I would like to prompt some debate with a few questions that seems relevant to contemporary Anthropology, particularly for those of us interested in science and technology studies, human and non-human relations, material culture, semiotics and so forth.
Anthropology would seem to be an avowedly humanist discipline. Is there a view of "human nature" or "human being" that we could agree on, or that we implicitly employ without realizing it? Should there be? If not, why not.
First response: Why boundaries? Why not a prototype, instead. The question is then no longer a binary choice, human versus non-human. It is, instead, how close any particular example comes to the prototype.
Second response: Anthropologists in my generation were l taught to approach the problem from two directions: biology and culture. On the biological side, the paleontologists needed to distinguish homo sapiens sapiens from other similar species. On the cultural side, it was talk and tools, a.k.a., culture, that were held to distinguish humans from all other animals. Neither approach has resulted in hard and fast distinctions. Most of us, I expect, are aware of ethological studies that attribute tool use or rudimentary forms of language to other species and the never-ending debates among paleontologists about when genus homo split off from other primates and whether H. Erectus or H. Neanderthalis should be counted as fully human on a part with H. Sapiens. These distinctions remain, as Bourdieu asserts of all distinctions, sites of struggle.
Third response: Why not, I ask myself, a third approach? Serendipitously I am, as I have written before, reading Miller and Scott (2007) Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. Observing that modeling adaptive social systems assumes the presence of agents and that agents are prototypically human individuals, I wonder if agency might be the key feature of humanity that we are looking for. I note, too, that confronted with the problem of how best to model agency, Miller and Scott turn to the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, as follows, translating the Buddhist path into examples of the model-builder's focus.
View Information and connections
Speech Communication among agents
Effort Strategies and actions
Concentration Model focus and heterogeneity
"as Herb Simon pointed out, agents typically confront a wealth of information, and thus the scarce resource here is not information but rather attention. Given the inherent limits of information processing, agents must actively ignore most of the potential information that they encounter."
"the most interesting results come about when the outcome of the model is, at some level, at odds with the induced motivations of the agents -- to use Schelling's terms, when the micromotives and macrobehavior fail to align." Or when micro level and system level goals are out of sync.
"Models can differ in terms of the kind of information that is allowed to be communicated, how the information is allowed to flow among other agents, and the quality of the information."
"Each agent receives and processes information and, by its action (or even inaction), generates information that influences the other agents and the system itself." Thus, the order (random or constrained, synchronous or asynchronous) in which agents act may be critical for the outcome.
"Payoffs can arise via the pure 'physics' of the model, where actions aggregate some benefit to, or impose some cost on, the individual agents." They may also be shaped by collaboration or negotiation between the agents.
"One feature that makes social science particularly interesting, and difficult, is the way in which agents anticipate and react to the potential behavior of other agents....Strategies can take many forms, from simple-fixed heuristics to elaborate optimization routines that change over time."
"is the level of cognition employed by an agent: how smart should agents be? It is true that most agent-based models rely on simplistic agents, and people are often more sophisticated. Of course, as the evidence from behavioral economics mounts, it also appears that people are often less sophisticated than most game theory models assume. More likely than not, the sophistication of the agents is context dependent, and in some situations attempts at optimization predominate, while in others simple heuristics are employed."
"is the focus of the model—namely, it requires the model to be just sufficient to capture the phenomenon of interest. Models always have contexts, and what works well in one context may fail in another."
I am not greatly interested in what makes us different from other life forms nor do I believe that the parameters of 'being human' have already been established. Rather I ask what potential we have as a species to act as responsible stewards of our planet's future. Chimps, ants and the rest may have qualities that overlap with ours, but I doubt if they could generate the means to correct the global processes that human beings have set in train. As my friend Skip Rappaport used to say, we are the frontal lobes of the biomass, the only part of life on earth that can think.
As it happens, I agree with Engels when he said 'My dog is rational'. But dogs think as individuals and we have built collective means of thinking, knowing and acting that they can never participate in. So the issue is less our individual capacity to think, but rather what steps we are taking to enable us to think as a species. The invention of writing, the book, libraries and printing launched this process well before the machine age, but the digital revolution, building on a century of radio, telephones, movies, television and the rest has clearly speeded up the creation of a universal communications network with the potential to express universal ideas effectively for the first time.
