2 - Introduction
Social Creatures: A Human and Animal Studies Reader
Editor, Clif Flynn
Social Creatures—An Introduction
Clifton P. Flynn
Social Creatures—indeed we are. Human beings are distinctly and necessarily social. From birth to death, our experiences, our emotions, the very essence of who we are—all depend on our interactions and relationships with others. But which others? Until fairly recently, scholars' examination of the social lives of human beings was limited only to interaction with other humans; our relationships with other animals had been almost completely ignored. This was true despite the fact that:
These are just a few of the myriad ways in which our lives involve and intersect with the lives (and sometimes the deaths) of other animals.
Although most of the academic world was ignoring our social relations with other creatures, a few others began to seriously consider this forgotten arena. Over the last two decades, in both the social sciences and the humanities, a growing number of scholars have investigated our interactions with animals and what we can learn about ourselves from observing how we think about and treat other animals. This book presents some of the best work that has been published in Human–Animal Studies (HAS). Social Creatures is an attempt to provide a vehicle for those who want to seriously study human–animal relationships. It contains an array of articles, using varied theoretical and methodological approaches, representing multiple disciplines—sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, criminology, social work, feminist studies, and literary studies. The readings have been chosen because of their quality and significance to HAS.
- animal references and representations flood our culture: in literature (Brer Rabbit, Old Yeller), in the movies (Bambi, Free Willy, Jaws) and television and cartoons (Lassie, Mickey Mouse, Barney); in advertising (Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, the Geico Gecko), in art, in religious ritual and symbolism ("Lamb of God," kosher foods, animal sacrifice) and in our language ("sly as a fox," "stubborn as a mule," "there's more than one way to skin a cat," "kill two birds with one stone")
- more homes have companion animals than children, and in the vast majority, the animals are regarded as "family"
- millions of humans work in occupations that involve animals, both living and dead, including some people who love animals and have to kill them (e.g., shelter workers)—and some who kill animals without appearing to let it bother them at all (e.g., slaughterhouse workers)
- animals have been used to make statements about and distinguish between people of different social statuses, whether it be class (purebred dogs and fur coats for the wealthy), race (derogatory use of animalized language and images toward members of oppressed minorities—blacks as monkeys or Jews as rats), or gender (sexist language that degrades women—"chick"—and rewards men—"stud")
Our failure to study our relationships with other animals has occurred for many reasons. Many scholars argue that our beliefs about human superiority and animal inferiority—speciesism—have caused us to dismiss or ignore the role of animals in our lives. Historically, humans have justified beliefs about our superiority over other animals in a variety of ways. Sometimes we have used religious arguments suggesting that animals don't have souls, and therefore aren't worthy of moral consideration; or that God gave humans dominion over the animals, to use in any way we saw fit. Other thinkers decided that animals lacked the ability to reason, and thus couldn't participate in the moral community, or lacked the ability to feel, so they couldn't really suffer. Still others attributed animals' inferior status to their lack of language. Without language, so the argument went, animals couldn't think, couldn't use symbols to create shared meanings with others, didn't have a "self," and therefore were not capable of participating in meaningful interactions with human beings.
So, in psychological terms, much of it can be boiled down to two rather unattractive human qualities: arrogance and ignorance. These qualities are the natural result from the unequal relationships that humans have with other animals. Our arrogance concerning other animals contributed to our ignorance about them. If we perceived them in a particular way, then that was how we tended to see them, irrespective of reality. Our power over other animals and our attitudes toward them, made it possible for us to see them as trivial, unimportant, or tangential at best and to ignore them, leaving them out of the picture altogether, at worst. And these notions of superiority prevented us from learning about the lives of animals as individuals, and about the role they play in our own lives. These qualities are related to three important and interrelated notions that have thwarted human attempts to study other animals and that must be acknowledged and dealt with in any serious attempt to study human–animal interaction. These notions are: anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, and anecdotes. Criminologist Piers Beirne (1995, 23) refers to anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism as the "twin bastions of speciesism." And for cognitive ethologist Mark Bekoff (2006, 88), anthropomorphism and anecdotes are the "a words."
