He Tried to Be a Badger

A raccoon on the northeast shore of Whitefish Lake, Michigan, 1903; photograph by George Shiras from In the Heart of the Dark Night, which collects his images of wildlife from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is edited by Sonia Voss, with an essay by Jean-Christophe Bailly, and is published by Éditions Xavier Barral.
George Shiras/National Geographic Creative
A raccoon on the northeast shore of Whitefish Lake, Michigan, 1903; photograph by George Shiras from In the Heart of the Dark Night, which collects his images of wildlife from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is edited by Sonia Voss, with an essay by Jean-Christophe Bailly, and is published by Éditions Xavier Barral.

In his classic essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to enter the pteropine mind. Bats, he notes, spend a lot of their time dangling upside down. At night, they swoop around, searching for bugs and issuing high-pitched chirps that allow them to navigate in the dark. A person can imagine what it’s like to hang by his toes from a rafter. He may also be able to envisage having webbed arms, and maneuvering via echolocation, and catching insects on the fly. From this, he can get a sense of what it would be like for him to behave like a bat. But still he would not know what it’s like to be a bat. Even in his wildest dreams, a person has access only to the resources of the human mind, and here, according to Nagel, lies the rub: “Those resources are inadequate to the task.”

Nagel’s essay first appeared in 1974, in the journal The Philosophical Review. It could just as well have been titled “What Is It Like to Be an Aardvark?” or “What Is It Like to Be a Zebra?” The gap separating humans from bats is much the same as—or at least of a similar magnitude to—that which separates us from sloths and pangolins and manatees and meerkats. Like us, these animals are mammals, and we concede that they are capable of some sort of subjective experience. (“Too far down the phylogenetic tree,” Nagel observes, and “people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all.”)

Though Nagel wasn’t much interested in other species—his real subject was the irreducibility of consciousness—to those who were, his question became a kind of taunt, an elbow thrust across academic disciplines. Even naturalists who considered the premise of his argument to be misguided felt obliged to address it. In 2012, for instance, a British zoologist named Tim Birkhead wrote a book on avian perception. In his introduction, Birkhead called Nagel’s point “subtle and pedantic perhaps, but that’s philosophers for you.” Birkhead provocatively subtitled his book “What It’s Like to Be a Bird.”

Into this much-contested territory trots Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide. Foster proposes that humans spend less time thinking about or even observing animals and more time emulating them. To appreciate what it’s like to be an otter, try catching fish in your mouth. To appreciate what it’s like to be a fox, try sleeping under a porch by day and foraging through garbage bins at night. The conceit is obviously demented, and Foster, a man of—by his own description—“shaggy, anarchic pretensions,” pursues it with unhinged élan. The result is what might be called gonzo nature writing. Being a Beast is unlikely to move many philosophers or, for that matter, naturalists, but it makes for an extremely entertaining—if shaggily anarchic—read.

Foster, a veterinarian-cum-barrister who teaches at Oxford, starts off by traveling with one of his kids to Wales. There he has a friend, Burt, who’s a farmer. Father and son are aiming to live as badgers do, and for this they need a burrow or, to use the technical term, a sett. Burt uses his backhoe to open up a trench in the side of a hill. No self-respecting badger would accept such an exposed residence, but it’s the best that Foster and his son, who are a good deal larger than your average mustelid, can manage. They settle in.

Badgers subsist mainly on earthworms; these constitute something like 85 percent of the animals’ diet. Foster gamely gives them a go. Robert Parker–like, he analyzes the distinctions that make some worms taste like “lemongrass and pig shit” while others have a flavor more like “burning rubber and halitosis.” He declares them to be “the ultimate local food” and to have their own terroir. But he never loses his revulsion. One night, in the pseudo-sett, a worm falls into his mouth.

“A badger would have welcomed it as a pasha on his couch welcomes a grape dropped by a slave,” he writes. “I gagged quietly and went back to sleep with my face buried in the bracken bedding.”

Badgers are nocturnal. They have a keen sense of smell and pass their nights snuffling through the forest, searching for vermicular prey. Foster and his son also try to snuffle, with mixed results. Humans navigate mostly by sight; when it comes to olfaction, they can’t hold a candle to badgers. Foster has tried to improve his nasal capacities by, for instance, burning different types of incense in different rooms of his house. But once in the woods, he finds the best he can do is try to imagine what it would be like to have a more sensitive snout, an exercise that’s not unlike trying to imagine what it would be like to echolocate.

Foster, too, offers a nod to Nagel. “In just about every book on animal perception there appears, as a handy epigraph, the line of the American philosopher Thomas Nagel: ‘What is it like to be a bat,’” he notes. According to Foster, the whole question is a red herring. On the level of consciousness people don’t know much about what it’s like to be another person, let alone a bat or a badger. In fact, humans may be just as inscrutable as members of any other species. There is, Foster writes, an “exhilarating inaccessibility” to all creatures.

As Foster ventures further into the animal kingdom, his antics grow ever more bizarre. Experiencing the world as an otter entails spending long hours facedown in a river. Foster justifies donning a wetsuit on these outings by noting that otters possess two layers of fur, which humans obviously lack. (“It’s more otterlike, not less, to wear one,” he insists.) He wonders what it would be like to have otters’ highly sensitive whiskers. He snacks on raw fish liver.

