We Are Not the Only Political Animals


By Justin E. H. Smith

Homo sapiens has long sought to set itself apart from animals — that is, apart from every other living species.

One of the most enduring attempts to define humanity in a way that distances us from the rest of animal life was Aristotle’s description of the human being as a “political animal.” By this he meant that human beings are the only species that live in the “polis” or city-state, though the term has often been understood to include villages, communes, and other organized social units. Implicit in this definition is the idea that all other animals are not political, that they live altogether outside of internally governed social units.

Some recent political philosophy is starting to approach its subject from a trans-species perspective.

This supposed freedom from political strictures has motivated some, such as the 19th-century anarchist aristocrat Piotr Kropotkin, to take nonhuman animals as a model for human society. But for the most part the ostensibly nonpolitical character of animal life has functioned simply to exclude animals from human consideration as beings with interests of their own.

What might we be missing when we cut animals off in this way from political consideration? For one thing, we are neglecting a great number of solid scientific facts.

There are overwhelming empirical data revealing, to anyone who is willing to look, complex social organization across the animal kingdom, including collective deliberation, division of labor, ritualized conflict resolution, and other forms of behavior that, when identified in human society, are deemed political without hesitation.

We know that elephants plan elaborate raids on human settlements to recover the remains of their slaughtered loved ones.

We know that in ant colonies the appearance of elaborate systems of task-allocation is related directly to the size of the colony: just as in human society, the more individual members of the society, the more we may expect to find social differentiation.

Thanks to the primatologist Frans De Waal’s popular work, we are now slowly warming up to the idea that there is such a thing, at least, as “chimpanzee politics.”

These are just a few examples from recent science, and to some extent they build on what we have known all along but have preferred not to see.

Aristotle himself reports accurately on elephant intelligence and social behavior in the “History of Animals”; in the “Georgics” Virgil gives a fairly solid account of the goings-on within beehives. Yet the combined force of ancient wisdom and recent science will still not do much to convince the skeptic, who interprets all empirical evidence of animal politics as pointing only to structures in the animal world that are homologous to what we see in human society, but that still do not share that magical je ne sais quoi that makes human society what it is. What we do as human beings when we deliberate, or love or cooperate, in this line of thinking, animals do only in an imitative or counterfeit way. They only “deliberate,” “love” or “cooperate” — in scare quotes.

But there is another way of understanding animals as political that even the most defiant human-exceptionalist cannot dispute: not as separated out into their own discrete political societies, each according to its kind, but rather as part of a single, global political formation that includes, notably but not exclusively, human beings. Some recent political philosophy, in fact, is starting to approach its subject from just such a trans-species perspective.

Clip_85In their groundbreaking 2011 book, “Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights,” Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka argue compellingly that animal rights theory has been limited to the extent that it has emphasized only negative rights of animals, a category that is conceived as universal and without any distinctions of moral significance within it. They argue instead that theorists would do well to focus on relational obligations that human beings come to have to animals that figure in different ways in human society. For them, nonhuman animals belong to the polis, too.

The ways animals figure in society — vermin, livestock, pets, wildlife, beasts of burden, seeing-eye dogs, and so on — mirrors the different ways in which different human groups are endowed with or deprived of their rights.

If this perspective seems tangential to the central concerns of political philosophy, it might be worthwhile to consider that, from a historical perspective, the development of human political formations seems to have been closely connected with changes in the way human groups related to certain animal species.

In particular, there is increasing evidence for canine domestication contemporaneous with what is often called the “great leap forward” in the Upper Paleolithic, a period that witnessed the appearance of such features of human behavioral modernity as symbolic thought and religious ritual. More important, many thousands of years later the first sedentary, proto-urban cultures arose in the Levant in tandem with the rise of livestock domestication (and also, of course, of agriculture). The emergence of state structures thus seems connected not only to the rise of grain storage, and therefore also of private property and of social inequality and slavery, but also to the systemic domination of certain animals by human beings. It is hard to say what exactly civilization is, but one thing seems certain: there could be no civilization without domestication.

The domination of animals went together with their symbolic incorporation into human society. We know that without exception early livestock-holding societies took the animals they dominated to be absolutely central to their own social existence as human beings. For the first several millenniums of city living, long before Aristotle wrote, human beings did not yet think of themselves as the only political animals.

The Greeks’ exclusion of animals from the domain of the political (and also from the pantheon of gods, in contrast with their Near Eastern neighbors) would have consequences that can still be felt today in the way we conceive of the scope of the political. As in Sumer and ancient Greece, animals continue to play a vital role in human society. Notably, they are raised and slaughtered by the billions, and their meat is sold and consumed. Yet their presence in society is conceived as political for the most part only to the extent that rules are made about where they may be raised, how they may be sold, at what price, and so on. They are generally not conceived as political in the sense of being themselves members or participants in a trans-species polis.

Manifestly, however, the ways animals figure in society, and what may be done to or with the animals representing different social categories — vermin, livestock, pets, wildlife, beasts of burden, seeing-eye dogs, and so on — mirrors the different ways in which different human groups are endowed with or deprived of their rights. Endowing and depriving different human groups of rights and resources is, in one understanding of the term, precisely what we mean when we speak of politics.

In his remarkable 1999 work of quasi-fiction, “The Lives of Animals,” J. M. Coetzee has his protagonist, the Australian author Elizabeth Costello, give a lecture at an American university on the subject of the book’s title. She says a number of ostensibly radical things about the horrors human beings commit against animals. She makes the dreaded comparison to the Holocaust, which so often appears to be the last resort of desperate rhetoricians. Among the audience members is Abraham Stern, a Holocaust survivor. He sends her a note explaining why he refuses to attend that evening’s dinner: “If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead.”

Whatever else the actions of the Nazis were, they were political. The German state, representing the will of a majority of the German people, deprived the Jews of their rights, dehumanized them as vermin, and sought to exterminate them. These efforts were political, not in the sense that they occurred within a smoothly functioning deliberative democracy, but in the sense that they sought, by extreme violence, to determine once and for all the true bounds of the polis, to settle who was rightfully a member of society and who was necessarily excluded.

Stern is right to take offense at Costello’s comparison. It does not automatically follow from the fact that a group of humans and a group of animals are treated in externally similar ways, that the treatment has the same moral significance in each case. However, it does not insult the memory of those human beings who have been deprived of their rights and excluded from consideration as political subjects to note that, as a matter of fact, the animals that play a central role in our society are systematically excluded from the polis, from the scope of the political. Their exclusion is what makes possible the perpetuation of the system of mass slaughter as if this were not an expression of our society’s political will.

Things were not always this way. Although human beings have always killed animals, the evidence strongly suggests that in hunter-gatherer and early pastoral societies, the animals that were killed were not held to be morally irrelevant, nor were they held to be external interlopers in the human polisNor is there any compelling reason things should remain as they are. Perhaps it is time to rethink the boundaries of the political.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7 (Denis Diderot) and the author, most recently, of “Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy.”

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