal as close to the human or even as another type of human would make this exploitation (in the most neutral and negative senses of the word) particularly nasty and degrading:
If we firmly believed that a cow could think like us it would become very hard to justify eating it. Instead, we decide that a cow can’t think as we understand the term, and that it is therefore morally acceptable to eat the cow (Fudge 2002: 13).
This is sufficient for most of us, but like so many other ideas about what separates the human and the animal, it does not bear up well under examination. Even to think about it at all is to invite in unwelcome and unsettling ideas, which is why, for example, there is ‘reluctance to call what dolphins do “speech”’ (Doniger 2005: 32/3) -to dignify the characteristics of animals with comparable status to that of a human demands that similar consideration be extended to other behaviours and ultimately to the animal itself, thus destabilising the categories.
While the example of dolphin’s speech or otherwise is fairly intellectually innocuous, let us consider the idea that ‘utilitarian writers are fond of comparing apes to young children and to mentally disabled humans, suggesting that the ethical questions we should consider are the same in all those cases’ (Nussbaum 2006: 34), which is potentially gruesome considering the animal rights as they stand today. Here, it is likely that Nussbaum has Peter Singer in mind. The author of Animal Liberation (1975), Singer’s thinking is:
Human beings are part of a continuum of life and have no special status in his avowedly Darwinian world-view. This leads him to two perfectly logical conclusions: the need for animal rights, since animals can experience pain and suffering as well as humans, and the downgrading of the rights of infants and elderly people who lack certain key traits, like self-awareness. (Fukuyama 2003: 154)
This is a position that Singer and others can argue, offering support for their ideas in much the same way as I construct this essay, but which most of us would at least initially find repugnant. Whether one agrees with them or not, these ideas can open up a view of dark places.
At the interface of animal-human identity we encounter the idea of somehow being less than human. To be less than human is be treated like an animal, and ‘to speak of other beings as more human or less human… or divided between the fully human and the less than fully human, has clinging to it some of the horror of twentieth-century human experimentation, exploitation, and genocide’ (Vining 2008: 55). It is this ‘clinging horror’ that deflects thinking about the interface in this particular light: ‘perhaps concentration and extermination camps are… an experiment… to decide between the human and the inhuman, which has ended up dragging the very possibility of the distinction to its ruins’ (Agamben 2004: 22).
Throughout history, the ways in which animals (in this instance, including the human animal) have been classified has changed and with them so the categories have changed. Older methods, such as number of legs and whether it lived in the air, on the land or in the water, have been superseded by taxonomies based on morphology and, later, anatomy. Gene sequencing and molecular biology now offer new taxonomical frameworks. For instance, the group comprising rabbits, hares and pikas (the lagomorphs -hare-shaped) have been a sub-order of the rodents (based on their teeth) and then an order of their own (based on structural anatomy). It has been argued that they are, in fact, related to the rodents or that they are allied to the ungulates (hoofed mammals). Appropriately, perhaps, blood-based studies show a possible relation to the carnivorans and a 1996 Tel Aviv University study examining protein sequences revealed that the closest relatives of the lagomorphs are the tree shrews and the primates (Shuker 1998: 40). From this we can see that -at least from the point of view of human knowledge- the boundaries and the connections between the species are subject to change.
And if rabbits started out related to rats and end up as our second cousins, ‘how do we incorporate the new knowledge that the human genome is only a few strands away from that of a flea?’ (Thompson 2005: 8). Possibly this is meaningless: if we are so closely related to fleas, then we are also to some degree related to pigs, squid, cocoa beans and cucumbers. With the arbitrary dissolution of all category type boundaries there is nothing to grab on to, just as the arbitrary establishment of such boundaries gives plenty to work with.
If the species boundary is determined by ‘an inability to breed’ (Vining 2008: 63), what happens to this boundary when, as referred to in the introduction, biotechnology allows for hybridisation of organisms that previously could never have done so except in science-fiction? Vining refers to a group at Stanford University hoping to combine human neural cells in a mouse embryo with the aim of creating ‘a mouse -if you can still call it a mouse- with a brain composed of entirely “human” brain cells -if you can still call them “human”’ (Vining 2008: 52). While the idea of such a hybrid may be repulsive or simply baffling to the average person, it is worth bearing in mind that many of us are perfectly comfortable with the idea of using drugs and other products that have been tested on mice -temporarily setting aside any consideration of the suffering they may or may not undergo in the process- because they are somehow deemed similar enough to humans for the conclusions drawn to be valid when extended to human beings (Mitchell 2005: 105).
