Why I Am Not A Humanist*

i-8fe171b2eec599762455fa45e0379347-Elephant Man.jpg           Looking nonhumans in the eye.
      Image: Elephant Man by Chris Gallucci

In 1927 Bertrand Russell wrote his now famous essay "Why I Am Not A Christian" and outlined the general reasons for why he rejected such an ideology. This approach has been followed by other writers such as Ibn Warraq in Why I Am Not A Muslim, Ramendra Nath in his essay "Why I Am Not A Hindu" and David Dvorkin in his "Why I Am Not A Jew." My own choice of title is not in the same tradition as these other writers (since I agree with much of what humanism has to offer), but I do share with them a concern over how a system of thought frames peoples interactions with the world around them.

I first read Russell's essay a few years after being confirmed as a Lutheran and, of the many reasons offered for his views, it was the moral argument that stuck with me:

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of this sort into the world.

Such arguments, along with the incompatibility of evolutionary biology with the Christian tradition, led me to abandon my faith.

However, feeling incomplete without a way to define myself, I quickly came across the concept of humanism through the work of my favorite author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He had been bestowed with the honor of being honorary President of the American Humanist Association, so he clearly knew what he was talking about. In his final book before kicking the proverbial bucket, A Man Without A Country, he had this to say on what being a humanist was all about:

How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do. "If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?"

But if Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being.

I'd just as soon be a rattlesnake.

But something always sat uncomfortably with me about the term (let alone the slight to poor rattlesnakes). My studies in evolutionary biology revealed that, far from privileging humans as separate from the web of life, we were intricately interwoven within it. Furthermore, the difference between any human and any chimpanzee was less than between that chimpanzee and a gorilla. We are, in fact, the third chimpanzee, a naked ape who donned fine clothing and manners as a way to mask our animal heritage. Humanism, at least in the view of many adherents, removes supernatural justifications for human uniqueness yet emphasizes the importance of "civilized man" as something separate from mere beasts.

This aspect of humanism is discussed in the latest issue of New Humanist magazine with John Appleby's article entitled "Man & Other Beasts":

Consider Richard Dawkins. As a prominent supporter of non-religious causes his humanist credentials are impeccable. In his most recent book The Greatest Show on Earth he elegantly gathers together all the current (overwhelming) evidence that evolution is a far more reliable account of the genesis of humanity than any form of supernaturalism. He discusses how species are born; detailing the way in which most species have more in common with each other than many suppose, and how the boundaries between species are blurred rather than fixed (this is known as "biological continuism"). While such an account strengthens the first humanist thread in providing an alternative to biblical explanations of origins, it simultaneously weakens the second one, in that it undermines the idea that humans are somehow unique, let alone "superior" to other species.

Much of Appleby's article discusses the work of such theorists as Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway. I have read Foucault and Haraway the way a heron might swallow a bird: as a task that doesn't come naturally but which you choke down because you already started. As you might imagine, it wasn't very satisfying. I find much of their writing needlessly opaque and I haven't read any of the other theorists that Appleby mentions. However, I think the larger issue is an important one. Humanism is a response to theism and seeks to find a meaningful existence for our fellow human beings without the supernatural. But I prefer to have a worldview that incorporates all of the natural world.

Towards the end of his article Appleby addresses this through the work of psychologist G.A. Bradshaw in her book Elephants on the Edge. Bradshaw's study of elephants shows how neuroscience is already becoming a "trans-species discipline" and that aspects of behavior that were once thought exclusive to human beings are being found in nonhumans. In her book Bradshaw seeks to understand the behavior of rogue male elephants that display unusual aggression towards each other and odd behavior towards other species (different individuals either attempted to attack or have sex with a rhinoceros). Her conclusion is that many are displaying signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As Bradshaw wrote in the journal Nature:

How PTSD manifests has long been a puzzle, but researchers today have a better idea as to why the effects of violence persist so long after the event. Studies on animals and human genocide survivors indicate that trauma early in life has lasting psychophysiological effects on brain and behaviour. . .