Marcel Mauss said that Homo economicus is less a feature of the remote human past than a teleology to which we might aspire in future. I have launched a book and a research program based on it (involving a dozen people so far) that seeks to identify principles of "the human economy". Our focus is on what people do and how to make ideas for economic improvement practically accessible to them. The motives for economic action are taken to be holistic, not based on narrow self-interest; but they need to be empirically determined. Economic life is invariably complex, being realised through plural institutions of a very particular kind. And finally, humanity is the sum of all humans who live, have lived and will live; a moral quality of kindness; and a historical project for our species whose outcome is far from certain. We have created a world economy that in many ways contradicts the goals of freedom, equality and democracy on which global civilization ought to be founded. It is an urgent priority to figure out how to put it right.
What does it take to be human in this context? We have to learn to be individually self-reliant and to belong to others in many complex ways. This task is made harder by a culture that posits self-interest against mutuality, the economic against the social. How many human beings do you know who have successfully reconciled these poles? So I tend to think of humanity as a strategy whose aim is to devise more effective insitutions at the species level. Being able to think as a species does not preclude thinking as an individual. In fact, it depends on our capacity to do both. For this reason, I believe that the digital revolution in communications will not stop until we are able to replicate at distance what we do with each other face-to-face.
We are a long way from such a future, but what humanity does now will have major repercussions for the generations to come, whose number may be limited. Identifying what is human and what not is for me prospective, not actual.
the digital revolution in communications will not stop until we are able to replicate at distance what we do with each other face-to-face.
Murder? Rape? Torture? Deception?
We have, if I am not mistaken, two proposals on the table: the first, advocated by McCreery, is what Clifford Geertz called a 'model of' the human. The second, advocated by Hart is what Geertz called a 'model for' the human. The first, based on the Buddhist Eightfold Path as interpreted by Page and MIller, is richly, if still abstractly, specified. The second is a 'teleology,' a grail, described as a state of affairs in which, "The motives for economic action are taken to be holistic, not based on narrow self-interest; but they need to be empirically determined." Neither speaks directly to the concerns that motivate Reno, who needs a definition of human nature both broad and compassionate enough to include persons with disabilities, which lead others to treat them as less than human, as well as such currently only imaginary but certainly possible creatures as aliens from outer space who resemble cannibalistic crabs or artificial intelligences (I am thinking of the Prador and the AIs in Neal Asher's Polity series of science fiction novels).
Where shall we take this? Josh, what would be most useful?
As far as I understand it, Josh was inviting wide participation from the membership. Do you think your last post increases or diminishes the chance of that, John? The previous thread was an in-house trio, but I was hoping for more than that here. That's why I delayed posting.
I guess I could add one more point to this discussion while hoping not to digress much from the original question raised by Josh. On my part, one reason that I often become hesitant about taking the binary distinction "human" and "non-human" is that "non-human" itself is a too-broad category to think with, and I think it's fairly reasonable to assume that the degree of diversity among "non-humans" is greater than that among humans.
So I often feel showing that "non-human beings" could have features comparable to humans' features are not enough; what happens when we think about the relationship between nonhuman X and nonhuman Y for example? As far as I remember, there was one article relevant to this point;
Feuerstein, N., Terkel, J., Interrelationships of dogs (Canis familiaris) and cats (Felis catus L.) living under the same roof, Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2007)
The article deals with the relationships between domestic cats and dogs; they can mutually understand what the other species' behavioral codes or body language mean, and can and do interpret such behaviors from the standards of the other species.
For instance, "stretching out the forefeet" has opposite meanings for each species; for dogs, it means amicability and submission, but for cats, it rather means aggression. But dogs and cats sometimes understand that their own way of interpretation is different from the other, and thus, behave or interpret the other's body language accordingly. Then do we have a reason to assume that both (cats and dogs) resemble human's cognitive capacity?
