What got you interested in human-animal studies?
Well, as a human animal, what could be more interesting? Or, perhaps better, as an animal who is told repeatedly that he is a human, what else could be a better field of reflection? So, I suppose the answer to your question is that my own narcissism brought me to animal studies! Something just felt wrong, in so much that I read and heard, with the continual insistence that “we” are human, and that humans necessarily occupy some privileged ontological or ethical place within the world.
Tell us about your current project: what are you working on and why is this important for the field?
In my last book—CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers—I closed by looking at the fact that, in terms of contemporary (cladistic) taxonomy, humans should really be identified as one of three species of chimpanzee. I suggested, somewhat playfully, that, instead of Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man,” the name that Linnaeus gave to humans in the 18th century, we might reclassify humans as Pan bimanus, meaning “the chimpanzee with (only) two hands.” Other creatures are frequently reclassified as new evidence comes to light about their relationships to one another, but the traditional tendency to think of humans as exceptional, as standing outside this network of biological relationships, weighs heavily against this kind of revision.
In my new project, I look more closely at people’s inclination to self-identify pre-eminently or sometimes even exclusively as human. This is a form, I think, of what Sartre called bad faith: a great many writers, academic and otherwise, choose not to acknowledge the vast array of other groups and collectivities to which they belong. For instance, thinking just in terms of those familial relationships, every human animal—along with all the monkeys, apes, lemurs, tarsiers and others—is also a member of the class of primates; or—along with amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and many fish—the subphylum of vertebrates. Or, thinking in terms of perceptual faculties, some humans share with many other creatures a visual capacity, or the ability to distinguish particular colours, say red from green; or we might think of the group of individuals who can experience pain, which would include most humans, but many other creatures as well.
Rejecting this notion that humans are some kind of self-evident norm, rejecting what we might call an anthroponormative starting point, and thinking instead in terms of multiple, varied collectivities, is important because relinquishing the idea of an exclusive, uniform, unifying human identity helps to open up more inclusive, more sophisticated, more nuanced ways of thinking about ethics, and to move away from those that rely on this rather blunt, chauvinistic human exceptionalism.
Does your academic work inform, or is it informed by, your feelings for and/or work with (or for) non-human animals? For example, does your pro-animal agenda influence your choice of research topic or research methods?
Animals are variously and endlessly fascinating, baffling, beautiful, impressive, and, as Bob McKay has said, “way cool.” Scientific and other kinds of knowledge about the physiology, capacities and behaviour of animals is interesting on at least two levels. First, it tells us, of course, something that we would not otherwise have known about these creatures. Who could fail to be interested in the fact that the earliest tetrapods, the four-footed fish, had six, or seven, or even more fingers on each hand, and that evolution has seen a gradual loss of digits, so that most creatures today have far fewer than this number (just one in the case of horses); or that mammalian hiccups may well be the result of our descent from fish and amphibians, and the less-than optimal breathing apparatuses that we have inherited as a result; or that dolphins engage in all manner of imaginative heterosexual and homosexual, monogamous and polygamous sexual practices, including masturbation, fin sex, blowhole sex, oral sex, acoustic genital buzz, interspecies sex, and more.
Secondly, it is fascinating and vitally important to be aware of the means by which this knowledge is created, and the uses to which it is put. The history of the biological and other natural sciences is not, of course, a slow but inexorable revelation of the ways of the world’s creatures. Procedures that have generated successive understandings of monkeys and horses and dolphins have frequently been manipulative, invasive and worse, and accounts of the make-up or activities of nonhuman animals have frequently been deployed in order to bolster one dubious ideological undertaking or another, not least the elevation of humankind.
Animal studies is one of the key points at which the natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences meet, with enormous potential for their mutual benefit. At the same time, the “academic work” of the many disciplines within each of these two cultures cannot and should not be taken to be purely academic.
Why is it important that scholars study and teach about human-animal relations?
Academically, animal studies is important because everything that the humanities and social sciences address has been profoundly influenced and informed by nonhuman animals. On the one hand, there is the importance of biological and cultural co-evolution, and the extensive history and pre-history of human-animal interaction, including both the wonderful, varied achievements and positive relationships, as well as the legacy and ongoing reality of the most heinous exploitation and violence. On the other, it is important properly to think through the implications of the fact that humans are animals, and not entirely separate from the rest of the world. To ignore or suppress or deny the fact of human animality—and I don’t mean by that, of course, the kind of senseless, shameless, wild beastliness described by Socrates—is to assume as your intellectual starting point a shallow, unreflective human exceptionalism. To fail to address these aspects of human-animal interaction and identity, explicitly and extensively, is to fail to grasp what the humanities and social sciences are.
Ethically, animal studies is important because the history and development of human society and culture–which is to say everything that the humanities and social sciences studies–has been intimately tied and indebted to the mistreatment and abuse of nonhuman animals, and acknowledging the diversity and extent of this exploitative dependence is a necessary part of moving toward redressing the continuing oppression that exists in contemporary society.
What is your prediction about the future of human-animal studies?
The media theorist Marshall McLuhan used to say that you should “Never predict anything that hasn’t already happened.” McLuhan was interested in the implications and potentials of existing technologies, and attempted to draw attention to changes that most people had not yet noticed or imagined. We are starting to see courses and modules and entire programmes in higher education devoted to animal studies, which is a tremendous development. My hope for the future would be that animal studies becomes fully integrated into all the disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, so that it will be inconceivable to study history and geography, philosophy and cultural studies, literature and film, anthropology and economics and politics, and all the others, without acknowledging and addressing the roles that nonhuman animals have played, or been required to play, in these fields, just as none of these disciplines can seriously ignore issues of race, gender, ability, and so on today. This incorporation of animal studies into the curriculum, at all levels of education, not just the university, is at least as important as the individual courses that are now being established.