What Makes Us Human?

In his review of The Gap: What Separates Us from Other Animals, Wray Herbert writes:

 A lot has been written about the abilities of other species to communicate, and those skills are indeed impressive. Bees signal the whereabouts of food, and birds have elaborate courtship dances. My dog clearly (and effectively) signals that it’s dinnertime by staring. But none of this adds up to language—not as I illustrated it above. Even humpback whales, with their very large brains, show only a narrow repertoire of communication skills, devoid of the flexibility and generative power that allow us to utter and comprehend novel expressions. Suddendorf systematically dismantles the claims of other species on language, arguing that even the great apes—the ones we have spent years trying to teach our language—fall far short of full-fledged language. What’s lacking, in the end, is the motivation to create symbols and grammar to share what’s on their minds.

Some readers, including some scientists, will not agree with this conclusion. Some believe that other animals—especially pets and lab animals—have all sorts of complex mental characteristics, that they are basically “little people in furry suits.” Since we lack verbal self-reports from the animals themselves, they cannot confirm or refute this opinion. Suddendorf labels such readers and scientists “romantics,” meaning that they favor a “rich” interpretation of the existing data. Romantics stand in contrast to “killjoys,” who prefer a “lean” interpretation. Killjoys are reluctant to ascribe any humanlike abilities to animals, and at the extreme, they view other creatures as “mindless bio-machines.”

Suddendorf places himself firmly in the middle, neither an extreme romantic nor an extreme killjoy. His goal is to go beyond opinions and preconceptions and apply the methods of science, especially comparative psychology, to questions about animal capabilities. Only by such prudent and careful analysis of animal abilities is it possible to understand the nature of the gap that separates us from them. Suddendorf’s lofty goal here is to kickstart a “science of the gap” that will define human peculiarity trait by trait.

At least the title contains the phrase “other animals,” to at least drive home the point that humans are animals. Whether “romantic” or “killjoy,” it’s hard enough to get people to admit that simple fact, let alone ponder the possibility that our fellow beings might have communities, complex emotions, or (gulp) morality.

Consider this section from “What sets humanity apart” by Stephen Cave:

…the theory of evolution tells a different story, one in which humans slowly emerged as a twig on the tree of life. The problem with this explanation is that it is much more difficult to say exactly what makes us so different from all the other twigs.

Indeed, in the light of new research into animal intelligence, some  scientists have concluded that there simply is no profound difference between us  and other species. This is the stance taken in new books by Henry Gee,  palaeontology editor of the leading scientific journal Nature, and by animal behaviour expert Marc Bekoff. But other scientists of equal eminence argue the opposite: that new research is finally making the profound difference between humans and animals clear – and two of them, the psychologists Michael Tomasello and Thomas Suddendorf, have written new books purporting to tell us exactly what it is.

Throughout the rest of the article, Cave does a decent job at presenting evidence from other scientists and making a well-rounded case to consider different possibilities. But look at the tone of the first sentence quoted above. Why is a difficulty in defining what exactly makes humans exceptional (so different from all the twigs, or branches in the evolutionary tree) a problem? Isn’t such thinking equivalent to starting out with a conclusion and selecting only that evidence which supports it?

While I’m guilty as charged when it comes to erring on the side of anthropomorphism (does that make me a “romantic”?), I still think it’s better to start with the premise that animals (humans included) are much more than Cartesian objects. In fact, they’re not objects at all. We’re paying the price for thinking that they are, and things are only getting worse.


Reading Nietzsche: Motherly Love

“Now from your book I receive answers to very definite questions which concern me;” Nietzsche wrote to Malwida von Meysenbug on April 14th, 1876 (Good Friday, coincidentally), adding, “I think that I have no right to be satisfied with my attitude to life until I have your assent.” He then goes on:

But your book is to me a more severe judge than perhaps you yourself would be. What must a man do, with the image of your life before him, if he is to escape accusing himself of unmanliness?—this is what I often ask myself. He must do all that you did, and absolutely nothing more! But most probably he will not be able to do so; he lacks the safely guiding instinct of love that is always ready to help.

The book Nietzsche refers to here is Memoiren einer Idealistin (Memories of an Idealist), Meysenbug’s autobiography. Nietzsche apparently was a fan, writing earlier in the aforementioned letter:

You walked before me as a higher self, as a much higher self—but encouraging rather than shaming me; thus you soared in my imagination, and I measured my life against your example and asked myself about the many qualities I lack.

Later he writes:

One of the highest themes, of which you have first given me an inkling, is the theme of motherly love without the physical bond of mother and child; it is one of the most glorious revelations of caritas.

What are we to make of this extolling of the so-called motherly instinct: to nurture and protect and sacrifice for others? Such adoration of caring (or of charity or “brotherly love,” as the word comes from Latin caritatem: “costliness, esteem, affection”; in Vulgate often used as translation of Greek agape “love”—love of fellow man) runs counter to the popular image of Nietzsche as cold, unflinching amoralist.

But this was a letter, not a published work. Was he just being polite out of intellectual protocol, or simply attempting to flatter a close friend in private? But then again, if either of those scenarios are true, doesn’t that still show that Nietzsche considered friendship to be important, if not critical? What kind of nihilist writes letters to friends telling them that they really enjoyed their books? What kind of brute writes that reading an autobiography written by a woman made him question what it means to be a man, and that he admittedly had a long way to go to achieve his ideal, because he lacks caritas?


