Looking at us looking at animals
May 20, 2014 5:43 PM   Subscribe

I had assumed that it was because they were so cuuuuuuute.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:58 PM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

“I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.”
posted by BlueHorse at 6:24 PM on May 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've been saying for a while that the animal rights misanthropes have partly gotten it wrong (they're right about the ethics): humans, all things considered, are remarkably benevolent with regard to other animals. It certainly didn't have to be this way.

There are a variety of evolutionary factors involved, the author discusses some of them, but I think the main factor is that it's simply the result of humans being semi-gregarious animals with a highly developed social intelligence that relies upon a cognitive theory of mind. Which is to say, our tendency toward anthropomorphism, more or less.

There's bad things associated with that tendency, but they're mostly associated with the extremes of it. More broadly, it can be seen as simply our capacity for empathy tending to be applied widely across living things, not just other humans. That feeds into how we reason about them — it makes certain rational arguments possible that otherwise wouldn't be possible, because otherwise the premises would be seen as self-evidently absurd. And, indeed, there's still a lot of people for whom those premises are self-evidently absurd. My brother-in-law sees animals as biological automatons, he's baffled (and, involving his religious beliefs, annoyed) with people placing animals into the same moral contexts as human beings.

My point is that even with this cognitive machinery that tends to cause us to sort of go nuts with our anthropomorphic empathy there are still many people who cannot see any sort of moral or ethical implication in how we treat animals. For them, you might as well ask about the morality of how we "treat" the ore we dig from the ground.

And so it's very easy to imagine an intelligent species evolving that lacks, or has a much more weak tendency to see other animals as being worth "caring" about. Such a species could be social but lacking a theory of mind, it could be much less social or it could be not social at all, it could be social but with a theory of mind that is strictly restricted to in-species, refusing to see any other species or individual from another species as being "like" in any significant way (especially one that would invoke ethical reasoning). It could be social (or not) and have a theory of mind but be evolved as intensely parasitic, where by necessity the sorts of ethical considerations we have about other animals would be ruled-out in principle. (Well, alternatively, such a species could have a proprietary, cultivation ethos about the species it parasitizes and, by extrapolation, all others, but I'd argue that this wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. Better, probably, than pure exploitation.) It could be solitary and predatory (but have developed intelligence and even a ToM to facilitate predation).

This is totally intuitive because it's counterfactual, and so mostly handwaving BS, but still I really feel like our species being one that has evolved to care as much about animals as we do, and in a benevolent way that we clearly (sometimes) do, is much less likely than not. I'm amazed, really, that we care at all.

Which isn't to excuse or minimize our many ethical lapses and atrocities with regard to animals. But, well, we could be much, much worse than we are.


Yeah, tautology alert!
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:27 PM on May 20, 2014 [11 favorites]

Because pets or meat.
posted by klangklangston at 6:59 PM on May 20, 2014

The questions you ask are obviously no less important than the way you find answers, and questions that ask why should be considered very carefully to avoid making assumptions that bias the investigative logic or multiply entities needlessly. I'm not sure this question clears that bar.
posted by clockzero at 8:38 PM on May 20, 2014

Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.--Marx
posted by No Robots at 8:40 PM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees

Is my destroyer.

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks

Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams

Turns mine to wax.

And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins

How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool

Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail.

And I am dumb to tell the hanging man

How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;

Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood

Shall calm her sores.

And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb

How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Dylan Thomas
posted by islander at 8:41 PM on May 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Because people who need, people, are the luckiest people.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:20 AM on May 21, 2014

Because pets or meat.

I was thinking in terms of deep human history, animals are either gods or lunch -- or both.
posted by aught at 8:33 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

aught, we have rather strong evidence now that both cats and dogs have been semi-domesticated since naked apes first started clothing themselves (more or less, give or take), so I'd add "tools" to their list of uses.

Cute doggy needing a belly scritch/fluffy kitty purring (= pet) came along later, one presumes.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:37 PM on May 21, 2014

And yet the native peoples of North America and elsewhere saw (see) animals as our four-legged brothers and sisters. I don't think they were sentimental about them, because they were also food providers, but people did have a lot of respect for the other creatures with which we share the planet. Since, in evolutionary terms animals are our cousins, we've had to do a lot of rationalization to be able to treat animals the way we do.

(I'm not an animal rights misanthrope, but maybe it's time? I heard this interview with Canadian animal rights lawyer/activist Lesli Bisgould (ff to 27:48), and I found her very persuasive.)
posted by sneebler at 7:19 PM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

aught, we have rather strong evidence now that both cats and dogs

Well sure, but I was thinking more about the things you see painted on the walls of paleolithic caves than pets.

And yet the native peoples of North America and elsewhere saw (see) animals as our four-legged brothers and sisters. I don't think they were sentimental about them, because they were also food providers, but people did have a lot of respect for the other creatures with which we share the planet.

Sites like the one I linked to above suggest to me that early Europeans had a similar attitudes toward bear, lions, tigers, auroch, and rhinos that lived near them 30-50k yrs ago.
posted by aught at 6:28 AM on May 22, 2014

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