Elephant society in Africa has been decimated by mass deaths and social breakdown from poaching, culls and habitat loss. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are only half a million left today. Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human PTSD: abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour and hyperaggression.

Elephants are renowned for their close relationships. Young elephants are reared in a matriarchal society, embedded in complex layers of extended family. Culls and illegal poaching have fragmented these patterns of social attachment by eliminating the supportive stratum of the matriarch and older female caretakers (allomothers).

In an earlier era, the idea that human psychological conditions could be diagnosed in other animals would have been immediately rejected by many biologists as anthropomorphism (a few may still object today, though that number is receding dramatically). The objection would have been that we can't know the psychological state of other animals so using human terms applied to them is inappropriate. While it is certainly important not to fall into the kind of crude anthropomorphism that reflexively assumes other animals experience the world the same way humans do (they don't), it is equally important to avoid what primatologist Frans de Waal has called anthropodenial. When common behaviors are the result of the same or comparable experiences in different species, it is reasonable to assume a common state of mind. This is especially true when these species are closely related to one another.

In his article Appleby points out how this trans-species commonality has traditionally been a problem for humanism, but that a more inclusive view of human beings as part of the natural world may actually help us better understand ourselves as well as our nonhuman cousins.

Thus in allowing ourselves to imagine the inner life of the elephant, to allow that they have one and that it can be scarred by the way it is treated in a way analogous to human trauma, we can develop both a deeper understanding of the quality of our relations to them and a deeper understanding of ourselves.

I'm happy to see that my humanist friends are opening their vision to incorporate other species in the qualities they admire. Rather than creating a division between "man and beast" it's far more inspiring to view all living beings as sharing a biological continuity. Understanding our "bestial" nature needn't undermine our positive qualities, if anything it can help us create conditions that limit those behaviors while emphasizing others. In the human zoo we've designed for ourselves we need all the good ideas we can muster.

*With apologies to Bertrand Russell


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Great article. You mentioned Foucault. Yes, I had trouble with him too. He's indigestible really. If you want to see something interesting, Google Chomsky Foucault debate. You'll only find 2 segments of the debate and they're glued together but it's worth it. Chomsky is amazing, as always.

I'm an atheist and a secularist so people often assume I'm a humanist as well but I've never been comfortable with some of their ideas. Thanks for summing up pretty much what I've been thinking towards.

The hypobole in the Bertrand Russell quote (although I might agree with a modified version of it) makes me sorely tempted to play devil's advocate. Even if the devil happens to be God.

Elephants are humans too! oh, wait . . .

By Physicalist (not verified) on 16 Mar 2010 #permalink

Furthermore, the difference between any human and any chimpanzee was less than between that chimpanzee and a gorilla.

Absent a definition of what you mean by "the difference", this statement is completely meaningless. What's "the difference" you're talking about here?

I was slogging through Foucault last week. I finally had to look up on Wikipedia what it was that he was supposed to be saying. I thought it was me; thanks for the vindication.

Does humanism have to be exclusive? Can we not celebrate what makes us uniquely human without refusing emotions and morality to other species?

I doubt I will get any disagreement from a fellow scientist for a claim that humans, alone among the apes, have managed to use their large cranial cases for the betterment of their species (and yes, often the detriment). Science, itself, is the triumph of humanity.

None of that means that we are anything other than much smarter, more capable apes. I don't see the two ideologies as exclusive.

Among some factions of eco-radicals, "humanism" was (and possibly still is - the friend who was my connection to such circles has moved away) shorthand for the ideologies which try to subject the needs of all the rest of the planet to the short-term growth of one species.

Oddly enough, in the literature I scanned which used such vilifications, religious questions were never raised (not counting apparently metaphorical mentions of "Gaia").

Just sayin'.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 16 Mar 2010 #permalink

@Comrade PhysioProf (#6): The standard difference cited is always a genetic measure. For example Wildman et al. (2003) used nonsynonymous DNA to arrive at the conclusion:

Humans and chimpanzees are >99.1% identical at the coding sequence level by both the measures of observed distance and ML augmented distance. In terms of observed distances, humans differ from chimpanzees by 0.9% and each differs from gorillas by 1.0%.