Maybe one could argue like that, though it would be highly hypothetical at best; they both are "domestic" species, and they were under a sort of "selection pressure" that made them have such qualities, if we adopt the ways of discussion made by evolutionists. The famous experiment - dogs are better at human-mind reading than chimps who are genetically more similar to humans - might be interpreted in such a way. Then does their ability reflect a quality that evolved in humans in the first instance for such and such reasons inherent to intra-species relationships in humans?
I personally don't think so; there must be much more examples, especially where long-term inter-species relationships were crucial to the life of the inhabitants. Maybe the human's capacity itself reflects the inter-species relationship in the first instance. So in this sense, we might say that like all humans are "anthropologists" in their own rights, all "animals" are "animal behaviorists" in their own rights.
One more thing that I often have cited in this context is Barbara Smut's description of her formation of "rapport" with baboons. This was discussed in Haraway's When Species Meet, and one of the Smut's original text can be seen here. There, she wrote, she needed to learn how to behave in "culturally appropriate ways" in the baboon tribe's "culture", though she herself described it in terms of her "animal nature" in the beginning. But as I see it, she was both the target of observation (in the eyes of the baboons) and a scientist in the field site; understanding how she was understood was important in her understanding of the baboons' ways of thoughts. (She discussed about this point further in another article.)
It's true that the baboons haven't left any papers or books on their "human subject", and even if they did so, we might ask if we could understand such "lion's talks" in the ways we are familar with. But wouldn't it be interesting if we figure out how exactly they "live" as "lay animal behaviorists" or "lay anthropologists"? Are these features their "natures"? What would be an ethnologist or an ethnographer's role in making these "oral traditions" into "written traditions", and what does this difference mean? I think this problem is also relevant for figuring out the meaning of "agency" in a somewhat different vein.
I appreciate Heesun's comment, especially for her specific references. I agree that the category of non-human is too broad and often misleading. There has been a spate of writing in recent decades, some of it playful, some less so, along the lines that she explores here (Latour and ANT, Haraway etc). The general idea is what's special about being human? Why give Pasteur the credit when the molecules do the work of fermentation? The exercise of identifying non-human actors is even claimed to be 'democratic'. As it may well be from some points of view, such as a dog's. (My mother-in-law used to remind visitors "not to treat my dog like a dog".) So I would suggest that, instead of just listing a variety of opinions on either side of the fence, we could identify why our position matters. At least I can explain where I am coming from on this issue.
My question is, How is democracy attainable unless each of us can determine our own personal responsibility in a world driven by unknowably remote impersonal forces? Morality concerns the principles of good behavior, what we ought to do.Although it is possible to express “the good” abstractly as a rule – “always be kind to children and animals” — morality can only be expected of persons who face the choice to be good or otherwise in complex situations that cannot be reduced to simple rules. What politics, law and business have in common is that they define “the good” in a collective sense. A group must be protected from subversion, disorder or loss and this more general good may require leaders in particular to sacrifice personal morality to that impersonal end. When society is organized through depersonalized rules, as ours has been for a century or more, the normative exclusion of personal judgment as a force for good or evil provokes a permanent moral crisis. It is hard to discuss this crisis using the methods of impersonal social science, although that hasn’t stopped some from trying. I like to draw on works of fiction, since they are designed to give dramatic expression to this very question.
So we enter collectives of various kinds as ways of coping with the world and even making society more inclusive. They are obviously human in that people made them, but the ability to direct them is highly unequal. Before the late 19th century the law distinguished between real and artificial persons. The latter included churches, political parties, businesses and many other kinds of association. Real persons in law were you and me, individual citizens. Rights and duties were different for the two on the grounds that living persons generally have less longevity, wealth and power than artificial persons.
For over a century now, business corporations have been exempted from this legal distinction (but not the rest). They retain limited liability for debts, unlike us, but have acquired the full rights of individual citizens. Thus Walmart can claim discrimination under the 14th amendment (designed to prevent unequal treatment of blacks after emancipation) if a town tries to protect its small shops against another hypermarket. The US Supreme Court ruled only this year that preventing corporations from backing their favourites in a so-called democratic election would infringe their human rights. No wonder the US Congress serves mainly the interests of the rich. Thomas Jefferson held that democracy has most to fear from ruling elites, organized religion and mercantile monopolies (which he termed 'pseudo-aristocrats'). I fear that we have lost the ability even to see the threat.