Otters use their musky-smelling scat to mark out territory and communicate with their brethren, a practice known in animal behavior circles as “sprainting.” Foster assigns this part of the lutrine experience to his children, whom he instructs to defecate out of doors. The kids take to the exercise with verve, kicking each other’s feces into the river to claim more territory. Foster retraces their steps, trying to determine which child produced which “spraint.” Once again, he’s grossed out. “This was a revolting job, and it must have looked deeply perverted,” he reports.

The longer this sort of thing goes on, the less conviction Foster seems able to muster. For a chapter on deer, he hires a bloodhound to pursue him through the woods. But, he ruefully notes, even being chased to the point of breathlessness and “obsessing hypochondriacally about death” don’t qualify a person to say much about being an ungulate. By the last chapter Foster has pretty much dropped the pretense of his own pretense. This chapter is about swifts, which migrate from Africa to England in the spring and back in the fall, a roundtrip flight of more than 11,000 miles. Try as he might, Foster will never be able to loft himself into the air, at least not without mechanical assistance. Once again, he is left to fall back on his (all-too-human) imagination.

“No qualification other than occupancy of a shared world is necessary for me to write about swifts,” he declares at this point. “That is a great relief, because swifts are the ultimate other.” In the end, he decides that the real value of all the time spent snuffling and sprainting and swimming lies in, well, it’s hard to say. Over drinks one night, he tries to explain his project to a well-known (but unnamed) Greek poet.

“Impossible,” the poet harrumphs.

“He meant absurd,” Foster notes, “but was too gracious to say so.”

Frans de Waal, too, wants to know what it’s like to be a beast. But as far as de Waal is concerned, the challenge of otherness is greatly overrated. Humans, after all, are beasts.

De Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, has spent the last forty years studying apes. His dozen books based on this work include Chimpanzee Politics, The Ape and the Sushi Master, and The Bonobo and the Atheist. His latest effort—Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?—offers an extended argument against human exceptionalism. The “human-animal difference is one of degree, not kind,” he observes, paraphrasing Darwin.

Ever since Darwin, people have known that, just like every other creature on the planet, we are products of “descent with modification.” Darwin himself was such an ardent Darwinian that he embraced the implications of this fact. No trait could have sprung up de novo in humans. Even humans’ mental states must therefore, to some extent at least, be shared by other species.

“We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, &c., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals,” Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, published in 1871.

But to many of Darwin’s contemporaries, including more than a few of those who accepted the general idea of “descent with modification,” the bit about “emotions and faculties” was a bridge too far. Among the eminent Victorians who believed that the human mind deserved special consideration was Alfred Russel Wallace, who’s often credited with being Darwin’s codiscoverer. Wallace argued that the pressure of natural selection was sufficient to endow man with a brain only “a little superior to that of an ape.” Yet even “savages” possessed brains “very little inferior to that of a philosopher.” Some force other than natural selection must account for this excess mental capacity. Wallace labeled this the “unseen universe of Spirit.”

It may no longer be acceptable to invoke the “unseen universe of Spirit,” but Wallace’s way of thinking has proved remarkably durable. Researchers have fastened on one “uniquely human” trait after another. Almost inevitably, that trait is then found to be shared by other species. Instead of just abandoning the whole enterprise, researchers just move on to a new trait. “Uniqueness claims typically cycle through four stages,” de Waal writes:

They are repeated over and over, they are challenged by new findings, they hobble toward retirement, and then they are dumped into an ignominious grave.

Take, for example, the “theory of mind” argument, which holds that humans alone are capable of seeing the world from another’s perspective. De Waal demolishes it with the help of two captive chimps named Georgia and Reinette.

De Waal oversaw an experiment that began with placing the two chimps in separate rooms. Reinette, the lower-ranking chimp, had a small window from which she could see into an outdoor enclosure; Georgia had none. While the chimps were in their rooms, a researcher would hide a cucumber and a banana in the enclosure. The two chimps would then be released simultaneously. Georgia quickly realized Reinette possessed knowledge that she lacked, and carefully watched Reinette’s movements. For her part, Reinette realized that Georgia would use her superior status to deny her the first goody that she—Reinette—uncovered. She would therefore guide Georgia to the spot where the cucumber was hidden, and then, while Georgia was occupied, rush over and grab the banana.

After several rounds of this, Georgia realized Reinette not only knew something she did not, but also was using her knowledge to deceive her. From this point, Georgia tried to discover the location of the banana by following Reinette’s gaze. But Reinette, apparently aware that Georgia was now onto her, avoided looking in the fruit’s direction. Certainly, both chimps seemed able to take the other’s perspective. In fact, as de Waal notes, they seemed “exquisitely” attuned to what the other was thinking.