Anthropocentrism means "human-centered." And that has been the approach to the study of the social lives of human beings. Research that has included animals typically has studied them as objects or as a group, rather than recognizing their individuality. Or, it has included animals only in the periphery, not as the main focus of the study. Seldom, until recently, has our interaction with other animals been the centerpiece of our investigation. This book tries to bring animals to the center of our study of social behavior.
Anthropomorphism refers to attributing human qualities to animals. In the scientific community, using language that suggests animals have intentions, desires, and emotions has been severely criticized as lacking objectivity. One of the worst sins a biologist could commit was to assume that animals shared some of the same mental, social, and emotional capacities that humans do. Scientists would go out of their way to overlook evidence of mindedness, selfhood, personality, and agency. The irony, of course, is that the more we have studied other animals, even in this detached way, the more we have learned about their complex cognitive and emotional capabilities. We have learned that many animals do have preferences and intentions, can solve problems, do display emotions and read our own, are self-aware and do have an active mental life, and can create shared meanings with humans. (All caretakers of companion animals knew this already!) And the discovery of these qualities has serious moral implications for how we treat our fellow social creatures, including issues related, but not limited to, animal experimentation. If animals have a biography, if they are a some "body" and not a some "thing," what are our ethical obligations to them?
Of course, we have to be careful not to go too far. Other animals are not "little people in fur." They are who they are, with their own unique needs, desires, and interests. Attributing human qualities too freely or inappropriately to other animals could lead to misunderstanding them and worse, mistreating them. So anthropomorphism, if used wisely, doesn't have to be one of science's most serious transgressions. If we can employ it critically to reach reasonable conclusions, without misrepresenting the animal's nature or needs, then it could help us not only understand other animals and our relationships with them better, it might influence how we think about and treat them as well.
The third "a word"—anecdotes—like anthropomorphism, is employed negatively by critics in order to dismiss claims of animal consciousness or mindedness as unscientific, subjective stories, rather than "real," "objective" data. But as Marc Bekoff (2006) rightly points out, the plural of anecdote is data. As Bekoff says, "Anecdotes, like anthropomorphism, can be used for the betterment of science if we carefully assess how we are using them" (2006, 89). Case studies are needed to provide a solid data base for theory building and for stimulating future research.
What Human–Animal Studies Is—and What It Is Not
Let's start with what it is not. First, HAS is not biology or animal behavior. There the focus is on the animals in a technical and specific way—their habitat, their feeding habits, their reproduction patterns, etc.—and particularly, on their characteristics as a species, not as individuals. Neither is the emphasis on other animals' social relationship with human animals. Similarly, those who study animal science or welfare center on how the use of animals for human purposes can be improved. Other disciplines or studies that approach animals on the periphery, as commodities, as passive objects, as tools, as property—without examining and questioning those statuses, without respecting their lives, and without attempting to understand ourselves via investigations of our relationships with other animals—cannot legitimately be considered Human–Animal Studies.
So what is Human–Animal Studies? The focus of HAS is the study of human–animal interaction. Ultimately, HAS asks: What can we learn about ourselves from our relationships with other animals? What does the way we think about and treat other animals teach us about who we are?
Yet not only does HAS merely include other animals in the scholarly realm; it conceptualizes them in a qualitatively different way. As Shapiro (2003, 332) has written, HAS investigates all aspects of our relations with other animals, "respecting animals other than human by treating them as beings with their own experience and interests—not exclusively as cultural artifacts, symbols, models, or commodities in a largely human-centered world. Doing so . . . secure[s] the place of animals other than human in the 'moral landscape'. . . ." And as HAS widens the scope of academia to include other animals, it is anticipated that we will learn more about them as well, and that our knowledge could come to benefit not only ourselves but the other social creatures who are such a vital part of our lives.
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