Our Animals, Ourselves
…But what is forgotten here is that the animals are being tested for re-admission to a community from which they were previously expelled, and not because they were judged to lack the minimum requirements for the granting of rights. They were expelled because they are hairy brutes, and we learned to be ashamed of thinking of them as our kin. This shame only increased when Darwin confirmed our kinship, thus telling us something Paleolithic hunters already knew full well. Morality doubled up its effort to preserve a distinction that seemed to be slipping away. Since the 19th century, science has colluded with morality, always allowing some trivial marker of human uniqueness or other to function as a token for entry into the privileged moral universe of human beings. “They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them,” is how Richard Sorabji brilliantly reduces this collusion to absurdity.
Before and after Darwin, the specter of the animal in man has been compensated by a hierarchical scheme that separates our angelic nature from our merely circumstantial, and hopefully temporary, beastly one. And we find more or less the same separation in medieval Christian theology, Romantic nature poetry, or current cognitive science: All of it aims to distinguish the merely animal in us from the properly human. Thus Thoreau, widely lauded as a friend of the animals, cannot refrain from invoking animality as something to be overcome: “Men think that it is essential,” he writes, “that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride 30 miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.” What the author of Walden misses is that men might be living like baboons not because they are failing at something or other, but because they are, in fact, primates. Thoreau can’t help invoking the obscene and filthy beasts that have, since classical antiquity, formed a convenient contrast to everything we aspire to be.