This is the context for my perspective on the fashion to elide the difference between human and non-human actors. If chimps could be their own anthropologists in a thought experiment, if inanimate objects can be actors, how could we begin to establish grounds for resisting the usurpation of our democracy by organizations that are actually the result of human action and represented by human beings? I realize that this is my beef and not necessarily anyone else's, but it is why the question of what is human matters to me. General Motors is not a human being. I will start from there.
General Motors is not a human being.
An excellent point, and one, don't be surprised, Keith, with which I totally agree. Would you extend its logic to, for example,
China is not a human being or
Kurds (considered as a collectivity) are not a human being?
In other words, would you extend its implications to other artificial, a.k.a., socially constructed "persons," including nation states and "nations" that aspire to become nation states?
I fear that we have lost the ability even to see the threat.
Who is the "we" in this assertion? I can see its force if applied to anthropologists qua anthropologists, especially those of us who are untrained in the arcana of corporate groups, kinship and marriage, property and succession to office, topics that once linked anthropology to the legal scholarship from which now-despised structural-functional analysis emerged. That said, one has only to subscribe to any number of political websites, especially those on the progressive-liberal-left end of the political spectrum, to see that awareness of this issue is, in fact, quite high among other segments of the politically engaged intelligentsia.
I sympathize with Keith's comment; saying that non-human beings have their own form of agencies is not enough when one is concerned about "democracy". I guess I have the same reason for my interests in these issues.
Still, the meaning of the word "democracy" has never ceased to be a problem in itself, and this fact often makes me have a rather ambivalent feeling on the word. For example, does the word designate a polity based on irreducible multiplicity of its members, or a decision making process based on each member's free will and/or equal participation (of what?), or a particular type of consensus process, or a specific form of polity based on certain conception about goodness and/or justice, or a polity whose political power comes from demos on which a variety of interpretations could be made, or something else? (I haven't yet considered anti-democratic points of view.) And what does it mean to say that non-human beings have their own agencies in this context?
Though quite different from Haraway's arguments, which are my favorites, at present I sympathize with one point made by Latour in Politics of Nature;
Multiculturalism acquires its rights to multiplicity only because it is solidly propped up by mononaturalism. (p.33)
It's an interesting point, because, there have been actually some animal behaviorists for example who focus more on the "cultures" of the animals even within the same species; I can't think out the exact reference at present, but I remember I read one interesting article from the early 2000s on the definition of "culture" in animal behavior studies - a difference that can be explained neither by genetic difference nor by ecological difference between the populations. And the authors suggested that there are many such examples in previous animal behavior studies as well. In this case, it seems that what undermines the ground of "mononaturalism" is "multiculturalism", and I wonder if "multinaturalism" could serve the same role in deconstructing "monoculturalism". If other beings have their own "cultures", then could we perceive some hidden "monoculturalism" in our perception despite our understanding about the vast cultural differences in human communities? This is, after all, what Haraway, Latour and etc. have been working on, I think.
It seems that Latour mainly perceives the word "democracy" as a mode of collectivity that transcend the distinction between non-speaking beings and speaking beings, with the latter represented by the figure of
"philosopher", a guarantor of "the truth" or "the facts". This position pertains to his understanding of Plato's myth of cave, and it reminded me of Jacques Ranciere's discussions on "democracy" as well; democracy is not about consensus, and on the opposite, is rather about dissensus as a base on which "politics" could emerge; it's true that Ranciere is often skeptical about the concept "democracy" and focuses more on the concept "the political", but he at the same time argues that "demos" must be invented from "ochlos", thereby making itself a political "entity" that formerly had no part in the previous political orders based on certain aisthesis. Demos here designates "a part of no part" having no part in the community they actually belong to, who argues about wrongs" rather than seeking for a way to be included in the category of "rights" formed in the previous order of "the police"(distribution of rights). For him, "equality" is not something to be achieved as such, but is a matter to be proved; it is an "equal" ability of participation in the common matter, the common logos of the community.