“By the way, the reason trust and credit are gone is because oil is no longer cheap and world economies can’t grow anymore. They can’t afford to run the day-to-day operations of a techno-industrial society. They can only pretend to afford it. The stock markets are mere scorecards for players who can only lie and cheat now to keep the game going. Somewhere beyond all the legerdemain and fraud, however, there remains a real world that is not going away. We just don’t know what it will look like when the smog of fraud clears.”  – James Howard Kunstler, “The Smog of Fraud” at Clusterfuck Nation

The Burnt Out Generation?

“Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted,” writes Anna Katharina Shaffner in German burnout, “is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal?”

Well, yes and no (sorry for the cliché.) It’s most likely true that people work too hard in pursuits that are ultimately fruitless, no matter the context, but perhaps it’s also true that to be burnt out is becoming something of a requisite. If you’re not too busy, you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that messed up?

And isn’t it strange that the Germans, of all people, are preoccupied with exhaustion? It’s almost as if stereotypes aren’t true.

Maybe people have always been overworked. Shaffner writes:

Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted, is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal? If we were to venture further back into the past, crossing the frequently evoked modern/pre-modern threshold, we would find that many medieval men and women suffered from a lack of energy and spiritual weariness too, which might simply have been articulated in religious language – the numerous works written on melancholia and acedia (diagnoses that are also essentially structured around mental and physical exhaustion) suggest as much. Werner Post, in his beautifully written treatise on acedia (Acedia: Das Laster der Trägheit, 2011) has recently presented this argument in the most persuasive of terms. But one could look back further still: the weariness of the melancholic was a condition already theorized by Hippocrates and Galen. Rather than lamenting the horrors of modernity, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that exhaustion is simply an essential part of the human experience. Indeed, the fact that our energies are limited, and that this worries us, is very much part of what makes us human. What changes through history is not the experience of exhaustion as such, but rather the labels we invent to describe it, the causes we mobilize to explain it, and, of course, the specific cultural discontents that we tend so readily to map onto it.

But this also strikes me as a kind of cop out; it’s the Pleistocene-Overkill-Hypothesis apology of modern capitalism. People have always been burnt out, so stop complaining, will ya?

I think people have always been overworked, sure. But overworked is now the norm. If you take a moment (or a sick day) to relax and go for a walk, you’ve got problems. You’re unprofessional. You’re not managing your time well. See what I mean?


“We appear to be in a post-apocalyptic novel, but, in fact, we are in fact. Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the Yucatán Peninsula, leaving behind a crater 110 miles wide and twenty miles deep and a colossally larger hole in the tree of life. The impact and its after­effects wiped out an estimated 75 percent of species, including, most famously, all non-avian dinosaurs. That event, the end-­Cretaceous extinction, is one of six massive die-offs in the history of the planet. Five of them happened in the distant past: 450 million, 375 million, 252 million, 200 million, and 66 million years ago. The sixth one is happening right now.”

– Kathryn Shultz, reviewing The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

It’s Simple: Don’t Visit Zoos

I already didn’t like zoos. Then I read the headline today about the Copenhagen Zoo shooting, skinning, and feeding a two-year-old giraffe to the zoo’s lions and polar bears.

What I found, from an unlikely source (the Associated Press), was actually a very fair account of both the act and its many reactions. Yes, to my own surprise, I wasn’t as outraged as I expected to be, given the headline. But I’m in kind of a steady state of outrage all the time, so it’s safe to say that my baseline is already higher than most people’s.

According to the article, the zoo says it needed to make space and prevent in-breeding, and that predators eat meat, so people should just get over it. I know this explanation sounds glib, but it actually seems like a reasonable response; it’s one that I’ve used myself many times, especially in conversations with vegan friends who have drifted too far into the purity cult (a cult I myself was briefly a member of, so I should know). Animals do die in the wild, and do eat each other. It’s what makes ecosystems sustainable.

If the zoo staff had killed the giraffe, cut it up, and buried it in plastic bags (essentially denying the animal its place in the food chain—like we do to most other living beings), then the killing would truly be senseless—almost as senseless as leaf blowers.

But before you skip down to the comments section and leave me a literary middle finger, I’m going to continue by pointing out that the response to the zoo from animal rights groups was in this case—you guessed it—even more compelling:

EAZA said it supported the zoo’s decision to “humanely put the animal down and believes strongly in the need for genetic and demographic management within animals in human care.”

However, the organization Animal Rights Sweden said the case highlights what it believes zoos do to animals regularly.

“It is no secret that animals are killed when there is no longer space, or if the animals don’t have genes that are interesting enough,” it said in a statement. “The only way to stop this is to not visit zoos.”

“When the cute animal babies that attract visitors grow up, they are not as interesting anymore,” said the organization.

Elisa Allen, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in the U.K., said Marius’ case should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who “still harbors the illusion that zoos serve any purpose beyond incarcerating intelligent animals for profit.”

She said in a statement, “Giraffes rarely die of old age in captivity, and had Marius not been euthanized today, he would have lived out his short life as a living exhibit, stranded in a cold climate, thousands of miles away from his true home.”

Ding ding ding.

In short: I don’t have a problem with the killing of the giraffe, nor (especially) with feeding it to predators who are also incarcerated. But this killing/public mutilation shouldn’t have ever needed to be carried out in the first place, since the best way to give animals space to prevent in-breeding is to not steal them and put them in boxes in the first place. Call me crazy.

For more on why you shouldn’t visit zoos—or circuses—read Fear of the Animal Planet by Jason Hribal.