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Animal De-Liberation

W. Eugene Smith/Black Star
A tamed chimpanzee at Albert Schweitzer’s mission hospital, Lambarene, Gabon, 1954
He who understands baboons would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.
—Charles Darwin

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin tacitly diminishes the difference between “man” and “animals” by matter-of-factly conflating, in passages fascinating and rich in detail, close examinations of human beings and “lower animals” (by which Darwin meant not relatively primitive animals but all “non-human” animals). Writing thirteen years after On the Origin of Species and one year after The Descent of Man, he takes as the object of his inquiry “the principle of the direct action of the excited nervous system on the body, independently of the will and in part of habit.” Not what might be self-described by people possessing language but rather what is displayed—“behavior.”

While most of Darwin’s text deals with emotions in man, in a number of chapters in The Expression of the Emotions the author takes pains to commingle species under such headings as “Serviceable Associated Habits,” “The Principle of Antithesis,” and “Action of the Nervous System.” Darwin’s implicit assumption is the likeness of man and “lower animals,” not their unlikeness. As man has a “voice,” so do animals have “voices”: “Cats use their voices much as a means of expression, and they utter, under various emotions and desires, at least six or seven different sounds.” The cat’s “purr of satisfaction…is one of the most curious.” A dog will make sounds resembling laughter, and “a bark of joy often follows a grin.” A consideration of man in agony or pain is naturally extended to other species in kindred situations:

There is said to be “gnashing of teeth” in hell; and I have plainly heard the grinding of the molar teeth of a cow which was suffering acutely from inflammation of the bowels. The female hippopotamus in the Zoological Gardens, when she produced her young, suffered greatly; she incessantly walked about, or rolled on her sides, opening and closing her jaws, and clattering her teeth together.

And so back to man again, whose eyes “stare wildly as in horrified astonishment” and whose body is covered in perspiration: “Hence the nostrils are generally dilated and often quiver; or the breath may be held until the blood stagnates in the purple face.”

Cattle, horses, dogs, cats, monkeys, birds—and man: all are subject to emotions, thus the “expression” of emotions of an involuntary, visceral nature. “With all or almost all animals, even with birds, Terror causes the body to tremble.” Wrinkling the face, furrowing the forehead, mating and fighting cries, cries of fury, erection of the hair, dilation of nostrils and of pupils of the eye, muscular contortions of the body—all cross the boundaries of species. Darwin presents a good deal of firsthand observation on the infants in his household of whom there were, over the years, ten of his own.

“Joy and affection” are attributed to monkeys no less than to human beings. Monkeys are seen to blush and redden as a man might do, and a young female chimpanzee is seen to throw a temper tantrum very like that of “a child in the same state.” Darwin notes having felt “through the saddle” the beating heart of a terrified horse, and with astonishing acuity he observes the symptoms of a terrified canary as it turns “white about the base of the bill.” Dogs can be “downcast,” cats “express affection,” monkeys can be “insulted.” Primates display almost as many emotions as human beings, and some of these are nuanced; one of numerous illustrations in the book is a line drawing of a “disappointed and sulky” chimpanzee. (Woodcuts, photographs, and drawings of the faces of animals and humans add to the particularly Victorian flavor of this book, in which the banal and the extraordinary, the average and the grotesque, are brought together as “illustrations” of the text. Physiognomy, a subject largely faded in our time, was explored with great seriousness in the nineteenth century.)

A secondary work in Darwin’s oeuvre, the 390-page Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals would have been a major work by any other nineteenth-century scientist, and in its continuous juxtaposing of “man” and “lower animals” it would surely have aroused controversy. All that Darwin cogently argued in The Descent of Man is taken for granted here. The author’s natural empathy for his heterogeneous subjects crosses the boundaries between species with the conversational ease of someone making points to an audience of peers so self-evident that they need scarcely be defended: Who could doubt that the grief, terror, and suffering of human beings are different not in kind but merely in degree from the response to “horrid tortures inflicted in foreign lands on exhausted dray-bullocks”? Ever the Victorian gentleman, Darwin is careful always to designate “lower animals” even as, by this usage, he is suggesting that there exists a “higher“ being that is in fact an “animal”: man.

It isn’t surprising that Darwin exerted a considerable influence on the provisions of the Cruelty to Animals Act passed into law by the British Parliament in 1876, which governed the (licensed) animal experimentation of scientists. Before this, grotesque and sadistic “experiments” were sometimes committed on helpless animals, often for demonstrative and educational purposes rather than for scientific research; after this, animals used in experiments had to be anesthetized whenever possible, and only experiments required for scientific research were qualified to be licensed. (Though Darwin believed that vivisection was essential for scientific research, he felt strongly that it should not be performed for “mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I shall not sleep tonight.”)

