When animals and birds take on our own characteristics

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in South China Morning Post, June 28, 2015

Have you heard of Alex, the African Gray parrot, considered the smartest bird in the world? He lived in a cage of an animal behavior lab at Brandeis University, where his trainer, the scientist Irene Pepperberg worked. He spoke English with a sweet childish voice, could count and distinguish shapes. He was sensitive and creative. When Irene appeared flustered, he would tell her: “Take it easy. Calm down.” His beak made it difficult to pronounce the letter “p,” so, when asked to identify an apple, he invented the word “banerry” — half banana, half cherry, and, not knowing how to call a cake, suggested “yummy bread.” Irene trusted him to train younger chicks and, for some years, he actually taught at a university. At the end of their working day, Irene would return Alex to his cage, lock the lab, and go home. This is how it was the night of the heart attack that would kill him. Before she left, Alex told Irene: “I love you. Be good.” The next morning, she found him in the cage dead.

Alex’s brain was the size of a walnut. But his behavior was undeniably human. Which raises the question what is humanity. Clearly, to behave — to think, feel, act — like a human, it is not necessary to belong to the biological species of hairless monkeys with big brains, such as ours. But, if it is not our vaunted brain that makes us human, what does? Comparative zoology provides the answer. In the entire animal kingdom only humans transmit their ways of life symbolically, rather than genetically. Such symbolic transmission is what we call “culture.” The distinguishing characteristic of humanity, it is culture that makes us human.

In distinction to genetic transmission, culture is not an organic but an historical process, because the meaning of symbols changes with the context and always depends on time. Being of a different nature, culture cannot be explained biologically or reduced to biological phenomena, even though it requires the body with its physical needs to exist. Rather, and analogously to life, which also requires inanimate matter for its construction but cannot be reduced to or explained by it, culture represents an emergent reality, resulting from a most improbable accident in the organic reality within the conditions of which it emerges. Like life, it is a reality of its own kind, autonomous or operating according to specific to it causal laws, which affect the organic processes related to it and transform its physical environment.

We are all familiar with the dramatic effects of culture on the material world around us: our cities, means of transportation, the clothes on our backs, fields we till, land we reclaim from the oceans — all these are products of culture, material results of symbolic processes, of our thinking expressed in words, designs, plans. On the organic level, culture leaves its deepest imprint on the brain of the creatures it affects, transforming their very nature and life. For, as it forces the brain exposed to it to process symbolic stimuli, it creates within it an autonomous, symbolic and mental, phenomenon which is unknown in the natural world in which the brain processes only sensory stimuli — the mind. Otherwise called the soul, it, speaking empirically, is none other than culture in the brain. One becomes human when one acquires a mind.

The mind is acquired as a result of being exposed to culture and the necessity to adjust to a cultural environment; it is not a genetic characteristic. This has two significant implications. The first one is that nobody is born human. A baby of human parents is just an animal who is very likely to become human, not a human being, and given how prolonged infancy is among our animal species, only rarely do our babies develop a mind (and acquire humanity) before three years of age. The second implication is that animals of other species that procreate exclusively in the human, cultural, environment, such as, specifically, dogs and cats whom for thousands of years we have involved in most intimate aspects of our life, are, just like us, sharply distinguished from wild animals by culture, and, therefore, also human. What distinguishes these animals from us is not that we have a mind, while they don’t (because they certainly adjust to and thus have culture in the brain), but that the structure of their larynx — in distinction to that of African Gray parrots, for instance — is different from ours and does not allow them to articulate sound, depriving them of speech. They are humans who are physically disabled. This is in particular true of dogs, whose brain, inherited from arguably the most intelligent wild animal — the wolf — probably equals ours in its complexity and sophistication. (The claim of dogs’ humanity will resonate with anyone who has known a dog’s companionship, though the unquestioned identification of humanity with our species would have prevented most of us from admitting the truth of this claim even to oneself. Yet, very few would be able to explain until now what made homo sapiens species human.)

It would be hard to exaggerate the ethical significance of this logical inference from the empirically based definition of humanity. Our treatment of dogs and cats becomes subject to the same standards of judgment which we apply to our treatment of other defenseless and helpless members of our societies, such as little or disabled children. Like them, these acculturated animals are thrown on our mercy and entirely dependent on us for their survival and protection from suffering. When they suffer, their experience is not different from that of such children. Because these animals are part of humanity, because what makes us human must make them human as well, decent people and societies can no longer be indifferent to their suffering or tolerate intentional cruelty in their regard.

On June 22, the annual dog meat festival begins in Yulin. Dogs are human. Thus, this is a festival of cannibalism. But it is not what happens after death that is important. Before they are butchered and eaten, thousands of dogs are caught, shoved into dirty crates too small for the numbers they contain, and tracked, hungry, thirsty, suffocating, and terrified, to the place of their death. You can easily find photos of these transports on the Internet. Meet these dogs’ eyes. You won’t be able to sleep for weeks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s