I also added the link above for other readers. For those who can't get beyond the paywall, National Geographic did a write up of their study here. Based on these results that humans and chimpanzees are more closely related than chimpanzees and gorillas the researchers suggested moving chimps and bonobos into the genus Homo to become Homo troglodytes and Homo paniscus respectively.

The standard difference cited is always a genetic measure. For example Wildman et al. (2003) used nonsynonymous DNA to arrive at the conclusion:

And what, pray tell, does percent identity at the nucleotide level have to do with "common states of mind"? And how is it that "humanism" is inconsistent with "view all living beings as sharing a biological continuity"?

Seems to me that you are just loosey-goosey conflating a bunch of shit in order to fool people into thinking there's more to what you're talking about than that you feel a lot of personal empathy for certain apes. It's fine if you feel that way, but don't expect to be able to just throw up a bunch of fancy-sounding diversionary bullshit and not get called on it.

@Comrade PhysioProf: I'm glad you're interested in this topic. I would encourage you to read The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond, Moral Minds by Marc Hauser and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. All are excellent introductions to what I'm talking about here and provide a good deal of peer reviewed literature in the bibliography if you want to follow up on any specific aspects of their argument. I'll still be here when you're done.

One of the advantages of calling ourselves humanists is that it lets us exclude objectivists; it advertises our liberality and altruism. Moreover, while we share much of our psychology with our fellow creatures and even some of our morality, most of our relations with other humans are derived from bargains we strike with each other, and humanism emphasizes that our laws are man-made, not god-given.

That said, I dislike the "humanist" label because it also covers two otherwise well-defined groups, scholars of the humanities and members of a particular group of Renaissance scholars. If a humanist like Thomas More could burn heretics I'd just as soon not share the appellation.

"Naturalist" is also the name of a profession; unlike "humanist" it doesn't exclude the greedy but it does exclude at least some of the mystics. It does evoke the scientific orientation that a great many of us share.

This business of labels is difficult. According to one dictionary, I don't qualify as an atheist or even necessarily an agnostic, but I can call myself a pagan, which is cool to about the extent that it is strange.

@bad Jim: I actually quite like the term "Naturalist" and it's one I prefer for myself. Like using the word gay, it's an expression whose time has largely passed for the original meaning. And, unlike atheist, it is a positive expression of how you see the world rather than saying how you don't. If I had to always list that I'm not a theist, an astrologist, an alchemist, a phrenologist, a mesmerist, etc. it would be exhausting. This way I can merely say, I think the universe is governed by natural forces and that human beings share a naturalistic relationship with other animals. Done.

This way I can merely say, I think the universe is governed by natural forces and that human beings share a naturalistic relationship with other animals.

Dude, other than for delusional wackos, this statement is a truism. Are you asserting that your argument in this post is nothing more than this?

As far as reading all those books, that's *your* job as the blogger making the claim. You are objecting to the term "humanist"--which is a *moral* label--because you feel that it unduly separates human brings from some apes. If you are asserting that human beings are more like chimpanzees in some morally salient fashion than chimpanzees are like apes, then provide some fucking evidence. Bullshitting your readers about stress reactions in elephants and nucleotide similarity in primate genomes doesn't mean jack fuck in relation to this assertion.

You are either being really, really sloppy, or you are intentionally lying about the nature of nature of your assertion and/or the evidence supporting it. Which is it?

Comrade PhysioProf: To an impartial reader such as myself, your tone isn't doing your argument any favor. Any value in the content of your message is drowned out by the inflammatory nature of your posts.

EMJ: Thanks for the interesting read. I haven't spent much time to think about these topics on my own time, but this was an intriguing starting point.

And, unlike atheist, it is a positive expression of how you see the world rather than saying how you don't.

EMJ: Indeed, but it also implies the idea that everything we do is fully caused--that contra-causal free will is illusory. Dawkins seems to prefer ducking this question, and Dennett seems to prefer to minimize its implications. It is a bit of a blow to the ego to realize that we aren't as different as we like to think we are from the ants in our backyards.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thanks for your typical laser dissection of sloppy arguments and disingenuous dodging and weaving CPP. Some of us can stay off thefainting couch long enough to percieve your points.