In the late twentieth century, highly influential major works of philosophy and ethics began to be published in the field loosely described as “animal rights,” notably Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (1983), both of which have become classics. The argument for animal rights is fundamentally a moral and epistemological argument for a restructuring of the conception of “consciousness”—is it uniquely human?—and of the very concept of “animal.” Singer has been particularly eloquent on the issue of “speciesism”—the belief that the human species is not only superior to all other species, but can use (or misuse) these species as it wishes, an injunction that seems to have a biblical—i.e., godly—imprimatur.

Traditionally, moral philosophers calibrate degrees of moral behavior with extreme fastidiousness, yet they have seemed, on the whole, unequipped philosophically to extend a principle of morality to those beings Darwin called “lower animals,” now called, in some enlightened quarters, “non-human animals.” (A philosopher friend estimates that less than 2 percent of books on moral philosophy include the word “animal” in their indexes.) Both Singer and Regan have challenged this highly limited conception of morality; Regan argues that animals have “certain basic moral rights” and that “recognition of their rights requires fundamental changes in our treatment of them.”

Both philosophers reason from hedonistic-utilitarian principles of the greatest good for the greatest number—which is to say, the least pain for the greatest number of “sentient beings.” Singer argues that animals need not be acknowledged as having “rights” for us to wish to alleviate their suffering. That they are capable of feeling pain, and that pain is a negative experience, should be enough for us to have a moral obligation to refrain from inflicting needless pain upon them. Though “animal rights” and “animal liberation” ethics tend to be overwhelmingly vegetarian, and opposed to the eating of animals, the argument can be made, as Singer has done, that there is nothing inherently evil in eating animals if they are not raised and slaughtered inhumanely—which is the case, unfortunately, for the vast majority of animals at the present time. For further discussions of “animal rights” see J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999), Jeff McMahan’s The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (2002), and Cass Sunstein’s The Rights of Animals: A Very Short Primer (2002). For a richly polemical discussion of the relationships among patriarchal culture, the exploitation of women and of animals, and the politics of meat-eating, see Carol Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990).

In children’s literature as in fables, fairy tales, and Disney fantasies, talking animals abound; these usually affable “animals” are human beings in disguise, sheerly anthropomorphic concoctions rarely betraying any genuine or alarming animal nature. Yet the fantasies tend to be benign, and sympathy for animals is the rule, with no acknowledgment of the adult caste system of “species” that would automatically render them inferior beings, if not food.

In literature for adults, imaginative evocations of animal consciousness are rarities. A relatively little-known novel by the Canadian writer Barbara Gowdy, The White Bone (1998), a kind of tragic epic of African elephants narrated from the perspective of the elephants, undertakes to cross the boundary between species in an extraordinarily visceral, sensuous, and poetic rendering of language unparalleled in contemporary literature. You need not believe that elephants can think in language—in this case, a highly lyric English—to be enthralled by the author’s imaginative immersion in her subject, a brilliantly inspired melding of research into the lives of African elephants and the creation of a distinctly original, indeed sui generis alternative world. Inevitably, in a time in which African elephants are being ravaged by poachers and their species endangered by incursions into their natural habitat, The White Bone is not a casual reading experience. It will linger long in the memory, like an intensely unnerving yet wonderfully strange dream.

Less stylistically inventive than The White Bone, and less ambitious in scope and vision, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is nonetheless a boldly exploratory evocation of a cross-species relationship that begins as a somewhat naive but well-intentioned scientific experiment and ends as something like domestic tragedy, with consequences that destroy a family and permanently traumatize a sister and brother—as well as a “non-human animal” named Fern.

Like the documentary film by James Marsh, Project Nim (2011), which depicts a similar experiment involving an infant chimpanzee brought to live in close contact with human beings, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is less about the scientific background and rationale for such experimentation than it is about an intensely emotional, nonverbal, and visceral relationship between “sisters” of whom one happens to be a “human” and the other “non-human.” In both the film and the novel, immediate sympathy is evoked for the innocent young primate, brought into a domestic household rife with its own secret undercurrents of emotion and power struggles; in both, the innocent young primate is smotheringly loved, refashioned into a quasi child, eventually erupts in violence and is feared, and is expelled from the human household.

In both the documentary and the novel, an initially reasonable yet finally tyrannical and unfeeling professorial father figure exerts his terrible, irrevocable power. In Project Nim, this figure is Columbia University professor of psychology Herbert Terrace, chief investigator in a controversial experiment of the 1970s. It was undertaken to determine if a chimpanzee (“Nim Chimpsky,” punning on Noam Chomsky, who argued against the possibility of human-like language in chimpanzees) raised in close contact with human beings could develop communication skills akin to “language.” In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the villain is University of Indiana professor of psychology Cooke, father of Rosemary Cooke and “step-father” of chimpanzee Fern, who undertakes a near-identical experiment into the possibilities of cross-species communication, with near-identical results—expulsion for the chimp-subject, remorse and regret for the human participants, an abruptly dismantled experiment.

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