Two separate parts from The Animal Question
in Anthropology: A Commentary by Barbara Noske are
presented here to stress the point that acknowledgement
of human-animal continuity does not necessarily lead to
Barbara Noske. The author has a master's
degree in cultural anthropology and a doctorate in philosophy
from the University of Amsterdam. Further discussion of
the issues raised in this comment are found in her book, Humans and other animals:
Beyond the boundaries of anthropology, London: Pluto Press,
Anthropologists commonly define
their discipline, anthropology, as the study of anthropos
(humankind) and think it perfectly natural to pay little
or no attention to the nonhuman realm of animalkind. Of
course, animals do figure in anthropological studies but
they do so mainly as raw material for human acts and human
thought. Anthropology has a long tradition of studying
the ways in which human groups and cultures deal with
and conceive of their natural environment, including other
species. Such studies usually confine themselves to humans
in their capacities as agents and subjects who act upon
and think about animals.
Consequently, animals tend to
be portrayed as passive objects that are dealt with and
thought and felt about. Far from being considered agents
or subjects in their own right, the animals themselves
are virtually overlooked by anthropologists. They and
their relations with humans tend to be considered unworthy
of anthropological interest. Most anthropologists would
think it perfectly natural to pay little or no attention
to the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound to
the animals involved. Consequently, questions pertaining
to animal welfare in the West or in the Third World rarely
figure in anthropological thought.
Does the current image of animals really
convey all there is to animals? Having rejected
the caricatures reductionists have made of humans,
why take their animal caricatures at face value?
To acknowledge human-animal continuity is not
necessarily to indulge in biological reductionism
(Noske, 1989). Another obstacle to the recognition
of human-animal continuity is the fear among biologists
of being accused of anthropomorphism, the attribution
of exclusively human characteristics to animals.
For their part, social scientists have been jealously
guarding what they see as the human domain and
so tend to applaud the biologists' fear of anthropomorphism.
What is currently denounced as anthropomorphism
are those characterizations which social scientists
are keen to reserve for humans. In their critique
of biological determinism social scientists point
an accusing finger at anyone who credits animals
with personhood. But again, how can one know how
animals differ from or are similar to humans if
one declines to ask the same questions about the
There are some courageous animal scientists who
do say that animals are more human-like and less
object-like than their own science will have us
believe. However, they will often say such things
off the record or rather apologetically. This
is understandable since they are committing a
sacrilege both from the perspective of the animal
sciences and from that of the human sciences.
Those scientists who have actually studied animals
as participant observers, the common anthropological
approach to human societies, reveal a tension
in their writings between the accepted biological
codes and their own experiences with animal personhood.
Jane Goodall who is working with chimpanzees,
Dian Fossey who lived and died among mountain
gorillas, the Douglas-Hamilton couple and Cynthia
Moss who are living and working among elephants,
all write about touching experiences with animal
personhood. Their science cannot handle these
forms of animal reality and tends to belittle
or ignore them. The animal sciences are simply
not equipped to deal with those characteristics
in animals which according to the social sciences
make humans human.
Faced with the shortcomings of their own tradition
a number of dissatisfied animal scientists, such
as Donna Haraway and Donald Griffin, have called
for a tentative anthropological approach to animals.
What attracts them in anthropology and particularly
in its method of participant observation is its
intersubjective, nonreductionist way of acquiring
knowledge, a method contrasting strongly with
the subject-object approach applied by animal
scientists in their laboratories. Anthropologists
treat the Other with respect and are wary of ethnocentrism.
Even though the Other cannot be fully known nor
understood, anthropologists have been trained
to tread upon this unknowable ground with respect
rather than with disdain.
But all this pertains only to the human Other.
It is curious that scientists who have learned
to beware of the dangers of ethnocentrism so easily
lapse into another kind of centrism anthropocentrism.
We are sadly stuck with two seemingly unrelated
images: one of humankind and one of animalkind
conveyed by two totally separate brands of science,
the one typifying humans as social subjects, the
other typifying animals as biological objects.
The newly emerging discipline of human-animal
relations will find this a formidable obstacle
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