Homo trog. Just a pure scientific question eh? Not polluted by an agenda at all, is it? What a crock.

And the percent nucleotide similarity argument? Betrays some seriously flawed thinking about gene-phenotype relationships. In the simplest case you can have the same exact gene present in two species (% similarity!!) but another gene or promoter seq determines whether it is ever functional. Same genetic sequence, total difference in function.

By Homo interneticus (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

CPP: "If you are asserting that human beings are more like chimpanzees in some morally salient fashion than chimpanzees are like apes..." Are you saying humans are not apes?

You might want to look into David Ehrenfeld's The Arrogance of Humanism and Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals by Barbara Noske as both, taken together (and critically assessed), greatly expand upon the concepts you are dealing with here. Ehrenfeld's book in particular is entirely centered on debating the concept of "Humanism" and why he rejects the term as riddled with its own unsupportable assertions and ideological biases. It might read as slightly dated but the philosophical underpinnings of the work remain no less relevant.

I would also recommend the works of Paul Shepard, John Livingston and Neil Evernden. Paul Shepard, in particular, spent most of his career explaining the deep relationship between the development of the human species and its dependency on the animal "other", where we find ourselves and find life that is unlike as simultaneously. He felt that the marginalization of other species diminished us, intellectually, emotionally and "spiritually." I can't say that i buy his POV wholesale but his work has had a substantial effect on my own approach to questions of human identity in relation to ecosystems and the cultures we construct to mediate our needs within them.

Thanks for the article BTW. About elephants, i recall the following article several years ago in the New York Times Magazine, An Elephant Crackup?. Worth a reading.

By Chris Mullen (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

@Comrade PhysioProf (#14):

As far as reading all those books, that's *your* job as the blogger making the claim.

It's pretty clear that you didn't even bother to read the link I provided for you. If you had, your question would have been answered:

The evidence both from cladistic analyses and from simply measuring degrees of genetic correspondence call for grouping chimpanzees and humans together as sister subgenera of the same genus and justify believing that chimpanzees can provide insights into distinctive features of humankind's own evolutionary origins. Chimpanzees use tools, have material cultures, are ecological generalists, and are highly social. Their anatomical inability to produce most of the sounds of human speech long obscured the fact that chimpanzees are also capable of understanding and using rudimentary forms of language, as shown by recent studies on communication via sign language and lexigrams.

If you're not willing to do a little bit of reading on your own there's not much I can do for you. It gives the appearance that your intent is to merely criticize without understanding.

That passage you just quoted, EMJ, contains a whole passel of half-truths and poorly supported assertions. Have you evaluated the strength of the evidence on which *your* assertions, insinuations and conclusions rest?

"rudimentary" "highly" "communication" "language"

All slippery weasel words designed to create an inaccurate portrayal of the truth in people who you know won't go and read the original papers with anything resembling a critical eye. Your referenced *book* authors have a pronounced tendency to go beyond the actual evidence and, worse, to be further misinterpreted and elaborated by casual / less critical readers.

CPP's main point stands- Assuming the audience here are all good true believers in evolution, none of your "similarity" arguments are shocking or surprising. The question boils down to "how similar to humans, how different from humans?" whether we are talking about genotype or behavioral phenotype. That last 2% or 4% or wtfever of genes could mean all the difference in the world. The chasm between "communication" and "language" is a vast one, as yet uncrossed.

Telling someone to "do the reading" is just insufficient. Some of us have "done the reading" and come to a substantially different conclusion than you do. The solution is to take your assertions point-by-point and evaluate the evidence. Since people are reading these words via interaction with a series of tools created by humans, perhaps you can start with the evidence for tool use and creation of increasingly complex tools using other tools.

CPP: "If you are asserting that human beings are more like chimpanzees in some morally salient fashion than chimpanzees are like apes..." Are you saying humans are not apes?

