Every once in a while an article featuring an overview of nonhumans’ amazing abilities is published in the public media. These articles are about animals’ complex emotional world, their high social skills, their ability to empathize, their grief, their curiosity and need for play, and generally about how smart they actually are. This week another such report, headlined Animals are Smart. Are Humans Holding Them Back? was published in the Huffington post, reminding how little humans actually know about nonhumans.
This publish was in close proximity to two items the Animal Liberation community shared online – that goats skillfully read human facial expressions, and that possibly a species of fishes “passed” the mirror test.
Activists’ inclination to promote information about the depth of nonhuman cognition in hope it would generate a shift in human’s views and behaviors is extremely naïve, and morally problematic.
The question how smart animals are has no ethical relevancy. Sentience is the only relevant criterion determining who belongs to the moral community. You and we acknowledge that, but most humans believe otherwise and so nevertheless relate “smartness” with moral treatment. It is not accidental that humans consider the trait which they see as their relative advantage over other animals as the most important one, and use it when it comes to moral treatment.
Historically, the set of justifications of human supremacy has proven to be highly adaptable. In the past it was the existence of a soul which distinguished them from nonhumans (backed by a range of creation myths in which humans were made separately). In modern times it was tool-use, followed by language, then consciousness, and more recently it is self-consciousness. Every time humans have encountered similar abilities among nonhumans, they simply passed to another trait. And intelligence was always there along the way, as an easy rescue for humans trying to excuse their tyranny. That is for the few who needed an excuse, for most, their claimed superiority was, and still is, self-evident.
On the face of it, the connection most humans are making between intelligence and moral status, should have at least played some positive role in the way humans view nonhumans, since regardless of its invalidness, humans do view intelligence as a morally relevant criterion, and since there is no doubt that animals are highly intelligent. But evidently it doesn’t.
Humanity is exposed to a lot of information which should have changed its mind about its false perceptions regarding the rest of the animals, and about its true place in the universe. However, humans’ perspective was, still is, and will always be extremely anthropocentric. It is not a matter of information, it is a matter of motivation.
Humans view themselves as the center of the universe even after what is regarded as the three big revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud.
Copernicus discovered that planet Earth is not the center of the universe. The sun and the other planets are not circling the earth. Humans know today that Earth is just another planet, not particularly special, in a not particularly special solar system.
Darwin taught humans that not only are they not the center of the universe, they are not even the center of Earth. All the species have the same origin. Humans are just another animal as all the other species – nothing special about them on Earth too.
Over the years there have been major discoveries in genetics, and accumulated knowledge in paleontology, embryology, comparative anatomy and physiology, molecular biology, and etc. all showing the amazing similarities between humans and nonhuman animals. Yet none of them are enough for humans to internalize it. Anthropocentric attitudes are still extremely far from being vanished.
One of the most important beliefs, making animal abuse possible, is the idea that humans and other animals are in some way separated by an unbridgeable gap.
But humans, of course, are great apes, not beings made in god’s image.
Humans share with all other beings about 4 billion years of evolutionary heritage. The genus Homo only originated 2-3 million years ago, while the homo sapiens is estimated to appear about 200,000 years ago.
Genetically, it is often mentioned that humans are much more closely related to other great apes than these apes are to other monkeys. Humans and chimpanzees have about 98.4% of their genes in common, whereas monkeys have only about 93% of the same genes as apes.
This similarity is supposed to weaken anthropocentric concepts that unfortunately most humans hold. But when about half of Americans still reject the theory of evolution, abolishing anthropocentrism is far from reality.
When it comes to their perception about their place in the universe, nothing fundamental has changed.
One thing that cannot be taken from humans, is their amazing talent for rationalization.
Some are even using the genetic similarities to further strengthen their alleged supremacy, arguing that humans are so superior exactly because they have done so well with so little. The fact that they are in their godlike position despite that they are so genetically close to other apes, is in itself what makes them so special.
Freud generated the third revolution that was supposed to further shatter the anthropocentric view. He said that not only are humans not the center of the universe, nor the center of the animal kingdom – they are not even the center of themselves.
Humans are not really in complete control of what they are. They are motivated by unaware impulses, inherent irrational drives, and by systems and mechanisms in the unconscious, far beyond their ability to recognize or understand, not to mention effect.
Freud taught us how critical and influential experiences are in the first few years of life, and how complicated it is to alter their tremendous shaping effect retroactively (in addition to the many inborn mental characteristics). Humans are not even really the masters of their own domain.
Obviously many of Freud’s ideas are debatable. But the basic concepts behind at least the psychological cornerstones relevant in this context are still valid. Humans can no longer view themselves as utterly rationalistic beings operating solely according to reasoning, and as being in absolute control over their personalities, behavior, thoughts and desires.
Conceptually, these three revolutionary theories are almost meaningless in the everyday life of most humans. The anti-anthropocentric aspect of these ideas is pretty simple, however most humans don’t really internalize their conceptual meaning in terms of casting doubt about homo sapience’s supremacy.
The gap between the revolution these ideas were supposed to create and everyday reality – in which humans are still convinced and act as if they are the center of the universe – is an outcome of a strong motivation to keep their superior status in the world. A status that was supposed to die out a long time ago.
The fact that most humans still believe in the existence of a god in the 21st century, after so many scientific discoveries refute the claims for its existence, is not an indication of ignorance (in many cases it is, but these are not the ones we address here), or that the alternative theories are not satisfying. It is an indication of the psychological motivations humans have to believe in a god, and that they are the pinnacle of its creation. The sense that an omnipotent entity is watching over them specifically, is very comforting. It fills their lives with meaning and a sense of control. The need for an existential order in such a chaotic world is highly essential for humans, and part of this “heavenly” order is their special position and role in this world.
There is nothing rational in the belief that the human race is superior, or that the entire universe revolves around it. There is nothing rational in discrimination based on skin color, gender, class, ethnic origin or species. There are motivations to hold these perceptions and they are much stronger than the little rational thinking humans are capable of.
The fact is that most humans believe in a god, and most humans are racists, nationalists, chauvinists, and of course speciesists.
One of the strongest indications of how hopeless the chances are to cause a moral change regarding animals based on humans’ compassion, is the way humans treat members of their own species. Please take the time and read our articles and posts about how humans systematically exploit the poorest of their own kind, how they treat half of their own species and their own posterity, as well as the answer in the FAQ section to the question about the possibility of social revolutions, and particularly about the possibility of a vegan world.
Humans don’t need information about nonhumans’ intelligence since intelligence has nothing to do with morality, and since humans have more than enough knowledge to overturn their views and behaviors. The problem is not a lack of information but a lack of motivation. Humans don’t indifferently exploit and torture animals because they think they are not smart enough to deserve moral treatment, but because humans are too indifferent to the fact that nonhumans are sentient.
Activists mustn’t wait until humans realize how similar they are to other animals. In fact activists shouldn’t wait for humans at all. The request for patience which is being asked at nonhumans’ expense, is essentially speciesist.
With more than 150 billion animals per year suffering from birth to death under mankind’s tyranny, asking them to hold on until about 7.5 billion humans are convinced, is not only speciesist, it’s cruel.
A non-speciesist perspective, a point of view that doesn’t count the interests of one species more than the other, necessarily leads to the conclusion that we must stop waiting for humans to change for the sake of nonhumans, and start working on a world without humans.