Setting Tests or Learning Lessons

Last month a public talk was given in Oxford under the title ‘Why is a Child, but not a Chimp, a Person?’ It’s not a very promising question, and the answer to it, as the philosophy professor giving the talk rightly admitted, will simply depend on what we choose to mean by ‘person’. If we mean, as we usually do, ‘human being’, then the question hardly makes sense. But we might mean (I don’t know why: I certainly never mean this) “an animal in possession of certain specified capacities and attributes” (guess whose?). In that case, if we’re looking around for candidates beyond our own species, it’s natural to start with what seem to be our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. And this is what Professor Emma Borg of Reading University did, in a talk which, whatever unfavourable things may be said about the assumptions behind it, was a very interesting and engaging one.

Professor Borg spoke about various experimental researches into the thinking and behaviour of chimpanzees, but it wasn’t essentially a scientific talk. Indeed, I doubt that the approach implied in her title is a scientific one at all: it seems to belong to the tradition of dressing chimpanzees up for our amusement (‘How like humans they are!’) rather than with disinterested research into what they’re like in themselves and in their own setting. But it wasn’t really a philosophical talk either. At any rate, the ethical implication was all along assumed rather than quizzed: i.e. that ‘personhood’ was the right and proper qualification for a set of rights which those presently recognised as persons, by each other, have agreed to allow themselves. But the allowing in this present case, so the professor began by saying, meant what the courts would or wouldn’t allow: so the question was really, ‘do chimpanzees deserve recognition as persons in law?’ – a question, then, in jurisprudence: an important one, in so far as it would make a lot of difference to some chimpanzees, but also a negligible one, since it can do nothing for any of the other billions of animals urgently needing to be helped or to be left alone. Anyway, the professor didn’t claim to have answered it in the end, only to have shown the difficulties arising from it.

When the question was opened to the floor, someone said that perhaps the great difference between ourselves and these near relatives was that humans “loved” – or did he say “laughed”? I couldn’t tell from where I was, or from what Professor Borg politely answered. I don’t see that either would be right, anyway, but as to laughing, it did seem a very proper object for monkey hilarity, this spectacle of humans solemnly ruminating over the question how like themselves their near relatives might be rewarded for being. [See the September post ‘How to be Human’ for Karen Fowler’s fine novel on this subject.] And it’s more than speciesism making the thing ridiculous, because it’s all really premised on the assumption that nature itself takes the same view: that evolution has been a great billion-year trek to arrive at us. Back in 1931, the Cambridge professor Herbert Butterfield wrote a book entitled The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he warned his fellow-historians not to read previous centuries as if their essential inner drive must have been towards achieving the present. But this “Whig interpretation” is what we habitually use to understand the whole history of life on earth.

I suspect that this way of looking at things, so far from being corrected as it ought to be in the universities, is at least partly their fault (a possibility the professor’s talk itself seemed to illustrate). Peopled as they are by those who have been habituated from an early age to competing successfully in exams, and later to setting and marking them, their model of life, and the one which after all suits them best, is the competitive test. The tests given to chimpanzees by way of assessing their capacities, some of which tests were described by the professor, are pathetic instances of this outlook: ‘can you show skill in this or that thing which we, your betters, have proved so good at, and get marks for it?’ However, no doubt there are also some larger cultural determinants of our patronizing attitude to other animals, and perhaps even some innate ones.

It’s to be hoped, anyway, that we can finally be reasoned out of this absurd anthropomorphism. That is indeed the aim of the modern animal rights movement, as a philosophical and political project. Meanwhile, it’s certain that through the imagination we have always had the means to free ourselves at a bound from our blinkering self-importance, at least in momentary epiphanies. I’ve been looking again at the Penguin Book of Animal Verse edited by George MacBeth in 1965, and finding many such epiphanies, in a book whose contents all preceded even Brigid Brophy’s originating ‘Rights of Animals’ article in the Sunday Times [see the August post about her], let alone Animal Liberation and the rest. MacBeth himself sets the attitude in his introduction, explaining why he decided against arranging the poems by species, genera, etc.: “arrangement by kind is faintly hierarchic. One feels that the plan is designed to bring out Man (or God) at the top. The arrangement alphabetically [which is what he uses] has the great merit of being democratic. All entries are equal and there is no pressure to relate or prefer one to another.” In fact this is exactly the message of the book’s cover, too: a detail from one of the lovely Peaceable Kingdom pictures by the nineteenth-century painter Edward Hicks.Animal Verse 2

Two poems in particular have impressed me this time. In Zoë Bailey’s ‘Calyptorhynchus Funereus’, the poet stands at an aviary of exotic birds, puzzling over a seemingly despondent Funereal Cockatoo, who grips the bars in front of her:

Without words I can do nothing he wants me to do. Useless, I stroke his claw
Unwilling to go …

His hieroglyph my mind cannot resolve, nor read,
Only a finger through the mesh
Can brush his head

To caress the body of his grave incomprehension
With amity, with amity,
Again and again.

The poet wishes, but knows that she is unable, to understand the meaning urged at her by  this strange black and yellow bird (the phrase “as though” appears three times in the short poem, qualifying her surmises as to the bird’s state of mind). Nor, of course, can the bird understand her. She reaches across this mutual “incomprehension” with the beautifully diffident word “amity”, earnestly repeated. Here, then, is a mental and moral scene of a different order of maturity and promise from the one where humans make nick-named monkeys do IQ tests for bananas.

Patricia Beer’s poem ‘The Gorilla’ deals more exactly with our subject. Here again, the poet qualifies as “human fantasy” anything she may suppose about the gorilla’s inner life, but her argument is really about human attitudes anyway. By such, the gorilla is regarded as “left behind. / He cannot talk, feel shame or make / Comparisons”. Here, then, is exactly the pre-human as seen by the person-mongers. And defining him thus by what’s missing, they will necessarily fail to “understand his wholeness”:

                through all his future
People would talk before his cage
Clothed and upright, would turn and pass
Saying how like a man he was.                              

Very nearly a ‘person’, in fact (but not quite, or we’d have to let him out).

This Penguin Book of Animal Verse, because it wisely avoids extracts, does not include the famous passage from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ (1855), beginning “I think I could turn and live with animals”. However, it’s well worth quoting here, because it satisfyingly up-ends the personhood attitude. Even that first line, you’ll notice, puts the human among the animals (he means wild animals), instead of the usual converse as represented in the research mentioned above, and incidentally also in both of the previous poems, set as they are in zoos. And the lines which follow, for all their characteristically Whitmanesque preoccupations, are a strong corrective reminder that if other animals do lack some of our human talents, the opposite is just as true:

      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 to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
      Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Many other animal lessons could certainly be added to this list, but the principle is well established: humans only come top when they set the tests.

Perhaps VERO should invite Professor Borg back to speak next time about why a child, as well as a chimp and for that matter a mouse or a snail, is an animal, and what we ought to make of that unquestionable fact.

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