No, I'm not saying that; I mistyped apes when I meant gorillas. It was in reference to this assertion in the OP: "Furthermore, the difference between any human and any chimpanzee was less than between that chimpanzee and a gorilla."

The argument you're trying to make about how we are "closer to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas" based on genetic similarity is frankly bogus.

Imagine that we at some point met a sentient alien life form that had almost no genetic relation to us (assuming for the sake of argument that it had DNA at all). Would you then claim that because of that there is no chance of it being deserving of the moral considerations we would normally apply to other human beings?

No of course, it's a ridiculous argument. Our perceptions of what is sentient, or failing that, "somewhat like us" and deserving of ethical considerations is not related to the degree that our genes happen to be similar.

Might as well be honest about that.


Since people are reading these words via interaction with a series of tools created by humans, perhaps you can start with the evidence for tool use and creation of increasingly complex tools using other tools.

Here's a recent post at Science discussing the use of "toolkits" by chimpanzees. They point out that chimpanzees have not yet been observed using tools to make other tools in the wild, which suggests something that is unique in humans. However, given that one benchmark for human uniqueness after another has been torn down over the years I wouldn't hold my breath about this one either.

You may also be interested in the paper "Continuing Investigations into the Stone Tool-making and Tool-using Capabilities of a Bonobo (Pan paniscus)" by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Given that a bonobo, Kanzi, was able to be taught to flintknap it suggests that this is not beyond the cognitive abilities of other chimpanzees or bonobos in the wild.

However, even if it is, my point about biological continuity isn't affected in the slightest (and thanks for helping to emphasize my point about anthropodenial).

Wow, maybe it's just me, but it seems like everyone here is making up what the post is about to go all fuck-nuts about the possibility of animals being *gasp* close to us! Okay, for example, look at the analogy Coriolis wrote. He's saying the exact fucking opposite of what the post is about! EMJ basically says, "chimps are pretty fucking close to us and have a lot of traits that we might call 'human,' so maybe we should treat them with a bit of respect." So Coriolis says that that must mean that EMJ thinks that everything out there that doesn't share our genes is therefore NOT deserving of our respect. Sorry, I'm not following that logic.

Honestly, I don't get why this is even controversial. Look at a gorilla, a chimp, and person. Is it really that crazy to think our genes are closer to a chimp's genes than his are to a gorilla's? No, it certainly doesn't mean that a chimp is 10% "more human" than a gorilla, it just means that the chimp is a little closer to our genes than he is to the gorilla's genes. End of story. Manufactured controversy unnecessary.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

I will admit that I am unfamiliar with the literature on this one, but when you claim that non-human animals have been diagnosed with the same "psychological" illnesses as humans, what does that mean?

Many of our diagnostic language for psychologic disorders is inexact, and much of it is based as much on our and our patients' perception of meaning as it is on observable behavior. Much of what we think about as mental illness in humans is diagnosed symbolically ("he is behaving as if he believes..."). How close are our analogies in non-human animals? What would it mean to diagnose an elephant with "PTSD"? Is it the same disorder biochemically, behaviorally, and psychologically as it is in humans?

This sort of thinking betrays not only a naivete about animal behavior but a profound misunderstanding of human mental illness.

@rob monkey

I don't think it's particularly controversial to say that non-human apes share a number of important emotionally- and psychologically-appealing characteristics. From a purely subjective viewpoint, I find apes quite fascinating, and to the extent their behaviors resemble ours, I feel a kinship.

I also think kittens are very cute.

Both kittens and apes "deserve respect", whatever that may mean in an operational sense. But what is the ultimate goal of statements such as Eric's? Even a child can see the "appeal" of chimps. But what does that mean?

I suspect, based on Eric's earlier piece, that the primary implication is for animal research. I can't see a whole lot of other relevant implications, other than conservation which most people can also agree on.

And the unwritten question is how would being a "nonhumanist" affect our thoughts and behaviors? If it's "us or the damn, dirty apes" who wins?


non-human animals have been diagnosed with the same "psychological" illnesses as humans, what does that mean?

