| Barbara Noske1|
Anthropologists commonly define their discipline, anthropology,
as the study of anthropos (humankind) and think it perfectly natural
to pay little or no attention to the nonhuman realm of animalkind.
Of course, animals do figure in anthropological studies but they
do so mainly as raw material for human acts and human thought. Anthropology
has a long tradition of studying the ways in which human groups
and cultures deal with and conceive of their natural environment,
including other species. Such studies usually confine themselves
to humans in their capacities as agents and subjects who act upon
and think about animals.
Consequently, animals tend to be portrayed as passive objects that
are dealt with and thought and felt about. Far from being considered
agents or subjects in their own right, the animals themselves are
virtually overlooked by anthropologists. They and their relations
with humans tend to be considered unworthy of anthropological interest.
Most anthropologists would think it perfectly natural to pay little
or no attention to the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound
to the animals involved. Consequently, questions pertaining to animal
welfare in the West or in the Third World rarely figure in anthropological
Anthropologists treat animals as integral parts of human economic
constellations and human-centered ecosystems: They are economic
resources, commodities and means of production for human use.
Animal-based human economies have been studied extensively by anthropologists,
who have regarded as their main question whether or not various
human practices with animals are economically or ecologically rational
(seen from the human point of view). Only in those cases where semi-wild
animals still retain some control over their own whereabouts do
anthropologists sometimes look at the advantages of existing human-animal
arrangements for the animals.
The discipline of anthropology is blatantly anthropocentric. At
best, humans and animals are taken to interact within one communal
ecosystem and most anthropologists' attention is directed toward
understanding humans rather than animals. Questions focus on humans
and humans alone. Do animal population dynamics, diet and mobility
have no influence on human culture?
Apart from animals that function as subsistence factors, anthropologists
have duly called attention to animals that are made to serve non-subsistence
human purposes, for instance as objects of prestige or sacrifice
or as totems. Animals in this capacity have been vested with religious
significance and with symbolic and metaphorical power. In addition,
anthropologists have focused on the roles that animals play in human
ceremonial and religious life.
Anthropological interest in animal totems or animal symbols is
no guarantee against an anthropocentric approach. More often than
not such interest serves as an excuse to stop at human constructs
instead of paying attention to the animals themselves.
When challenged on this issue most anthropologists argue that for
questions about animals per se one had better turn to sciences such
as biology or ethology. To point out to them that in addition to
a human-animal relationship there also exists something
like an animal-human relationship, and that totally ignoring
the latter will lead to a one-sided subject-object approach is a
waste of time. As present the anthropocentrism in anthropology goes
Understanding Anthropology's Anthropocentrism
The reason for this is the commonly held view that animals in themselves
have nothing to offer a science which is concerned with the social
and the cultural. Anthropologists and sociologists as well as scholars
in the humanities generally assume that sociality and culture do
not exist outside the human realm. These phenomena are taken to
be exclusively human, a view which lands anthropologists and their
colleagues in the circular argument that animals, not being human,
cannot possibly be social or cultural beings.
Social scientists characterize humans in terms of the material
and social arrangements these humans make and by which they are
also shaped: as beings who socially constitute and are constituted.
Humans are taken to make their own history and while their natural
history was once believed to be made for them, modern humanity increasingly
tries to shape that history as well. By contrast, animals are believed
to have only a natural history, which is made for them and which
has caused them to evolve in the first place.
Unlike human beings, animals tend to be regarded as organisms primarily
governed by their individually-based genetic constitutions. But
this conviction turns out to be an a priori one, given the circumstance
that almost no student of human society and culture asks the same
questions about animals as are asked about humans. One does not
look for the social and the cultural where surely it cannot be found,
outside the human sphere! However, if one preconceives humans to
be the sole beings capable of creating society, culture and language,
one excludes animal forms of society, culture and language by definition.
On the whole, animals figure in anthropology not only as objects
for human subjects to act upon but also as antitheses of all that
according to the social sciences makes humans human. The social
sciences present themselves pre-eminently as the sciences of discontinuity
between humans and animals.
There are few social scientists willing to ask what animal-human
continuity might mean in terms of their own field. Thus sociologists
do not bother about a sociology of animals. Neither do most social
scientists question the common hierarchical subject-object approach
to the human-animal relationship; least of all do they pose questions
as to the ways in which animal subjects might relate to human subjects.
Social scientists tend to treat our continuity with animals as a
purely material residue from a prehistorical past. At the most our
"animalness" (our body) is taken to have formed the material
base upon which our real "humanness" (mind, sociality,
culture, language) could arise. Our humanness is built on an animal
basis of sorts, with a vital addition.
Biological Essentialism: For Animals only
At the same time social scientists tend to be on their guard against
any form of biological essentialism. They hasten to point out the
dangers of explaining social differences between people in terms
of biological essences such as race or sex (and rightly so).
Ironically, many scientists who hold this view still gravitate
towards those essentialist positions they claim to detest
as soon as another biological category comes into view, our species
barrier. Suddenly clear-cut notions as to what is human and what
is animal crop up among anthropologists and other social scientists.
Their outspoken criticisms of those who think in terms of other
biological essences lose credibility in the face of their own assumptions
about human and animal essences. Implicitly, anthropologists do
have conceptions pertaining to a universal human essence: It seems
first and foremost to be embodied in our "non-animalness"
and in the animal's "non-humanness." But if humanness
is identical with non-animalness, then what constitutes animalness
and what are animals?
