What does it mean to be “human”? The question, though it has occupied some of the greatest Western minds of philosophy, science, history, and political theory, could not have been answered with any plausibility until recently, for we have only begin to acquire the scientific knowledge necessary to provide an informed response. At the same time, recent scientific and technological developments have produced radical and vertiginous change. The possibilities of artificial intelligence, robotics, cloning, pharmacology, stem cell research, and genetic modification pose entirely new challenges for attempts to define “human” in fixed and essentialist rather than fluid and plastic terms.
Despite our deep-rooted biological and social evolution, “humanity” is a social construct involving the identity and conception humans have of themselves as members of a species. In its arrogant, alienated, and domineering Western form, human identity reflects a host of problematic assumptions, biases, prejudices, and myths derived from religion, philosophy, science, and culture as a whole. The massive, tangled knot of ideologies involved in the social construction of our species identity need to be critically unraveled, so that we can develop new identities and societies and forge sane, ethical, ecological, and sustainable life ways. To an important degree, the new identities must emerge from an ethic of respect and connectedness to all sentient life – human and nonhuman – and to the Earth as a whole. Ethically progressive and inclusive, new post-humanist identities and values would also be scientifically valid, by accurately representing the true place of Homo sapiens in the social, sentient, and ecological communities in which it finds itself enmeshed.
Profound change has been stirring in areas such as philosophy and religion, but in many key ways science is paving the way, with new discoveries forcing a rethinking of human identity and ethics and carrying a number of profound social and political implications as well. In urging systematic conceptual shifts in our views of the natural world and specifically nonhuman animals, this essay also underscores an irony and problem that has received little if any attention. This concerns the gross failures of the Left ¯ the entire spectrum of positions from Left-liberalism to Marxism to socialism and anarchism ¯ to engage one of the most significant intellectual convulsions of the modern era, namely, cognitive ethology: the scientific study of animal intelligence, emotions, behaviors, and social life. Although Darwin was an early pioneer of the field in the mid-nineteenth century, ethology did not gain decisive ground until the 1980s, when advanced by visionaries such as Donald Griffin, and subsequently was popularized by scientists and writers such as Marc Bekoff. In our current time, hardly a day passes without new and exciting breakthroughs, as the number of conferences, articles, and books on the topic continue to proliferate and the findings of ethological research continue to amaze – and humble ¯ the research community and lay audience.
Science has always been important to the Left, as progressives and radicals proudly wore the mantle of the European Enlightenment and championed the beneficial consequences of scientific advance that brought intellectual, moral, and social progress. In radical traditions from the nineteenth century to the present, Leftists prided themselves on their empiricism, naturalism, evolutionary outlook, skepticism, and agnosticism or atheism. Inseparably related to their support of scientific and Enlightenment values of learning, critical thinking, and autonomy, Leftists have also embraced the moral and political values of the modern revolutionary traditions that emphasized rights, democracy, equality, justice, and autonomy.
While an ecological turn did not take hold in Leftist thought until the 1970s, the Left today seems to be decades or another century away from discerning the moral, political, social, and ecological importance of animal liberation and the critique of speciesism (the belief in the inherent superiority of humans over all other species due to their alleged unique cognitive capacities). With few exceptions, Leftists have systematically devalued or ignored the horrific plight of animals as a trivial issue compared to human suffering, and they have therefore mocked or dismissed the animal liberation movement that emerged in the 1970s to become a global movement more dynamic, powerful, and widespread than virtually any human cause or liberation movement. Despite their affirmation of Darwinian theory, which views human beings as natural beings who co-evolved with other animals in an organic continuum, the humanist elements of Leftist culture ¯ which emphasize the radical uniqueness and singularity of humans as “superior” animals ¯ prevailed over the naturalist elements ¯ which emphasize the continuum of biological evolution, even as it phases into social evolution and cultural development.
This essay raises various questions concerning human identity politics ¯ the social, political, and environmental implications of how humans view and conduct themselves as members of a distinct species in relation to other species and the Earth as a whole ¯ and situates Left humanist views as a variant, rather than rejection, of Western anthropocentrism, speciesism, and the pathology of humanism. As part of the problem rather than the solution, I argue that Leftist humanist theories (including “eco-humanist” variants) fail to advance a truly revolutionary break with the mindsets and institutions underpinning hierarchy, oppression, violence, species extinction, and the current global ecological crisis. I claim that because of the atavistic, unenlightened, pre-scientific, and discriminatory views toward nonhuman animals, such as led them to miss some of the most profound scientific and moral revolutions of the era, Leftists cannot regain their place of pride in progressive culture until they jettison their shopworn hierarchical and exploitative views, a process that can be catalyzed by engaging the major themes and findings of ethology.
Modernity and its Discontinuities
“Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world.”
“The most calamitous and fragile of all creatures is man, and yet the most arrogant. (…) Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as that this pitiful, miserable creature, who is not even master of himself, should call himself master and lord of the universe? It is apparent that it is not by a true judgment, but by foolish pride and stubbornness, that we set ourselves before other animals and sequester ourselves from their condition and society.”
As humans continue to explore their evolutionary past and gain a more accurate knowledge of the intelligence of great apes and other animals, as they probe the depths of the cosmos in search of life more advanced than themselves, as they develop increasingly sophisticated computers and forms of artificial intelligence and artificial life (self-reproducing “digital DNA”), as they create transgenic beings and cross species boundaries to exchange their genes with animals, as they clone forms and create others virtually from scratch, and as they merge ever more intimately with technology and computers to construct bionic bodies and become cyborgs, the question inexorably arises: Who/what is Homo sapiens?
Since the first cosmologies, ancient Greek philosophy, Christian theology, and modern science to Marxist humanism and naturalism, Western culture has struggled, and failed, to attain an adequate understanding of the human species. From religious attempts to define us as immortal souls made in the image of God to philosophical efforts to classify us as disembodied minds, thinkers have approached the question of human nature apart from their bodies, animal past, and evolutionary history. Whereas such fictions vaporize biological realities and exaggerate human uniqueness in relation to other animal species, sociobiology reduces humans to instinct-driven, DNA-bearing organisms devoid of free will and cognitive complexity. Both extremes fail to grasp the tensions and mediations that shape the human animal, a term/being that exists within the tension of culture/nature, of the long biological and social evolutionary journey that shaped Homo sapiens. A deep understanding of human nature has been obscured by vanity, arrogance, error, and pomposity, as well as fear and insecurity of being “merely” animal.
Human identity in Western culture has been formed through the potent combination of agricultural domestication of animals and plants, Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism, Greco-Roman rationalism, medieval theology, Renaissance humanism, and modern mechanistic science. Whether religious or secular, philosophical or scientific, these sources concur in the belief that humans are wholly unique beings, existing in culture rather than nature, alone in having language and reason, and thus humans are ontologically divorced from animals and the Earth. Throughout ancient and medieval societies, during the Greek, Roman, and Christian empires, humans easily imagined themselves to be the most unique and advanced forms of life on Earth, the ends to which all other beings and things were mere means. Whether ancient or modern, religious or secular, there has been an unbroken continuity of human separation, arrogance, and domination over animals and the natural world, such as is inseparable from our domination over one another.