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The difference between man and animal is one of degree and not of kind

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Image: Henri Rousseau

I walked into the bathroom to see what my dad was doing. He was drowning Pixie’s pups because no one in Visag would take them. They looked  up desperately through the clear water and bubbles. He set their limp bodies aside and later buried them in the yard. This was wrong, but I had almost no emotion. My dad was so assured of the issue of animals and I believed him. We ate meat at meals and we were taught that animals are dumb, and the people who worship them, Hindus, were wrong to do so. Pixie herself, who I still love after all these years, was euthanized and buried in the yard when we left the country.

I put out traps in my apartment during the winter when the mice come in and start to bother me. This was before I found out there are more humanitarian ways of getting rid of them – moth balls work, they hate the smell. Once, I found a mouse caught in a trap behind the TV and he was still alive and terrified. The wire had pinched his lower body but not the vital organs. I worried how long he had been there. I picked him up and filled a bucket as my dad had done and drowned him. The same thing happened: he looked up at me as he expelled his last breath. I was more emotional; I believed the assurances of my father less and felt the pain of the mouse more.

Darwin said humans are different from animals ‘in degree not kind;’ significant difference but fully related. And since he said it, we have basically believed the opposite, that animals are completely different and fully inferior. We believed the opposite so we could conquer and use animals and not feel bad about it. We did the same with slaves, they were mere chattel.

What inconvenience would result, and what new world emerge, if we began to think as Darwin did? A recognition in the eyes of a mouse his short life is ending with regret, longing and pain. The extension of the human condition to include the animal kingdom. As Barnes says below, a revolution in how we live and organize the planet – or allow it to organize us.

Carl Safina, a professor of nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, New York, wrote:

“Suggesting that other animals can feel anything wasn’t just a conversation stopper; it was a career killer. In 1992, readers of the exclusive journal Science were warned by one academic writer that studying animal perceptions ‘isn’t a project I’d recommend to anyone without tenure’.”

It is odd that scientists, who claim to work only from data, and philosophers, who, like Wittgenstein, might speculate without anything as sordid as data but still love a good bit of logic, operate on the certainty that, while all placental mammals are put together in the same way physiologically, one of them is somehow completely different from all the other 4,000-odd – so different that we don’t even need evidence to prove it. Are we talking about the soul here? I ask only for information.

Throughout the years, people have sought to isolate and identify humanity’s USP, and every time they have done so, they discover that some animal – some non-human animal – has it, too. All the barriers we have erected between ourselves and other animals turn out to be frail and porous: emotion, thought, problem-solving, tool use, culture, an understanding of death, an awareness of the self, consciousness, language, syntax, sport, mercy, magnanimity, individuality, names, personality, reason, planning, insight, foresight, imagination, moral choice… even art, religion and jokes.

It’s all in Darwin, but we have spent getting on for two centuries ignoring or distorting the stuff he taught us. In The Descent of Man, he wrote: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” If you accept evolution by means of natural selection, that must be true.

Why, then, are humans so resistant to the idea? We can find the answer in human history. For many years it was important to uphold the notion of the moral and mental inferiority of non-white people, because without such a certainty colonialism and slavery would be immoral. And that would never do: they were so convenient.

To change our views on the uniqueness of human beings would require recalibrating 5,000 years or so of human thought, which would in turn require revolutionary changes in the way we live our lives and manage the planet we all live on.

And that would be highly inconvenient.

Simon Barnes, Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom: Books by Elena Passarello, Peter Wohlleben and Lucy Cooke explore our relationship with wildlife, The New Statesman

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