Posts Tagged ‘animalization


Re-Animalizing the Human / Humanizing the Animal

Related to one of the earliest posts on this blog, it was very exciting to see an announcement on the AAA Human Rights Blog, “Great Apes Receive Human Rights,” that speaks of some very interesting news of the extension of human rights legislation to cover gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The BBC in “Should apes have human rights?” speaks of the growing international movement to grant personhood to animals. (Talk about the “monkey smashing heaven.”)

In addition, the environment committee of the Spanish parliament voted to extend human rights to great apes. According to Donald McNeil in The New York Times, “When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans:”

The committee would bind Spain to the principles of the [United Nations’] Great Ape Project, which points to apes’ human qualities, including the ability to feel fear and happiness, create tools, use languages, remember the past and plan the future. The project’s directors, Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist, and Paola Cavalieri, an Italian philosopher, regard apes as part of a “community of equals” with humans.

Also of especial interest in the NYT piece is the following extract on changing definitions of “human,” supremacy and colonialism:

Ten years ago, I stood in a clearing in the Cameroonian jungle, asking a hunter to hold up for my camera half the baby gorilla he had split and butterflied for smoking.

My distress — partly faked, since I was also feeling triumphant, having come this far hoping to find exactly such a scene — struck him as funny. “A gorilla is still meat,” said my guide, a former gorilla hunter himself. “It has no soul.”

So he agrees with Spain’s bishops. But it was an interesting observation for a West African to make. He looked much like the guy on the famous engraving adopted as a coat of arms by British abolitionists: a slave in shackles, kneeling to either beg or pray. Below it the motto: Am I Not a Man, and a Brother?

Whether or not Africans had souls — whether they were human in God’s eyes, capable of salvation — underlay much of the colonial debate about slavery. They were granted human rights on a sliding scale: as slaves, they were property; in the United States Constitution a slave counted as only three-fifths of a person.

The BBC (same link above) also lists what its sources consider to be the key features of the great apes that make them eligible for benefiting from some human rights (such as the freedom from murder and torture):

  • Gorillas, bonobos, orangutans and chimps are great apes
  • Chimpanzees and bonobos differ from humans by only 1% of DNA and could accept a blood transfusion or a kidney
  • All great apes recognise themselves in a mirror
  • Elephants and dolphins show similar self-awareness
  • Great apes can learn and use human languages through signs or symbols but lack the vocal anatomy to master speech
  • Great apes have displayed love, fear, anxiety and jealousy
Perhaps my only unease stems from the argument of genetic correspondence and statistics. What is the numerical figure for non-humanness? I also am not totally confident about the impact of such legislation, given that our current human rights laws are not enforced with respect to certain humans, such as Muslim detainees in Guantanamo.
To me the idea that apes, monkeys, and humans were tightly related was very obvious since I was a small child, before I knew of anything called genetics. Moreover, what other children I knew also agreed with was that dogs shared, exchanged and communicated with us in such a way that, again, there was a strong sense of common bonds. To sit through a religion class, in a Catholic school, roughly around the age of seven, and hear the priest declare that “dogs have no souls,” “dogs don’t dream they just twitch in their sleep,” and “when dogs die they go nowhere,” left so many of us in class mortified and shocked that the priest could state such nasty lies, that I can assure the reader that there and then, in that very moment, he alienated at least two dozen Catholics for good. The rest of my years spent in Catholic schools would witness an endless series of challenges to Catholic doctrines from students, rebellious and pointed questions, met with looks of discomfort and very feeble attempts at any defense by priests and teachers. It was as if they themselves could not believe what they were preaching.
Far from the Catholic Church, but unfortunately not far enough, introductory anthropology textbooks still contain the standard statement about the uniqueness and specialness of humans as opposed to “animals.”

Impermanence & Re-animalization

skull.jpgruins1.jpg baboon.jpg

Such a brief foray into such large topics is hardly worth undertaking, but I must break the ice somehow. With reference to the “utopistics” of the Open Anthropology Project, I have been haunted for several years by what are actually common philosophical observations, common enough that you can pick them up in any pop cultural art form, the mass media, and so forth. My aim is to eventually link the two sides of these ways of thinking–impermanence and what I call re-animalization–into a whole.

First, impermanence. By impermanence I mean, first, the observation that we live temporally limited lifespans. Furthermore, whatever legacy we may leave as individuals these too are often very limited. Most persons who have children are probably forgotten within their own families by the third or fourth generation (this will be extended as more persons leave records of themselves on the Internet, assuming the longterm survival of humans, which is in doubt). As researchers, few of our written products will be consulted even twenty years after the first printing; by then the items will have gone out of print, and remaining printed copies become relatively sparse and may begin to decay. Any buildings we construct also decay and can be subject to both natural and human-made disasters. But let’s assume that none of these things are true. Even then, the planet exists in a solar system whose sun has already reached the midpoint of its own life. When the sun expands and eventually collapses, the planet will perish. Indeed, the planet could be vaporized, leaving only dust that then burns up when entering the atmospheres of other planets. No matter what, whatever little mark we make on this tiny speck of dust we call Earth, that will all vanish at some point. Artists who erase their works as they complete them have the right idea: no matter how beautiful, it cannot last and must go. This is what distinguishes history from eternity, and it is what limits our presence and our ultimate universal (in)significance. I say all of this without any sense of agony or despair.

What happens when you live, day by day, with such thoughts at the forefront of your mind? Many things can result in different mindsets, to be sure. For me the result is an increased sense of peace that comes from the brutal reduction of the significance of any current institution, life goal, social situation, and so on. Ultimately it does not matter, none of it, and the best one can do is to not burn up one’s life with needless and pointless complications, with being “busy,” with always trying to get “more,” and with trying to extend one’s life (or even blogging for that matter, which shows the reader what a contradictory life I live, divided against myself). If early hunters and gatherers might have lived to their mid-twenties…so what? We are not immortal: no matter the amount of medication, surgery, salad and jogging, we will all die. We have one actress currently appearing in television ads–for a pharmaceutical company, please note–who defiantly (and thus comically) asserts, “But I refuse…I absolutely refuse to die from breast cancer.” What does it matter how you die? Are we now to shop around for the preferred death?

Second, re-animalization. I am disturbed by the Judaeo-Christian bases of the concept of “dehumanization” which suggests that humans are at the apex of all life on the planet, and any violation of the human is a “step down” to the level of animals. Indeed, the radical existential disconnection between these so-called humans and the natural world which they inhabit and which created them, is especially prominent in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which paradoxically have three of the most thunderous histories of conflict and domination of other humans. The “dehumanization” concept has its obvious benefits for it also acts as a critique of turning people into mere objects, and the intent is to foster respect for humans. I cannot be against that. What I am against is the built in notion that we are better than animals, when we are animals. Re-animalization involves seeing oneself in all other living creatures, for we share common ancestry with all of them, and with some of them the lateral evolutionary distance between us is hardly that striking. I agree with a great deal that various animal rights philosophers, lawyers, and political activists have argued along these lines.

For me, one the ways forward in terms of utopistics will come from, not just significantly elaborating on the above sets of propositions (eliminating elements, adding, revising) and deepening my own knowledge of the thinking behind these, but in linking the two in a way that, I think, will result in a truly revolutionary synthesis.

Any comments, idea, observations? Please feel free to share.



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