Zoomorphising humanity

by Usha Alexander

Rather than having compassion for animals because they're 'like us', true empathy comes from recognising that we're not at the centre of the world.

India is known for its cows wandering the streets, but no less common are its feral dogs. On a December night in Goa, as I walked towards my hotel, one such mutt dozed next to the footpath. Lean, yellow, frizzy-haired. She glanced warily at me, while I stopped to empty my 'doggie bag' from dinner onto the pavement near her. After I stepped away, she ate every bite. The following night, she was there again, this time seated in the middle of the path, alert, between two of her friends. I was tickled when she approached me, dancing with merriment, glad I'd arrived as expected. Her friends, meanwhile, kept their distance, their heads low, their tails wagging as they circled round us. They weren't begging for food; they were checking me out.

Even though I'd only given a paltry gift the previous night, this happy dog had bragged about it to her friends. This wasn't the first time I'd befriended a feral dog who then brought her friends to meet me. It wasn't the last time I've felt a stray was trying to tell me about his social world or had communicated something about me to his fellows. Even in my casual observations of street dogs in my Delhi neighbourhood, I've noticed that those who claim human friends are sometimes granted a degree of special regard within their cohort, as if their pals think they're cool. Sometimes this also provokes jealousies.

I can prove none of this, of course; I can't really know what the dogs are thinking. Yet I expect that people who are familiar with dogs won't find my version of events entirely implausible. Dog lovers often grant anthropomorphic interpretations to dog behaviours. But what about the behaviours of other animals? These days the internet is awash with viral videos depicting similarly complex behaviours among our favourite wild animals. We see elephants and primates mourning their dead. We see all manner of species studiously confronting themselves in mirrors, planning with intent for the future, cooperating with their fellows to complete simple tasks. We see astonishing intelligence from birds and octopuses, solving puzzles. We even see what appears to be empathetic encounters between species: whales and crows asking humans for help to untangle them from twine; a goat rescuing a chicken from a hawk; an owl and a cat palling around like besties.

We are amused and astonished, charmed and fascinated in the moment, as we immediately recognise our own desires, needs, emotions, vulnerabilities and social-filial attachments in the ways these animals behave. Yet, upon further reflection, so many of us discount our initial responses and intuitions. We remind ourselves that, unlike us, these other animals probably aren't genuinely as curious or caring as they might appear. They aren't driven by complex inner lives coloured by pride, shame, revenge, sorrow, ego, love and joy, but are primarily governed by reflexive urges to procreate, obtain food and seek safety. Suspicious of our anthropomorphic bias and hesitant to credit a familiar, complex sentience to non-human animals, we reduce their inner lives to utilitarian impulses and shallow reflexes.

We are taught to think this way. After all, western philosophy and our dominant monotheistic religions have long held that non-human animals don't have 'souls'. Many scientists, until just decades ago, even held that they don't feel pain. We're told in every context that other animals are essentially different from us humans, that they're spiritually and materially beneath us, both in their teleological development and their inherent value. This bias is so intrinsic to western culture that it feels as solid as natural law. When thinkers and naturalists do talk about complex animal behaviours, their approach is usually constrained by the principle that when we imagine we see human-like motives, impulses and feelings in other animals, we must assume we're only projecting our humanity onto them, the way we see human faces in the clouds.

But what if it's not that? What if, in fact, it's the opposite: not me imbuing a non-human animal with human emotionality but, rather, me recognising the common feelings and sentience of non-human animals within myself? After all, science also tells us that we evolved from the same source as all other animals, that we share a great deal in common with our fellow species, from our DNA and physiology to our enmeshment in a web of deep ecological interdependence. Though widely accepted, this knowledge of our relatedness remains, for many of us, merely a scrap of abstract and esoteric information, detached from our more foundational philosophical certainty of human exceptionalism, supremacy and paramountcy. Rather than dislodging our cultural presumptions or sparking broader empathy with our fellow Earthlings, it merely inspires attempts to reify our difference from them, to measure the distance, as we doggedly search for characteristics or thresholds of behaviour that might categorically delimit the human from the non-human: dexterity, tool use, reasoning, problem solving, sense of fairness, theory of mind, symbol use, language... to mention a few.

