Human exceptionalism takes many forms but most share an assumption that our species displays singularly complex ways of being, thinking and feeling. On this perspective, other animals’ capacities are inferior, and so other animals’ lives are also seen as inferior.
It’s only a myth, though, that other-than-human animals inevitably live moment to moment. Many mammals and birds remember and learn from past experiences, and anticipate with joy or fear what may be coming next. Recognition of this fact threads throughout my most three recent books: a whole variety of animals express grief when someone they cared about and remember dies, including elephants, orcas, monkeys, giraffes, Canada geese, ferrets, cats and dogs. Fish, chickens, goats, cows and pigs solve problems in their lives and interact socially in ways that defy the possibility of being trapped in the present. And only when we humans recognise how vulnerable other animals are to the harms we cause them – because they remember the past, and wish to live in the present and future without trauma – will we act with full compassion for animals and make their lives better.
Over decades of research and writing in anthropology, I’ve come to see a central truth: when human lives are seen to be of ‘unique value’, it becomes that much easier to slaughter farmed animals for food; confine monkeys and rodents to suffering in research laboratories; and confine dolphins and whales in theme parks, where we ask them to perform tricks.
What horrible costs human exceptionalism imposes on other animals! We lose out, too. Genuine connection to other animals emerges when we try our hardest to truly see the ways they live and may express thoughts and feelings – including in ways that don’t mirror our own. [Continue reading…]