Animals in the Anthropocene

The dawn of the anthropocene is forcing us to confront the full extent of our impact, beyond the physical destruction of habitat, to include social and cultural impact across species. What are the implications?

People have regarded animals as companions, earthly incarnation of gods, parables of the mysteries of nature, resources for food and labour to be protected and harvested, competition for prey, and as pests in our crops to be eradicated. “Animals think, therefore…,” an essay in The Economist, surveys the case to be made for the mental experience of animals, which we might allow ourselves to consider if we can get beyond these projections, toward the inner lives of animals.

Evidence for animal emotion and compassion is scattered throughout the animal kingdom: the innovative and coordinated hunting methods of dolphins, grieving elephants, the teaching methods of meerkats, orcas, and dogs, and chimpanzees’ recognition (and manipulation) of the motivations of others as individuals. But if no animal has a human mind—that cannot be the standard—there must be more nuanced ways to synthesize such scattered and diverse evidence. To recognize and learn from the rich minds of other species, perhaps we have to step outside this rigid framework.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina marks a milestone in developing such an understanding of animal intelligence and the subject’s renewed legitimacy in scientific circles, according to Tim Flannery, writing for The New York Review of Books. Flannery himself is a prominent mammalogist, palaeontologist and environmentalist, with the credentials that we should demand of anyone who offers such praise:

Along with Darwin’s Origin and Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, Beyond Words marks a major milestone in our evolving understanding of our place in nature.

The direction of this evolution is toward a greater appreciation for the inner lives as animals. Perhaps the dawn of the anthropocene is forcing us to confront the full extent of our impact, beyond the physical destruction of habitat, to include social and cultural impact across species.

Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion: prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this? Are our egos “threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel? Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?”

The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of Beyond Words we need to reevaluate how, and why.

Both Flannery’s review and the Economist essay mention another book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, which explores more familiar examples of animal intelligence. For decades, dolphins especially have provided a foil of sorts for the tool-oriented modes of being. John Durham Peters dissects this tradition in his latest book on media and communication theory, The Marvelous Clouds, devoting an entire chapter to cetacean life (quoted here from an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books):

They live in habitats immune to fabrication, and thus offer a stark contrast to the human “technosphere,” our domesticated bubble of carbon and silicon, GMO crops and insulation. Intelligent marine mammals offer a radical alternative, at least in thought, to our essentially and externally technical history, and show us how much of what we take to be human depends on our technical supports.

This is powerful writing, but such an approach is still in the realm of thought exercise. In “Dolphin Intelligence,” a National Geographic feature by Joshua Foer, the experience of scientists dealing directly with the animals is brought to bear. He describes the exasperation of researchers who remain unable to decipher a dolphin language, per se, or a link between vocalization and behavior, despite ever more sophisticated sonar listening and data processing tools. “Zoo Animals and Their Discontents,” by Alex Halberstadt in The New York Times Magazine, presents this gap in knowledge as somewhat self-perpetuating: pet-owners and the zoo-going public speak confidently about the existence of animal emotions, a conversation that scientist are uncomfortable engaging directly, which opens the field up to the voices of veterinarians, trainers and, of course, media theorists.

Our personal interpretations of animal behaviour are grounded less in direct experience, and are therefore clouded by a proclivity for anthropomorphism, reinforced by our limited and largely consequence-free exposure. Domestication began through the mutual recognition of symbiotic relationships between species, and how they might be extended. But our experience of domestication is no longer one of mutual recognition but of enjoying the domesticated habits and the industrialized product thereof. Human activity, such as agriculture and poaching, influences animal life on a much greater scale (What Is Killing America's Bees and What Does It Mean for Us? in Rolling Stone, The Rhino’s Last Stand in Guernica, and A Strange New Gene Pool of Animals Is Brewing in the Arctic in Nautilus). As we are ever infringing on the lives of animals, yet ever more removed, we finally find ourselves probing the forbidden questions of not what, but who these animals might be; sharing Safina’s sentiment: “I did not want to risk having to say good-bye and realizing that I’d never really said hello.”

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