But what if watching animals can spark a broader and stronger empathy within us? Perhaps we love to watch other animals in the first place because we're evolved to learn about our world through our empathetic observations of them across a range of species - a realm of experience now almost wholly missing from our urban lives. So what if - before silencing our intuitions about them - we hearkened more intently to what our senses plainly tell us: that non-human animals are not so entirely different from us; that we do recognise their feelings within our own hearts; that we share a kinship with them? Our animal encounters, real or virtual, do threaten to enflame innate feelings of kinship and empathy, before our cultural conditioning kicks in to deny it. Why do we discount this recognition?

In fact, not all peoples do discount it. Many Indigenous cultures greatly value the relationships between the human and non-human. This more integrated worldview is clearly articulated in the Rights of Mother Earth, drawn up at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Bolivia in 2010. In their proposed universal declaration, representatives of Indigenous peoples and organisations from around the world tell us that 'Mother Earth is a living being' with rights, and that these rights 'are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence'. Indeed, rights accrue to every being, they assert, without distinction of any kind, 'such as may be made between organic and inorganic beings, species, origin, use to human beings, or any other status'. Our human duty, they say, is to live in harmony with the Earth. In fact, their declaration posits more than a sense of kinship with, or recognition of sentience in, our fellow Earthlings. It reflects a profound awareness of human beings as but one among innumerable, co-equal forms of creation. It expresses the understanding that every being is reliant upon the integrity and wellness of the whole Earth system. Though a quaint idea to many of us today, such Earth-centricity was once common among all successful human societies. It flows from the same, instinctive perceptions that our fascinated observations of other animals seem to pull us back towards, though we're trained to resist it.

Why are we trained to resist this salient intuition about the living world? How did we lose our visceral understanding of the Earth as a living system, which all peoples once held? What changed for us and when?

It's often said that we now live in the Anthropocene, a time when human domination of the Earth is the greatest single factor shaping its future trajectory. Ours certainly is an age of planet-wide environmental reshaping driven by human activity. Regardless of when one might date the start of this present age, one of its defining features is surely the pervasive idea that humans are entitled to use the Earth and its life-forms with regard neither for the wholeness of other beings nor for the integrity of the biosphere. Though the World People's Conference linked the rise of this blinkered, human-centric worldview to the Industrial Revolution, there's reason to believe it began much earlier. The idea was already in play in the Middle East by the time the creation myths were set down in the Old Testament, wherein the Biblical god instructed Adam and Eve to dominate and subdue the Earth and all its living things. A human chauvinism can be detected thousands of years before that even, as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving written tale, set down by the inhabitants of the earliest Mesopotamian city-states, through its storylines that hinge upon the struggles and conflicts of domination: rebuilding after epic floods, cutting down the forests, elevating a civilisation defined by production of agricultural excess that would be enough to support classes of elites who ruled the rest. These mid-Holocene stories from West Asia encapsulated a new way of seeing the world and living in it that departed from the Earth-centric worldviews of countless human generations through hundreds of millennia before. Something was changing for the peoples of the ancient Fertile Crescent, the earliest tellers of these tales: they were developing a cognitive detachment of the human from the non-human world - that which we now call Nature - distinct from and subservient to humanity.

