Our perceptions of other beasts tell us a great deal about ourselves
We think we think of animals as biological entities, viewed through an objective lens, but our relationships with them have never been nearly as detached as we imagine. Animals, both wild and domestic, have always been potent symbols. When we think of them, we do not see organisms, we see the images of them that we make.
This is especially obvious in cases where a creature is remote or cannot be directly accessed, something exotic or extinct. There are rich examples from history: the first natural histories of the dodo in the seventeenth century were written by naturalists who never saw a bird, only legs and heads, strange sailors’ tales and the odd sketch. The resulting ‘European dodo’ was a gluttonous, bulbous creature that embodied the moral ills of greed, quite unlike the sprightly beast we now think existed.
But this is not just an historical phenomenon- we still weave meaningful images. The thylacine is a recent example of an animal that turned from vermin to icon of anthropogenic extinction. Whilst alive it was depicted as an almost rat-like creature or savage wolf-like beast. Now, we meticuously reconstruct it from body parts, skins, photographs and accounts- trying to access lost biological reality. In so doing, we have created a powerful image of an innocent evolutionary standout, wilfully eliminated.
The Great Chain of Consciousness
The example of the thylacine demonstrates how the ways we portray animals reinforce our image of our place in nature. The traditional model of the world for many centuries was the heirarchical Great Chain of Being. After assorted heavenly entities, humans were at the top of a coninuous heirarchy descending to other mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, and inorganic things. We still have a heirachical perception of the natural world, arguably. The ways that we characterise other species place them on this chain of value, as the shifting images of the thylacine from rat-like vermin to majestic, specialised carnivore demonstrate.
In particular, things that may have cognitive processes or characteristics we think might be more like ours, sit higher in the heirarchy. This is revealed in the shifting and context-dependent images of species that are both resources we use and potentially more like us than we care to imagine, such as domestic animals or octopuses. The Great Chain of Being has become the Great Chain of Consciousness. This is, perhaps, a useful heuristic on an individual level, but not on an ecological one, and that is the scale at which we really need to be thinking and operating. We still tend to see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolutionary development, but have, perhaps, lost some of the holistic sense of custodianship that accompanied our position in the traditional Chain.
Behaviours with apparent similarities those of humans, such as infanticide or promiscuity, are seen as murder and infidelity, and are thus acquire anthropomorphic motives and moralities. Sometimes the image of the animal and it’s symbolic role have very little to do with its actual biology. Many people, for example, would be shocked to hear of the necrophiliac, paedophilic activities of meerkats (that are, incidentally, also rather ‘stupid’ animals in terms of puzzle solving). Yet, the wholesome, chatty image of a meerkat wearing a smoking jacket used in advertising now epitomises the species in the West.
Animals embody our meanings
Linked to these negotiations of consciousness, animals have always been receptacles for projections of human nature. The full gamut of human moral and emotional experience has been ascribed to animals in different ways over history. Traditionally, animals have been used emblematically, embodying moral traits in their physicality and behaviour, like the obese dodo, or any creature from a medieval bestiary. Today, other species’ actions are still interpreted within our own moral frameworks, despite our biological knowledge.
We continually project parts of ourselves onto such animal symbols, often making them into monsters in the process. Monsters inherently play demonstrative roles. They are things that transgress the boundaries of the categories by which we create order in the world, such as a scaly lizard-like yet mammalian pangolin or chimerical duck-billed platypus. Or, they reveal hidden elements of ourselves by acting as emblems of the things in ourselves about which we are conflicted, especially negaive traits. These enduring images, which are woven into our use of animals in language: the cold-blooded shark, the deceptive nature of snakes, wily rats, despicable cockroach. Seeing something ‘out there’, which can be kept out, is much easier than knowing it is ‘in here’, and inescapable.
These characterisations change over time, and the location of the monstrous is also changing. Some beasts that used to be seen as monstrous are now portrayed as positive: intelligent, caring elephants, peaceful gorillas or majestic, communicative whales. These are now the species we feel we have a duty to save from human tyrrany. The historic image of the valiant hunter subduing the fearsome beast has been subverted: now the innocent animal is slaughtered by the monstrous human (often a white, male, Trump-supporting American millionaire). Increasingly, we are seeing ourselves as the monsters and other species as the victims of our monstrosity.
These relationships determine our treatment and protection of other species. Corals, for example, are still seen as inanimate and unimportant by most people, though they sustain the most complex marine ecosystems. At a time when our relationship with the natural world is so precipitousy fragile, it is more important than ever for us to delve past the illusion of biological objectivity and understand our perceptions of and relationships with other beasts more deeply.
This shift is important, of course. And, of course there are solid, practical reasons for view in them in this way. But we need to acknowledge that it is also simply a different animal imaginary, one which has a biased nature. Consider the popularity of anti-ivory campaigns in the public eye, but the most trafficked mammal, the pangolin, is virtually unheard of. The pangolin is not a potent, anthropomorphised symbol in the way the elephant is. This neglect is even more true for species that are not even mammalian. Our relationships with animals and what they mean to us will determine how we protect the natural world in the future, we need to understand these images.