The how is this view on politics relevant in Latour's thoughts? I think there are at least two different conceptions on "nature" - one that sees it as "kosmos"(collectivity of beings) and the other one that sees it as "phusis"(universal features). Then how does Latour perceives "nature" when he talks about "mononaturalism"? It seems that he emphasizes the former to say that there actually has been no sound divide between "nature" and politics"; he sees that contemporary "ecological crisis" well shows that there has been no such divide, because if there were such a divide, it is impossible that such "crisis" could occur. The problem occurs because they exist in the same "world", at a "common place", not because it has become a time when we need to include "ecological problems" in our political balance sheet. So in the book, he argues that we need to change our ways of seeing from "the matters of fact" to "the matters of concern"; existing in the same world is the given "fact" (my expression), and as it is the starting point, our question should rather be "how" and "which" we should consider when we organize "the facts" into a story. As for me, the reason I prefer Latour is that he focuses more on "agency" rather than on "logos", thereby putting in question what could be the "common ground" when we consider non-human beings together.
Having said that, I think the most important difference between Latour and Haraway is that whereas Latour mainly problematizes the conceptual divide, Haraway is much more concerned with concrete beings that have their own specific historicities on which any sound ethical relationship should be formed, and asks how to seek for a better way to a common life ; the meaning of the word "politics" seems to differ in each author. Haraway's main concern is not on the categories but rather on the specific individuals (earthly and wordly beings as she often says) ; the reason to consider the former aspects is that it is the crucial point to be made in understanding the latter; it is part of their concrete existence. Her standpoints are well made in her two recent books (Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet), though she had been concerned about the problems very much in her previous works as well.
Barbara Smuts also had made the same point in her article (2006, "Between Species: Science and Subjectivity", Configurations 14: 115-126) : there she figured out how the understanding of specific "natural" history of a particular kind of dog is crucial in forming an ethical relationship with the dog; she lives with two dogs, Safi and Bahati. Safi is more confident and playful, whereas Bahati looks rather timid and insecure. Smuts at first thought that Bahati's lack of confidence was due to her previous history of maltreatment and abandonment, and some experts said that it was due to Bahati's "neurotic traits", but she gradually realized that it was not;
Although [Bahati] and I were clearly attached, I felt something was missing in our relationship but couldn't figure out what it was. Then one day, after watching videos of adolescent volves interacting with their elders, I realized that Bahati needed more than affection; she needed me to reassure her, over and over in very specific ways, that she was and always would be a valued member of the pack. Young wolves, whose survival depends on continued acceptance by senior pack members, frequently request such reassurance. Unlike most domestic dogs I've known, who take up residence in a human family as if it is their inalienable right, Bahati was much more like a wild dog, constantly communicating her position in the pack to those higher and lower than she, profoundly concerned with all pack matters, and, as a young subordinate, lacking confidence that she would always belong. (p.122)
What's more interesting is that she actually had learned from Sati about how to behave toward Bahati; Sati was more like an expert in this area. Sati was a dog, not a human, and she had her own merit and ability in forming a better relationship in the pack made of three. Then what did it mean to be a human being in this pack? Smuts could watch the video, bring Bahati to their pack, and she probably is a provider for their material needs, though the reason of the latter is rather due to specific historical situation where who could sign on the real estate
contract forms (thereby defending their "territory") and "forage" the food they needed was decided (in animal behaviorists' terms). Some parts are rather "historical" and the other parts are rather "natural-historical". But both of them are in need to form the relationship.
So as time went by, I've been more and more interested in the problems like figuring out the specific differences among different modalities of "community". Saying that General Motors is not a human being is not enough, and as Keith said, it rather needs to be the starting point. But then I meet another problem. For example, one simple question bothers me; could we say that the "four-year war" described by Goodall a sort of "genocide"? (One chimp-troop had terminated its competitor group after a four-year "war" against the latter.) And what does it mean to say so? And could we say something similar about "legal persons"? Is there a difference between the two cases? I hope that if there's an answer, it is not based only on "biological difference" between the two species.