This paradigm change, which centred and elevated humanity above all other life-forms, may be connected to the mid-Holocene rise of statist agricultural civilisations. By agriculture I don't mean subsistence farming or horticulture, which is usually practised in accordance with a primal understanding of humans as beholden to the well-being of the Earth, in interdependence with its living systems. Agriculture, here, is a large-scale, fixed-field, surplus-producing system that constricts land-usage rights so as to sustain deep socio-political and economic hierarchies, such as we see in state societies. Agriculture, associated with this emergent conception of ourselves - that we are separate from Nature, that our power arises from dismantling Nature and using its parts to fashion a human-centric world - became the foundational substrate for our modern, capitalist worldview, in which the planet and all its beings are regarded as commodities, bearing no intrinsic value beyond their utility for human use and consumption. This break from our sense of kinship with other animals to our presumption that we are rulers, owners and entitled users of the Earth and everything on it, living or inert, became the thematic basis for the story of human domination that has since spread around the world, chewing up all of Nature for the unprecedented enrichment of a minority of the global population.

In order for our programme of domination, extraction and exploitation to work, especially in the extremes that it manifests today, we are required to deny our feelings of kinship with the non-human, our recognition of their sentience and relatable inner lives. We must resist what humans have long known innately to be true about other living beings - because our present world economy is built upon exploiting and destroying the non-human world with unbearably cruel force and reckless hunger. While many of us do acknowledge the sentience and emotional lives of our beloved pets, with whom we tend to form individual bonds of affection and whom we treat with consideration and care, this remains highly selective and contingent upon the 'use' these animals provide to us or the tamed role they play in our society. Even dogs - arguably the most widely beloved non-human animals - are routinely rounded up and killed across much of the western world when they're unwanted, stray and in the way. Yet if we recognised the inner lives of all dogs in principle, as we do within our favourite pets, we wouldn't so callously annihilate the rest. If we similarly acknowledged the sentience and emotional lives of cattle and pigs, chickens and turkeys, we couldn't torture them as we do, raising them in factory farms and slaughtering them by the billions, our primary concern being only how to do so faster and more cheaply.

In the same way, had we not so long sequestered ourselves from the wholeness of wilderness, where once we intimately observed the complex lives and sentient awareness of other animals as a part of understanding ourselves and our world, we couldn't now destroy entire ecosystems by clearcutting forests, dredging marine depths, draining wetlands, damming rivers and routinely conducting other annihilating harms. We couldn't carelessly drive scores of species to extinction at an ever-accelerating rate. We couldn't push the global climate towards rapid and extreme disruption. We couldn't commit the ecocide we are responsible for in the Anthropocene.

To heal our relationship with the Earth and our fellow beings, we need to stop telling the story that we humans are entitled to planetary dominion, that this garden was put here only for our use and has no other value. We must stop seeing ourselves as central to the cosmic order, but rather as merely one among countless players, each with its part to play in a wild and incomprehensible ensemble dance. We must learn to live and let live. Not to do so will be to die.

Perhaps one place to begin is by letting ourselves know what we know when we encounter other animals. To feel what we feel when we observe them. We might remember that we are all animals and the non-human ones must be seen and valued in their own right, as much as respected for their essential roles in the dance of the biosphere that literally produces the air that we breathe and nourishes the food that we eat, giving us everything we need to be well. We might acknowledge their kinship with us, recognise their sentience within ourselves and accept the wonder and struggle of our interdependence, as all peoples once did. Maybe we need a different word that turns anthropomorphisation on its head, a word that means to project non-human likenesses onto ourselves, to realise how much we are like them. Zoomorphisation. Gaiamorphisation. Whatever makes sense to retrain our sensibilities towards truly seeing and respecting the lives of the non-human.

If we could do that, new stories would bloom. Stories in which human beings are de-centred, as once we had been, long before the Anthropocene stretched its calloused fingers across the whole of the world. Stories that lead us away from ecocide and mass slaughter and species extinction towards a new way of living among our fellow Earthlings.

Usha Alexander

Usha Alexander is the author of two novels, The legend of Virinara and Only the eyes are mine. Her series of essays at 3 Quarks Daily raises questions about environmental distress, the human experience and storytelling. She currently resides near Delhi, India.