A Question of Personhood

January 12, 2016 Rachel Littler

“A Question of Personhood” is the first of a two-part series. 


‘The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated’– Mahatma Gandhi.

These words are an important starting point, but as a globally-connected species who are increasingly facing the effects of climate change and extinction of species, we need to look beyond the greatness of just a single nation. Instead, we need to consider that the greatness of our species– not just a single nation- can be judged by the way we treat the other animals we share the planet with.


A Question of Intelligence

Many societies accept as truth that human beings are more ‘intelligent’ than other animals. However, the term ‘intelligent’ is highly subjective given that there isn’t a consistent, accurate way of definitively assessing what constitutes intelligence across members of our own species, let alone that of our species versus another; an IQ test is not an accurate or consistent method for quantifying intelligence as it examines a very narrow spectrum of a person’s ability and doesn’t factor in their social or emotional intelligence, both of which have proven to be  important components in human evolution.

When we consider that humans live in societies which require a significant degree of co-operation (and that our evolutionary success as a species has depended on collaborating as a group to problem-solve and improve), it becomes clear that attributes such as social intelligence are equally important as the ability to solve a complex mathematical problem in order to be successful. Many other animal species, such as cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises), pachyderms (elephants, rhinoceros and hippopotamus) and primates demonstrate the ability to plan and organise amongst themselves to achieve optimal outcomes for finding food, water, territory etc. It would be naive to think that humans don’t share these base needs and that these aren’t played out in the societies we live in. For example, bonus schemes at a corporate job leverage our ability to work together as a group to achieve better results more efficiently than an individual would. The spoils are then shared amongst the group as a reward which can be used to buy things like food, water, or better shelter. Likewise, transient orcas can work as a group to create waves to wash seals off of ice floes and into the water where the whales can reap the rewards of their teamwork and feed on the seal. Another poignant example of orca teamwork can be seen during the round-ups SeaWorld carried out in the 1970’s where hunters tried to capture the members of a pod of orca but the pod split in half to protect the mothers and calves, so whilst they fled, the other group diverted the spotter planes and boats around the other side of the island.

There are so many examples of qualities which we share with other species that we need to move beyond theorizing that this is purely anecdotal.

Emotionally, we share much in common with other animal species who, like ourselves, can recount upsetting or happy occasions and can have an emotional reaction years later when they visit somewhere, see someone or smell something which triggers a memory. For example, elephants return to places where members of their herd have died, as if mourning the event. They also have rich cultural traditions, as Graham Spence describes in ‘The Last Rhinos’, co-authored with Lawrence Anthony. At the end of the novel, Anthony has passed away but Spence notes that the elephants still cross the river with their newborns to show them to Anthony. This was a tradition they created with him whilst he was alive, and even though they know he is no longer with them, they continue the tradition. Like elephants, dolphins and whales will remember their relationships with individual humans. This indicates that they understand that we are individuals who have selves, as they do. They make assessments of who they prefer, who can be good or bad or neutral, depending on the person. Similarly, crows recognise the faces of individual humans and will pass that knowledge on to their offspring. There are so many examples of qualities which we share with other species that we need to move beyond theorising that this is purely anecdotal.

It is becoming more widely acknowledged that other animals are acutely aware of their own existence. In  ‘Striper Wars’, author Dick Russell describes how he and other fishermen combined forces to save the Striper Bass from extinction. They each recounted a similar story of how it seemed that the fish was not fooled by lures and tackles so when it did get caught, it was choosing to give itself to the fisherman. This idea of other animals making decisions about their lives as we humans do is also examined at length in Nasady’s essay ‘The Gift in The Animal’, which discusses the relationship between human hunters and the animal species they are in pursuit of. Nasady notes that some hunters describe a feeling that the animal chooses to give itself to them. This is particularly common amongst indigenous tribes or people who rely on hunting as part of their diet, therefore experiencing more of these encounters.

With all of this in mind, it seems hard for a self-described ‘intelligent’ species like humanity to refute that there isn’t more at play here. We ought to accept the fact that perhaps we’re not alone in our emotional and cognitive complexity.