It means just what it says in Nature:

Under normal conditions, early motherâinfant interactions facilitate the development of self-regulatory structures located in the corticolimbic region of the brain's right hemisphere. But with trauma, an enduring right-brain dysfunction can develop, creating a vulnerability to PTSD and a predisposition to violence in adulthood. Profound disruptions to the attachment bonding process, such as maternal separation, deprivation or trauma, can upset psychobiological and neurochemical regulation in the developing brain, leading to abnormal neurogenesis, synaptogenesis and neurochemical differentiation. The absence of compensatory social structures, such as older generations, can also impede recovery.

I have a number of questions regarding some of the assumptions in that, but one quick question: how did they define right brain dysfunction? Synaptogeneses? Etc?

And if we are to posit these results are accurate, what does it mean re humans? I suppose it gives us something to look for in analogous human situations, like....i dunno. I mean, what is "PTSD" (a syndrome, not pathologically defined disease) in elephants? Do humans develop a predisposition to violence in the same way as animals?

Violence in animals is natural, often adaptive. In humans it may be sometimes, but our social constraints..er..constrain it.

I smell absurdity.


Violence in animals is natural, often adaptive. In humans it may be sometimes, but our social constraints..er..constrain it.

And they don't in other animals? I'm not as familiar with the literature on elephants, but in primates the use of aggression is often mediated by social structure. Disruptions in that social structure can then result in aberrant behaviors. The different behavioral norms (or "culture") of a particular group can also curtail what would be considered "species typical behavior." Robert Sapolsky described a great example of this in baboons a few years ago (free access here):

[T]uberculosis, a disease that moves with devastating speed and severity in nonhuman primates, broke out in Garbage Dump Troop. Over the next year, most of its members died, as did all of the males from Forest Troop who had foraged at the dump. . .

The results were that Forest Troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio. The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before: compared with other, more typical savanna baboon groups, high-ranking males rarely harassed subordinates and occasionally even relinquished contested resources to them. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other - a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

@PalMD: Hmm, to elaborate, I guess I'd say that animals that share more of our characteristics deserve more respect. Maybe that's humanist of me? :) Really though, I don't think this is a stretch. I keep my pet froggy in a terrarium and occasionally feed him crickets, that's about it. If I kept my dog in his roomy kennel and fed him regularly, but did nothing else, I'd say I would be abusing him, as dogs need companionship, stimulation, etc. I work in pharmaceuticals, and we provide Disney movies for the non-human primates to watch, but the rats just stay in cages. Why do we provide stimulation to the "higher" animals in this case? Because it keeps the animals happy, and that means better data, since psychologically stressed animals exhibit behavioral and medical problems that would be confused with side effects of the treatment. Granted, I may differ from Eric's position on animal research (obviously I'm for it), but I think there's room for his ideas within the standard IACUC framework.

I love how you got to the "eventual goal" of his/my ideas, I think that's something sorely missing from a LOT of debates out there. I will say though, that conservation isn't really something people agree on. Sensible people yes, but there's Republicans out there too, and if that rainforest could make a nice parking lot, then well . . . That's kind of OT though, my main idea is that there's definitely room for respecting animals, and respecting their similarities to us is a decent way to start. That being said, I'm firmly against going Full Retard (e.g., PETA membership) in terms of animal rights.

As to the last questions you had, well, it's the same old problem with psychology, i.e., it doesn't lend itself well to hard cold diagnostics. If you look up some of the psych experiments out there on animals though, you can see a lot of good examples. The "learned helplessness" experiments on dogs are a great example of using an animal model for depression. As to the "violence being adaptive idea," well some could say that would justify sociopaths as being "more fit" than others, but that would just be people who don't understand that evolution is more than just survival of the fittest. If elephants are not normally violent in this way and it's a new behavior never before seen, I don't think it's unreasonable to think it's a negative reaction to what's happened to their population and social structure, especially since I can't quite figure out how being violent and/or raping rhinos is evolutionarily beneficial.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm not sure how well learned helplessness has worked out in understanding human psychology.