Mice, rabbits and fleas notwithstanding, we should also turn to what are regarded as our closest relatives, ‘after all, 98% of our genetic make-up is the same as that of chimpanzees and bonobos’ (Schneider 2004: 2). The idea that apes were somehow like us has always been a feature of human thought, as far back as 1693 John Ray had distinguished them as the Anthropomorphia, the man-like animals (Agamben 2004: 24). Human populations in close proximity to chimps, gorillas, and orangutans have often thought of them as another type of human and talked about them as such (Regal 2010: 48). The British anatomist, Edward Tyson, published his Anatomy of a Pygmie -the first major anatomical study of a primate (probably a bonobo)- in 1699. In part, his intention was to dispel myths that had grown up around the apes, which put them in the same general category as the Satyr of classical myth, the Pygmies of Herodotus, the Wild Man of European folklore and even the Asian orangutan (based on information gained from the natives). Tyson had, however, accidentally undermined his effort. First, he had chosen to refer to the subject as Pygmie, retaining the association with a mythical race. Second, not having seen a living specimen, he had the creature depicted in an upright stance, on two legs and leaning an a walking stick, while in the distance buildings can be seen amidst the trees, reinforcing its human qualities (Regal 2010: 47-48).
This is not confined to the past: ‘as recently as 1906, the New York Zoological Society displayed an African Pygmy, named Ota Benga, in a cage with chimpanzees’ (Spiegel 1997: 12). While I doubt they necessarily meant to portray him as an animal, it is likely that the point was to illustrate the similarities of Ota Benga and the chimps while emphasising the differences with the American audience. Even more recently, in a discussion with a colleague, it was claimed that the great apes undoubtedly tried to have sex with human women when they could, an idea with a long, interesting and often offensive pedigree, with roots older than the works of Tyson or Ray.
We began this discussion with Prendick amongst the Beast Folk. He was not really aware of the implications of what he had been forced to chant -‘Are We Not Men?’- until he was back amongst his own kind, at which point he could not help but ask the same of the humans that surrounded him. It is unlikely that reading this essay would have brought him any peace of mind.
It is important to remember that Wells’ novel was written less than forty years after Darwin published his theory and ‘eliminate[d] the boundaries between the species’ (Cox 2005: 20) and this was the fertile ground from which the story sprang. It would be about another forty years before the real-life horror that can result from the defining of categories of human and animal and the degrees within them could truly be appreciated, and this has introduced corruption into the very notion of these categories, or has revealed that such a notion has always been corrupt.
But to be amongst the animals, to share an identity with them is not necessarily a negative experience. Anthropomorphism, far from being the sin it is painted to be, is a quality of sympathy, allowing us to try to experience what the animal does. With the idea of becoming-animal, we find that we are, not part-animal, but a part of animal and they are a part of us. Supposed distinctions of language, culture, rights, even physicality, become obsolete. In our present -certainly in our future- we find the lines between the animal and the human dissolving, just as they did when the theory of evolution was disseminated and just as they did when we, at that mysterious distant moment, when we became the creature that needed a human identity.
To end with the beginning. The Genesis story from the Bible is, in one sense, the furthest back we can go. It was here that human and animal first gained their identity, when Adam named them. Without the human there could not be an animal identity as we know it, and since then we have been compelled to name and to classify and to draw lines to separate, in case we are lost in the breakdown of categories. But this original separation was not always the case. The origin myths of other cultures suggest another condition. Hawaiian Indians knew the needs of the other creatures, the animals, because once men were married to them, taking animal wives. The Nuer of the southern Sudan were just as close, as once all creatures lived together in one camp (Berger 2009: 13-17).
The development of our human identity brought it into conflict with that of the animal. Throughout history, humans have attempted to define what it is to be themselves and always this definition must be made against the animal. In the end, maybe all we can say is unique of the human animal is that it is the animal that ‘must recognise himself in non-man in order to be human’ (Agamben 2004: 27).
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