As we have noted before, hardly any social scientist shows interest
in animals for their own sake, let alone cares to ask sociological
and anthropological questions about them. Given the exclusion of
animals from their respective fields, what grounds do these social
scientists have for making such confident statements about animals,
especially about what animals are not? What conceptions do these
scientists have of animals and where did they get them?
In an earlier work (Noske, Humans and other Animals, 1989),
I described the extent to which the social scientific image of animals
and animalness has been shaped by sciences which are often denounced
as reductionist and objectifying. Such reductionism is only denounced,
however, when directed at human beings. The natural sciences, particularly
the biobehavioral sciences, are responsible for creating the current
animal image. The biobehavioral scientific characterization of animals
is presented in terms of observable traits and mechanisms thought
to be encoded in the animal's genetic make-up. Unlike genetic transmission,
human cultural transmission does not pass over the heads of the
individuals concerned. It involves the active if not always conscious
participation of the transmitters (the teachers) as well as that
of the recipients (the learners). It is not as if the former are
active and the latter passive.
Biology and ethology have somehow become the sciences of animalkind.
It is from these sciences that social scientists (the sciences of
humankind) uncritically and largely unwittingly derive their own
image of animals and animalness. Animals have become associated
with biological and genetic explanations.
This has led to an "anti-animal reaction" among scholars
in the humanities. They bluntly state that evolutionary theory is
all right for the interpretation of animals and animal actions but
not for humans. Hardly any critic of biological determinism will
stop to think whether animals indeed can be understood in narrowly
genetic and biological terms.
Many people in or allied with the social sciences err in accepting
biology's image of animals as the animal essence. They fail to appreciate
that that image of animals is a de-animalized biological construct.
The anthropocentric social sciences view their own subject matter,
humans, as animal in basis plus a vital addition. This view turns
animals automatically into reduced humans. The argument goes as
follows: If biologists and ethologists are reductionists this is
because animals, as reduced beings, prompt them to think so.
However, it may well be that animals continue to be objectified
because biologists prefer to remain reductionist and because social
scientists for their part prefer to remain anthropocentric.
Reexamining Human-Animal Continuity
Does the current image of animals really convey all there is to
animals? Having rejected the caricatures reductionists have made
of humans, why take their animal caricatures at face value?
To acknowledge human-animal continuity is not necessarily to indulge
in biological reductionism (Noske, 1989). Another obstacle to the
recognition of human-animal continuity is the fear among biologists
of being accused of anthropomorphism, the attribution of exclusively
human characteristics to animals. For their part, social scientists
have been jealously guarding what they see as the human domain and
so tend to applaud the biologists' fear of anthropomorphism. What
is currently denounced as anthropomorphism are those characterizations
which social scientists are keen to reserve for humans. In their
critique of biological determinism social scientists point an accusing
finger at anyone who credits animals with personhood. But again,
how can one know how animals differ from or are similar to humans
if one declines to ask the same questions about the two?
There are some courageous animal scientists who do say that animals
are more human-like and less object-like than their own science
will have us believe. However, they will often say such things off
the record or rather apologetically. This is understandable since
they are committing a sacrilege both from the perspective of the
animal sciences and from that of the human sciences. Those scientists
who have actually studied animals as participant observers, the
common anthropological approach to human societies, reveal a tension
in their writings between the accepted biological codes and their
own experiences with animal personhood. Jane Goodall who is working
with chimpanzees, Dian Fossey who lived and died among mountain
gorillas, the Douglas-Hamilton couple and Cynthia Moss who are living
and working among elephants, all write about touching experiences
with animal personhood. Their science cannot handle these forms
of animal reality and tends to belittle or ignore them. The animal
sciences are simply not equipped to deal with those characteristics
in animals which according to the social sciences make humans human.
Faced with the shortcomings of their own tradition a number of
dissatisfied animal scientists, such as Donna Haraway and Donald
Griffin, have called for a tentative anthropological approach to
animals. What attracts them in anthropology and particularly in
its method of participant observation is its intersubjective, nonreductionist
way of acquiring knowledge, a method contrasting strongly with the
subject-object approach applied by animal scientists in their laboratories.
Anthropologists treat the Other with respect and are wary of ethnocentrism.
Even though the Other cannot be fully known nor understood, anthropologists
have been trained to tread upon this unknowable ground with respect
rather than with disdain.
But all this pertains only to the human Other. It is curious
that scientists who have learned to beware of the dangers of ethnocentrism
so easily lapse into another kind of centrism anthropocentrism.
We are sadly stuck with two seemingly unrelated images: one of humankind
and one of animalkind conveyed by two totally separate brands of
science, the one typifying humans as social subjects, the other
typifying animals as biological objects. The newly emerging discipline
of human-animal relations will find this a formidable obstacle to
1. Correspondence should be sent to Barbara Noske, Bosboom Toussaintlaan
2 boven, 1401 CC Bussum, The Netherlands. The author has a master's
degree in cultural anthropology and a doctorate in philosophy from
the University of Amsterdam. Further discussion of the issues raised
in this comment are found in her book, Humans and other animals:
Beyond the boundaries of anthropology, London: Pluto Press,