09.10.18 | Animal Kingdom

What does it mean to be human? That sounds narcissistic. Perhaps the "Get Over Thyself" dictum (MM, 8/27/18) should apply, not just to the individual, but to an entire species. 

How about what does it mean to be a dolphin? What does it mean to be any animal, for that matter? Is the difference simply one of consciousness? Recent auto-television research techniques have established that self-awareness perception in dolphins begins around the age of one and a half years, just like in humans. 

Think of that in the context of the film (nationally premiered some years ago right here at the club with director Louie Psihoyos) which documents the massive annual dolphin drive in Taiji, Japan. "The Cove" graphically depicts herding thousands of migrating dolphins into a small cove -- the proverbial barrel, really -- where they are netted and killed by means of spears and knives over the sides of small fishing boats. A few of the cute bottlenose females are "lucky" enough to be saved from this literal bloodbath of a killing field for sale to aquariums and marine parks.

While much of our audience, and that of the world, winced, one film reviewer dismissively sniffed, "Westerners . . . . kill and eat cows. Easterners eat dolphin. What's the difference?" Maybe none. After all, much of the human race walks around enveloped in the narcissistic certainty that our dominant intelligence on the planet means the rest of creation was provided for our convenience. Our focus article: "What Does It Mean to Be Human? Don't Ask." (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/opinion/what-does-it-mean-to-be-human-dont-ask.html)

At least when it comes to animals as foodstuff we have perfected the technique of physical and psychological dissociation i.e. conveniently forgetting what that leg of lamb was once attached to. Certain primitive tribes made no distinction between human and animal life. Native Americans once prayed to the sacrifice of the bison before consuming or otherwise using all of its (his/her) parts. Ours are delivered in cellophane.

The moral configuration becomes even harsher when it comes to use of animals in lab research, especially in the military world. Just this past March the Coast Guard finally announced the end to its use of animals in "live tissue training" where live animals are shot, stabbed, and dismembered (one PETA scene showed a live goat's leg amputated by means of tree branch shears). The irony: putting animals to death to perfect the human talent to make war. Then, on the consumer front, how many rabbits must die in order to test, say, mascara?

The relationship between humans and animals is decidedly ambiguous. Descartes said animals are mere "machines." On the other hand, we've explored the sometimes extraordinary human connection to pets (MM, 4/2/18, Animal Spirits), affording to them the ultimate power of their owner's self-affirmation, captured by the wish, indeed a prayer, “may I be as good a person as my dog thinks I am.” 

What does it mean to be human? Maybe back off: let's start rather by asking how we believe human life differs from (other) animal life. Per the article, the exercise may extend our sense of wonder, raise consciousness, and develop a greater reciprocity. It is one more tool with which to Get Over Thyself.  

Steve SmithComment