Human and Non-human Animals

by Natalie Porter

This week’s situated seminar on human and nonhuman animals took place at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where we discussed John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1980), and Gail Davies’ “What is a Humanized Mouse?” Body & Society (forthcoming).

Museum of Natural History, OxfordAmy Hinterberger explained to us that the museum has been an important site for both entrenching and dismantling nature-culture, human-animal distinctions. Established in 1855, the museum sought to promote the study of natural history in a curriculum weighted toward the humanities. Thirty years later, the Pitt Rivers ethnological collection was erected in an adjacent building. Proximate yet distinct, these spaces reflected a nineteenth century emphasis on separating the domain of God (nature) from that of man (anthropology).

But this separation has proven difficult to uphold, and as early as 1860 the museum became a venue for reformulating the relationship between humans, animals and the divine. Here, in a debate on Darwinian evolution, Thomas Huxley famously told Bishop Samuel Wilberforce that he had:

No need to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather, but that he would be ashamed of having for an ancestor a man of restless and versatile interest who distracts the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digression and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

One hundred and fifty years later our relationship to nonhuman animals remains open to critical reflection and reformulation. In Berger’s piece we find nostalgia for an “unspeaking companionship” between humans and animals, which he suggests has been lost in zoological displays. Berger promotes anthropomorphism as a means to recapture proximity between species, and to bring animals back from the margins. Davies considers anthropomorphism of a different kind. In her investigation of human-animal chimeras, humanization is less about recuperating lost relationships than establishing new ones. The humanized mouse is a species remade, an experimental object that reproduces the human immune system for biomedical research and drug testing.

Why only look at animals?Our discussion touched on themes of likeness and unlikeness, space and context, and species mixing at different scales. Davies shows how translational medicine maximizes overlaps between species to create opportunities on multiple scales. Humanized mice promise everything from personalized medical therapies to global research collaborations. This seems a departure from nonmedical sectors (sanitation, agriculture), where human-animal differences are maximized for productive ends.

Given this diversity, we questioned the utility of Berger’s anthropomorphism as a way to bring animals back from the margins. How do discourses of human rights and animal rights map onto each other? And how might placing animals in the role of ‘victim’ occlude their capacity to resist and respond? Indeed, anthropomorphism suggests an asymmetry in getting to know the other. Are there other ways of engaging with animals that do not involve recourse to humanity? Yes, but we should be wary of efforts to capture any pure or untrammeled animal aura. After all, are dolphins in petting pools less authentic than their ocean-dwelling relatives? Should meerkats be indifferent to human observation?

Questions surrounding the terms of engagement between species resonate with efforts to define relationships between observer and observed. Here, examples from artificial intelligence may prove instructive. In the same way that humans have been distinguished from animals by their capacity for language, the threshold of AI hinges on a machine’s ability to create discourse. But does an emphasis on communication again risk asymmetry, wherein estimations of proximity are conditioned by human perceptions of the other?

Finally, we asked how useful human-animal distinctions are with regard to chimeras, where species mixing occurs at the cellular scale. Humanization here manifests in biology rather than behavior. Likeness and unlikeness is mediated not by language or ancestry, but rather by cellular lineage and design. What does this mean, then, for the separation between natural history and anthropology? Will the humanized mouse end up next to the strokeable pony, or alongside the ethnological artifact?

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

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