Or consider the claim that only humans are capable of cooperating to achieve a mutually agreed-upon goal. De Waal sweeps this one aside using wild chimps. Researchers have watched chimps in the dense jungle of Taï National Park, in the Ivory Coast, working together to corner colobus monkeys. Some chimps act as “drivers,” harrying the monkeys, while others take up positions high in the canopy, so they can nab monkeys trying to escape. Once a monkey is caught, all the chimps gather, screaming, to divvy up the kill. This sequence, de Waal writes, obviously contradicts the view that chimpanzees “lack joint action based on shared intentions.”

Perhaps one trait that does set humans apart is our need to insist that we should be set apart. De Waal notes that even the name we’ve chosen for ourselves shows how jealously (and unscientifically) we guard our uniqueness. So similar are the human, bonobo, and chimp genomes that the three species could easily be placed in the same genus. Yet we maintain sole occupancy of Homo and relegate chimps and bonobos to the genus Pan.

Meanwhile, the more that’s learned about cognition in other species, the tougher it is to make the case that even ape intelligence is anything special. Many species of crows make and use tools. New Caledonian crows have mastered what’s known as metatool use; they can figure out how to use a stick to get at another, more useful stick. Dolphins emit signature whistles. Sometimes dolphins will imitate another animal’s call, an action that seems to have the same function—and the same level of sophistication—as calling a person’s name. Not long ago, an octopus named Inky made international news by slipping out of a small opening at the top of his tank in a New Zealand aquarium. Apparently, Inky knew exactly what he was doing because from his tank, he slithered across the floor and made his way through a drainpipe out to sea.

“Every single species has profound insights to offer,” de Waal writes. If we do not recognize this, often it’s because we’ve failed to do precisely that which we supposedly do best: see the world through another’s eyes. Or, as the case may be, tentacles. Researchers who gave octopuses jars of crayfish were at first confused when the animals failed to open them. Octopuses have excellent vision, so they had to be able to see the crayfish. They’re also extremely dexterous, and have been known to pry open bottles equipped with childproof caps. But octopuses don’t hunt using sight; they rely on touch and chemical signals. When the researchers, finally realizing this, smeared fishy slime on the jars, the octopuses responded by quickly twisting the caps off and slurping up the crayfish. In his own defense against Nagel, de Waal notes that the philosopher never could have written “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” had scientists not discovered what it is like to be a bat, which is to perceive the world through echolocation.

Jonathan Balcombe makes much the same point in What a Fish Knows, an extended exploration of the world from a piscine perspective. Balcombe is the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, D.C., and his title tells you a lot about his perspective. Fish, he argues, are underappreciated. One reason for this is that people have a hard time putting themselves in a fish’s position—without drowning, that is. Another is that fish are—once again from a human perspective—unreadable.

“Lacking detectable facial expressions,” Balcombe writes, “fishes are more easily dismissed than our fellow air breathers.” Also, relative to their body size, fish have smaller brains than most land animals. While this has been taken as a sign that they’re “at the dim end of the animal intelligence spectrum,” really, according to Balcombe, the whole brain-to-body-weight construct is just another sign of terrestrial bias. Fish, being buoyant, don’t have to contend with the problems extra bulk imposes on land; thus adding brawn has much less cost to them.

The more we learn about fishes’ experience, the more “our capacity to identify with them grows,” Balcombe observes. Balcombe makes a persuasive case that what fish know is quite a lot. Though it’s hard to use tools when you don’t have any limbs, tuskfish manage to. They carry clams in their mouths and open them by dashing them against rocks. Stingrays are similarly disadvantaged. Still, when researchers placed food at the end of a tube, they figured out how to get at it. Some rays used their fins to create currents that move the food toward them, others maneuvered their bodies to create suction that drew the food out of the tube. Before entering into a relationship with a cleanerfish, potential clients perform a sort of background check. They swim around the cleaner, watching it at work. Cleaners that have a tendency to nip their clients, causing a visible pain response, are—not surprisingly—less likely to attract new patrons. The cleaner–client fish relationship shows, according to Balcombe, that fish are capable of trust, audience awareness, a sense of justice, scorekeeping, and “brown-nosing.” This, in turn, suggests a “degree of awareness and social sophistication” that defies antipiscine prejudices.

And what’s true of fish is also true—or at least truish—of arthropods. Not long ago a pair of researchers from Macquarie University, in Sydney, proposed that insects possess the capacity for “the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.” While invertebrate neurology is very different from the vertebrate variety, the researchers concluded that insects possess “egocentric characteristics,” which is to say a kind of self-awareness. “The honey bee particularly is held up as an insect with cognitive capacities that rival those of many mammals,” they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The pair titled their paper “What Insects Can Tell Us About the Origins of Consciousness,” but they might just as well have called it “What Is It Like to Be a Bug?”

It’s obviously a lot easier to justify—and to stomach—humans’ treatment of animals if we imagine them to be in some essential way unlike ourselves. The burgers on our plates, the tuna in our salads, the moths squished against our windshields—all these look very different if we grant to ruminants and lepidoptera their own subjective experiences. This goes way beyond snuffling and eating worms. To acknowledge that we are separated from other species by “degree, not kind” is to call into question just about every aspect of modern life, from meat production to magazine publishing. Which is probably why we will continue to search for that one quality that makes us exceptional.