Thursday, March 15, 2007

People with Feathers and Fur

I don’t know whether I’m looking out for it now – extra vigilant for the story – but it seems like this animal-consciousness story regarding the elephants, chimps and African gray parrots who can recognise themselves in the mirror is everywhere at the moment: in the only magazines and newspapers I can ever get my hands on – which are all few and far between – and from all kind of months – I nevertheless seem to keep finding mention of it. This story is haunting me…

"recognising one's reflection has no obvious survival value; it's a kind of intellectual luxury that until recently only human beings were believed to enjoy" (Jerry Adler, Newsweek, 13/11/06).

After religion and some sciences relegated animals centuries ago to secondary status because they apparently have no self-consciousness, and no sense of identity, of self – and somehow, by this reckoning, also have no souls – there is now some doubt regarding these assumptions.

As I seem to increasingly find myself thinking when it comes to alternative ways of being; why the hell has it taken so long to openly express these doubts?? Is our status so afraid of being shaken?

I’m not all that interested in getting involved in whether animals have souls or not – since I’m not convinced “humans” have whatever they are either – but consciousness and sense of self, and therefore the possibility for agency or social participation (though not necessarily with “us”) – now that’s a different matter.

But there are dangers in proposing that animals might potentially be social partners. Anthropomorphising should be avoided. These are not “humans”. Or, as Donna Haraway puts it: “all the actors are not ‘us’”.

We would still be using ourselves, as “humans”, as the yard-stick by which we compare and contrast everything else. This is doing animals with proven shared-human intelligence no favours, since they’ll never make the grade – even while proving that they’re closer to it than we ever imagined – simply because we’re setting a grade that they can either reach, or fail to reach. They are not setting their own grades, or constituting the world on their own terms. Like the research assistant who ruined the test by telling her African gray parrot who he was seeing when he looked in the mirror in a bathroom, if we dictate to them our own ways of being we’re only effectively setting up mirrors for ourselves, to scratch the marks on our faces. In the words of Donna Haraway, “we need a different kind of theory of mediations”.

“…dolphins, elephants and human beings all have large brains, a complex social structure and a capacity for altruism toward members of the same social group. Is it just a coincidence that they pass the mirror test? Or does empathy, which implies an awareness of the state of other individuals, depend on a measure of self-consciousness? ‘This research… links us to the rest of the natural world. It shows there are other minds around us’” (Jerry Adler, Newsweek, 13/11/06).

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