We each have moments throughout our day when we find our mind gently wandering. I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating these periods of thought; the rhythms of the mind slow as we carry out our mundane day to day tasks and our thoughts become more reflective. We allow our mind to drift along, to take little eddies away and back until one line of thought takes our attention and we choose to explore this more deeply. It’s good to savour these moments, they are moments of growth, of re-evaluating and questioning our beliefs, of reflexivity as we place ourselves in the world and consider how we impact those around us.
So it was this morning, as my thoughts enquired why it is that we as humans vary in our regard for nonhuman animals. What causes someone to see the value of other’s lives, to accept the paradigm of personhood in other than human beings, that they have their own experiences and subjectivity, and yet for another to dismiss this concept as fallacy?
There may be influences from cultural and social backgrounds, peer groups and online sources that culminate in structuring beliefs, but we also hear a voice within us which questions the authenticity of these beliefs and advocates for novel thoughts and ideas to play through our mind. Being entrenched in a pattern of thinking closes the door to exploring the world from new perspectives; we may ultimately draw the same conclusions but we have had the opportunity to venture forth and seek a different path with renewed and optimistic vigour. From that place in our mind’s eye, we have expanded our outlook whichever conclusions we draw.
The concept of other-than-human personhood can be difficult to accept, but if we work back through our evolutionary past, we find connections that bind humans and nonhumans together far more than we may possibly realise. I am going to borrow some of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s (2020) work to evidence this. Memory is an important aspect of how our mind processes; we remember facts (semantic), procedures, working memory – the manipulation of ideas and images, and episodic memory or remembering experienced events.
Interestingly, it is thought that episodic memory includes imaginings of the future; the hypothesis of constructive episodic simulation. Godfrey-Smith also talks about ‘off-line processing’ which basically describes my thought processes in the first two paragraphs – the ability to step forward, backwards, or sideways in our thoughts to create ‘alternative presents’ (p. 253), of both being here and elsewhere.
Now we venture into more fascinating territory – that of sleep, and in particular the alternation of REM and slow wave sleep. Humans are known to dream when in the REM period of sleep, and yes, we have probably all observed the animals who share our lives showing movements and vocalisations which we would associate with dreaming. However, cephalopods, who split away from our evolutionary linage 600 million years ago, for example, cuttlefish and octopuses, also show colour and pattern changing responses in their sleep. Could this mean that they too are processing memories and actioning behaviours unconsciously? Certainly, it is now becoming more recognised that sentience travels far further back into the evolutionary process than once thought, and alongside sentience, we have to consider the emotional lives of nonhuman animals.
The balance of sentience, cognition and consciousness is not necessarily on a continuum, animals may possess these attributes in different degrees but possession of any should be enough to make us pause for thought. The subjectivity of another through the capacity to experience and respond to the world raises the conundrum of personhood. To my mind, why not assume personhood in others unless there is absolute, rather than arbitrary, proof to the contrary.
Flora – what are her subjective evaluations concerning her life? Do we see a person, a species or maybe both? (Photo Irene Perrett)
Time to come back to my original train of thought, though every deviation is an adventure! It is not easy to pin down the factors that influence how we perceive nonhuman animals, but the language we use when we refer to an other than human (and even these phrases have a dualist bias) must drip feed our thought processes. Too often an animal is termed as an it or a thing, aspects of ownership, commodification, monetary worth, and anthropocentric decision making on almost all aspects of an animal’s life – and death – words and actions that lead us down the path of disregarding the animal’s own subjective worth and intrinsic values. When I question why this is, my mind turns to reciprocity, a wonderful word brought up recently in discussion. In this context, I am looking from an anthropocentric or human centred viewpoint. Do the animals whom we feel show us reciprocity fare better in their relationship with humans than those who don’t? Is the reciprocal relationship based on emotional regard necessary to override the other factors I’ve listed? For example, why do we perceive differently the dog who shares our home and to whom we show affection, to a dog who is used for hunting and is valued simply through his usefulness to human need? We could consider the argument of speciesism; the cat who lies beside us is very often seen as an autonomous individual, but the cow outside is depleted of her cognitive and emotional qualities in our eyes. She is a sentient and intelligent, she is an emotion driven being, she holds her own subjectivity and values regarding her life – but, in our demands of the relationship, she is commodified. It becomes too big a hurdle to consider her living as a person, though of course, she remains a person whatever our thoughts on the matter. I have used her as an example, but consider any species. Crabs can feel pain when caught and boiled alive just as any other animal would, but when we hear of this happening to a dog or cat we are horrified. We are familiar with a reciprocal relationship with a dog, but though a crab doesn’t reciprocate our feelings does this make our regard for them any less important?
This argument isn’t about lifestyle changes, rather, it is to consider the true meaning of reciprocity. What can we as human bring to the table, how can we initiate a different way of thinking about nonhuman animals? I don’t have answers, but I think it is important to raise the questions. Another species doesn’t have to be compared to us to hold their own value, it is audacious of our species to consider that we can grant rights to others, that we alone hold that power, but sadly, without recognising rights and subjectivity in other species, we will continue to walk over their lives without a backward glance.
This isn’t a place for judgement, but for discussion. Let’s consider, even for a few moments, that animals other than ourselves are persons from their own species and individual perspectives. As you look towards an animal, how does that make you feel? As the animal interacts in some way, would you respond differently to a being who possesses their own perspective and subjectivity, who holds regard to us as humans, and simply asks that we reciprocate that regard in return?
Reference – Godfrey-Smith, P. (2020) Metazoa: Animal minds and the birth of consciousness. London: William Collins.