Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    From the Editor

From the Editor

Reconsidering the complex relationship between humans and the wider animal kingdom.

Jay Tolson

Patchwork coverlet (detail) made in Wrexham, c. 1842–52, © National Museum of Wales.

The philosopher Todd May puts the question bluntly in a recent op-ed in the New York Times: “Would human extinction be a tragedy?” While his own answer is yes, the question is not merely rhetorical. May points to the incontrovertible fact that we as a species are “destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it.” In addition to rapid population growth and the human contribution to climate change, both of which are threatening fragile ecosystems, we are implicated in a vast regime of factory farming that abuses millions of animals before brutally slaughtering them. Directly and indirectly, May notes, humanity is the “source of devastation of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.”

At the very least, this reality might make us consider the possible irony enfolded in the word “humankind.” More practically, it should direct us to reconsider the complex relationship between humans and the wider animal kingdom, a relationship that not only jeopardizes the existence of other species but also exposes the best and worst of humanity’s vast intellectual, moral, and spiritual endowments.

Ethical reflections on that relationship are nothing new. Most of the world’s wisdom traditions have offered normative guidance on humanity’s dealings with animals and the natural world, however uncertainly it has been interpreted and observed by followers and heirs of those traditions. To the extent that the West has been guided by any governing principle, it derives from the biblical injunction that humans should “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” But what does dominion mean? Brute sovereignty and ruthless exploitation? Or thoughtful stewardship and responsible cultivation?

Those questions have been hugely complicated by the sheer expansion of human mastery over the earth during the modern era, thanks to rapid and ongoing advances in science and technology. But just as science has enabled greater dominion, it has also deepened our understanding of the very creatures over which we exercise sovereignty. In “Fellow Passengers,” philosopher Mark Rowlands surveys some of the science exploring animals’ capacity for consciousness, reasoning, and empathy, explaining why we need to give such work careful consideration: “Unfortunately, it is a sad quirk of human nature that things matter to us only to the extent they are like us…. The question of whether and to what extent animals are like us is, therefore, of critical importance.”

There are, of course, risks in ascribing human-like traits to animals, as Nathan Goldman points out in his essay “Two Cheers for Anthropomorphism.” “Our language about and behavior toward animals are rife with anthropomorphism,” Goldman writes, “which many thinkers have, in one way or another, persuasively argued inhibits our access to the reality of animal experience.” Yet drawing on his own childhood fascination with fantasy literature that featured humans with the power to transform into animals, he argues that such “anthropomorphizing language might itself be a way of bringing us closer to the animal.”

In our time, when most humans have relatively little contact with animals (particularly undomesticated ones), such lessons in empathy with our fellow creatures are valuable. So, too, is pet ownership (though animal rights advocates strenuously object to the notion that we can own any creature). But even a good thing can be problematic. As Christine Rosen argues in “Our Pets, Ourselves,” our relationship with pets has entered a fairly baroque stage in recent decades, and though it is not entirely without precedent (the Romans buried their favorite dogs in human cemeteries), the scope and scale of our preoccupation with pets is something new. “Rather than demonstrate an increased capacity for empathy for other species,” Rosen writes, “our relationships with our pets often inadvertently reveal new forms of human anxiety and weakness. Have we reached a more enlightened stage in the natural evolution of our relationships with our animal companions, as some animal lovers suggest, or, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, who carried a doomed mouse around in his pocket, are we at risk of loving them to death?”

Sometimes even the most well-meaning efforts to allay animal abuse and suffering are morally problematic. In “Biotech Cockaigne of the Vegan Hopeful,” Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft explores the contemporary quest to produce cultured meat, an enterprise at least partly motivated by high idealism but in some ways bound to alter moral calculations built precisely on humankind’s distinctive qualities: “Once we demonstrate that somata (in the sense of the artificially extended bodies of animals) can be a kind of building material, the questions are, first, whether it does anything meaningful to our regard for animals and animality themselves, and second, whether there is something morally desirable about that regard.”

The question of human difference plays centrally in James Davison Hunter’s concluding essay in our thematic treatment, “The Deficient Animal.” Hunter recalls the work of philosophers, sociologists, and scientists associated with philosophical anthropology, a broad movement concerned not with refuting Darwin’s notions of human origins but with exploring those human qualities that elude explanation by means of the evolutionary paradigm. Paramount among these qualities, and related to our deficiencies as biological creatures, is our culture-making capacity, itself rooted in our unique capacity for language and other symbolic expressions. “Human beings must of necessity make up for their instinctual impoverishment by…mastering and re-creating nature rather than merely adapting to it. The means by which human beings do this is by representing the world symbolically,” Hunter writes, “particularly through language, but more broadly through culture itself. Culture is a ‘second nature.’”

Beyond our thematic essays, this issue features a much-needed analytical consideration of the one of the more powerful institutions in America, and indeed the contemporary world: the large public corporation. Our author, political theorist David Ciepley, argues that this institution enjoys rights and privileges that were once justified by the corporation’s obligation to serve or meet specific public needs. Most large public corporations have abandoned that obligation in their all-consuming dedication to maximizing shareholder value, with consequences that we are only beginning to recognize.

Other freestanding essays range from concerns about privacy to the meaning of illness, proving that, as we observe the twentieth anniversary of this publication, The Hedgehog Review continues to pursue (albeit with some of the fox’s versatility and cunning) its single-minded concern with cultural change in the modern world.