The Human Ego

The cultural values of many modern human societies are anthropocentric, enshrining the value of the ego, the ‘I’ or the self: in my individual world, my needs and my desires are more important than anyone else’s. Many people living in societies where religion has ingrained the belief that humans have been made in the image of God and have a soul (but animals do not), have formed elaborate social constructs around the value of the ego. For example, things like getting enough ‘me-time’ are seen as priorities. Human needs and desires are placed above all other animal species because we perceive ourselves to be a manifestation of God. Other animals who live in communities often have an ‘I’, but are also ‘selves-in-community’ and understand their identity in the context of the group, as well as their individual self- as discussed by Barbara Smuts in her article ‘Encounters with Animal Minds’.

Perhaps we can surmise that our individual self was less emphasized long ago when we lived in small, close-knit groups- as many animal communities and indigenous tribes still do – because this self-centeredness would not be beneficial to the success of the group.

Perhaps we can surmise that our individual self was less emphasized long ago when we lived in small, close-knit groups- as many animal communities and indigenous tribes still do – because this self-centeredness would not be beneficial to the success of the group, and in a time when success as an individual would have been hard. However, the advent of modern technology has minimized the reasons we need for living in a community and working as a group. For example, I don’t need to get my friends and family together to go and hunt dinner because the mechanization of tasks, factory farming and global agriculture means that I can just pop to the supermarket and buy a ready meal or all of the ingredients I need, in one place and prepared. I can then rapidly make it using tools and electrical appliances to cook it within minutes. I also don’t need to share tools, food or shelter with others or request their help to access shelter because I have money to rent my own apartment. I’m less likely to need to be in a group to guarantee my security because I live indoors. There are no apex predators who can attack me and there are police, CCTV cameras, locks on doors and burglar alarms to help ensure my safety.

As part of this dialogue, it is important to also consider the psychological impact which living indoors, away from nature and from our traditional communities, actually has. Mechanization of tasks and urbanization accelerated a breakdown in traditional communities as people moved to cities and started to live away from familial relatives. In a human or other-than-human animal tribe, physical closeness, combined with spending a lot of time together to achieve common goals of bringing back food or making tools or boats together cements a bond- one which is made up of these shared experiences and strengthened over time. The sharing of experiences is fundamental to our survival and well-being in a communal environment. This isn’t definitive of us as a species but is common across cetaceans, primates, pachyderms and other animal species which live communally. Like other species, creating shared customs and rituals also helps to knit our communities together. Religion, with its many celebrations and ceremonies, is one of the last vestiges of this in the West. It could perhaps be argued that education, small companies and social media are representative of close-knit communities with shared cultures and rituals. But these are poor replacements when we consider that education and work environments can be both highly impersonal and competitive environments- no matter what the size of the organization- as many people have vested interests. Likewise, replacing physical human interaction with virtual communities does not seem sufficient enough to fulfill our emotional and physical needs as there is no physical presence to it, making it sometimes feel sterile. After a while, a virtual relationship will go stale unless the participants meet in person. The internet is a great conduit to being able to physically meet someone, but it cannot replace the understanding and bond we gain with someone merely from being physically in their presence.  

People started to live and eat alone or in small groups of people who aren’t related to them. Many people who still live in small communities comment on how sparse, hostile and impersonal Western cities feel. We may have forged a more global society where humans can connect instantly with each from across the planet but we are a social animal, hardwired for working in groups and our artificial world doesn’t cater as well for this.


Manifest Destiny and Entitlement

Native American village communities were once dotted across the vast continent now known as America. However, when European settlers arrived, they saw a land which was not yet colonised, ripe for the picking. The land was bounteous and free from the tyrannous rule of traditional monarchy. As far as some of the Europeans were concerned, the land was theirs to be settled and they were entitled to benefit from its plenty. Their perceived entitlement to take land and animals for their own can perhaps be linked to not only ‘manifest destiny’, but also to how the settlers interpreted biblical scripture.

Manifest destiny refers to the European settler’s belief that it was their God-given right and their divine destiny to expand across America and claim the land as their own. This belief was further validated by the smallpox epidemic, which wiped out entire Native American villages. Some settlers took this as a sign that God was making way for them. Even some of the Native Americans themselves began to believe that the white Christian God must be somehow more powerful when they saw that their own medicine men could not protect themselves- let alone their communities- from the disease. 

The long-term reverberations of this ‘entitlement’ to rule and to own can be felt today in a world which is facing the collapse of whole species, broken ecosystems and displaced peoples and animals, driven by a desire to expand and conquer.

In an immediate sense, the nasty side effect of manifest destiny was the spread of illnesses, the persecution of Native Americans and the battles which ensued for more desirable land. The long-term reverberations of this ‘entitlement’ to rule and to own can be felt today in a world which is facing the collapse of whole species, broken ecosystems and displaced peoples and animals, driven by a desire to expand and conquer. The dodo was declared extinct in 1662, with the population having been devastated due to the greed of human hunters, yet 350 years later, we can still see manifest destiny in action. We can now count on one hand the number of Northern White rhino alive (however, living in captivity); fox hunting still occurs but a blind eye is turned (despite being illegal) because it is practiced by people with money and power in the name of sport, glory and tradition; countries still subject whales, dolphins and elephants to life in tanks and chains, mistreated in order to produce the tricks which are most pleasing to their human audience but often resulting in the macabre deaths of animals and trainers due to psychological, emotional or physical issues or accidents; bears are still farmed for their bile, kept in tiny crush-cages or metal corsets with open wounds from the insertion of tubes into their liver- all because of traditional medicines which demand bear bile as an ingredient for medicines with no scientific founding. Perhaps we can trace these issues back to how we have suppressed and obliterated human-persons and other-than-human persons in a mission to expand and multiply or to meet our self-serving needs and desires because of our belief that it is acceptable in God’s eyes.

For a long time, particular groups of people and individuals have pillaged the more-than-human world, treating other animals as resources and nature as an ever-flowing bounty. We are only now starting to grasp the limits; we can guess at some of the repercussions of wiping out a species and we understand that other animals can feel physical and emotional pain. Yet, we continue with the destruction as though it were mandated from above. Are we so selfish that we can’t stomach any initial cost that a change in mentality might have, but which is more ethically and logically sound?



Below is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Transcendentalist writer and poet who was born and lived in America from the early to late 1800’s.

Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul. Yet although low, it is perfect in its kind, and is the only use of nature which all men apprehend. The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? This zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.

More servants wait on man than he’ll take notice of.

This section of ‘Nature’ discusses how Emerson’s society perceived other animals and the wilderness. Worryingly, the classification of nature in monetary values is, if anything, more prevalent today with commodification and capitalism having increased exponentially. A lot of conservation efforts discuss the monetary value of an animal, or the ecological benefit a species holds in its respective ecosystem and the impact that reduced numbers or even extinction of the species would have on the rest of the food chain. It is easier for a society who measures value in money to relate to the monetary value an animal has, but this is ephemeral and therefore a poor measure in terms of long-term sustainability of that animal population.

Personhood is one of the most important factors for stabilizing and entrenching a new ethical paradigm long-term as a social value because it transcends treating animals as something we can milk, kill, fight or put to work for money.

Emerson highlights the timeless value which the more-than-human world has for the soul. It is often the case that people look to the wilderness to reconnect, or adopt an animal companion for company, to complete their family or share their lives with to feel more whole. The relationships people have with their dogs, cats, birds and other creatures can be akin to or even more poignant than the relationships they have with human beings. There are many examples where the animal companion of an elderly person has passed away and their bond has been so close that the elderly person has passed away soon after, as if a spouse or human loved one had died.

Personhood is one of the most important factors for stabilizing and entrenching a new ethical paradigm long-term as a social value because it transcends treating animals as something we can milk, kill, fight or put to work for money. If our perception of the importance of other animals hinges on the money we will make from keeping an animal population alive, protection will not endure. Solely attributing financial value is not a positive reinforcer for long-term conservation whereas typically, once something is enshrined as a cultural value, people will protect and encourage things which allow that value to flourish. If we enshrine our kinship and personhood with other animals, the mechanisms which facilitate this can be better supported, helping to secure nonhuman personhood standing for other animals in our cultural consciousness.

Ultimately, we need to stop correlating an animal’s value to how similar it is to us or how many tourist dollars it brings in a year. At present, these serve as semi-useful stepping stones to getting certain species protected at least initially, but do not provide a stable basis for long-term protection if our fundamental attitude towards other animals and to how we relate to them is unchanged.