Well, my education in psych was pretty basic (3 or 4 undergrad classes) so I can't really go balls-out-confident on you that is has, but it was my understanding that it was important. Even if it wasn't though, I think it does show a good example of a psychological problem in a lower animal, one that couldn't be necessarily proven with a definitive lab test, but one that an animal behavior scientist (or even attentive non-scientist) would understand.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

I would agree that their are many complex behaviors that we can identify in animals that are analogous to human behaviors. We somewhat subjectively endow these behavior with meanings, but we are unsure what these behaviors mean in humans, much less animals.

This doesn't mean they aren't worth studying...it means we need to be careful ascribing the same meaning to similar behaviors in animals and humans.

Finding correlations between neuroanatomy and behavior is very interesting (and probably not all that good for the elephant), but even with analogous anatomic changes, we must be careful not to over-ascribe.

Honestly, I think most of our difference lies in just what we're trying to emphasize here. I'll be upfront, I don't view humans as anything particularly special in the animal world, i.e., I don't think humans possess some magical property that makes them far beyond animals. Our brains are astounding yes, but in my mind, the complex behaviors we see in animals are the rudimentary versions of the same thing we see in ourselves. Just as we have the "reptilian brain" flight or flight reflex despite being far beyond reptiles in terms of brainpower, I think the behaviors we see in animals that we find "human" are more likely behaviors we share with animals. Not to say I don't see the point that we shouldn't overly anthropomorphize things either. In the case of PTSD and elephants, I can see how classifying it with the name of a human disorder kind of muddies the waters, but I do find it pretty logical that they would eventually show behavioral effects after what's happened to their species, especially given their large and involved family structure.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

CPP: Which animals do you use in your research lab? Or tissues thereof? Full disclosure. Right now. Or shut the fuck up.

CPP: I accept your comment for what it is. Someday you will accept your comment for what it is as well. When that happens, you too can feel terribly embarassed for yourself.

It just so happens that I have very recently written a post which touches on the physiology behind the feelings of xenophobia. It is feelings of xenophobia, that compel humans to treat individuals that they have identified as insufficiently like them as inferiors to be maltreated.


Genetic similarity has a role in this, but identical twins could feel xenophobia toward each other depending on how they were raised. Greg mentions the religious conflict in Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants in one of his posts. The two groups are virtually identical genetically, but have tremendous antipathy due to cultural differences. The conflict in the Middle East between Jews in Israel and Muslims in Palestine is similar, very similar genetics, complete antipathy on a cultural level.

Feelings of xenophobia are feelings. There is essentially no rational or cognitive component to them. The feelings come first, the rationalizations of the feelings come second. How one feels and how one acts are two completely different things which may have no relationship to one another. When one's feelings and actions do not coincide, there is cognitive dissonance, which tends to cause a modification of feelings until they do coincide. This is why torturing people leads the torturers to feel they are doing the right thing, and that the objects of their torture somehow deserve it. It is a pure post-hoc justification of actions by modifying feelings.

With this understanding, it is the recognition of self-like characteristics in elephants that provide them with sufficient self-ness that they become organisms that trigger bad feelings when they are harmed. It is not necessarily human-like or human-ness that triggers the absence of xenophobia.

Many people do have positive feelings toward non-human animals, some individuals feel that way even toward non-mammals, toward large reptiles such as monitors, or large non-social animals like bears. People who anthropomorphize large non-social animals like bears are projecting social behaviors on them, social behaviors that bears are incapable of.

CPP, could you please be a little less aggressive in your tone and language. You're actually making some good points, but your choice of words obscures it.

Animal research is one of those areas in science where we do have to draw lines around what is and isn't acceptable, and as with any legal/ethical lines these are usually to some degree arbitrary. Among the pro-animal research scientists I've talked to invasive research* involving non-human great apes is always seen as borderline. Some consider it to be acceptable for research on serious conditions such as HepC where there are no alternatives for some studies, others believe that great apes should not be used for invasive research except on the same basis that we would undertake research on a non-consenting human. I tend to agree with the first group but would be happy to see invasive chimp research disappear entirely if for example it was no longer needed for HepC research.

Almost every scientists I've met acknowledges that there is a gradient in sentience, capacity to suffer etc among animals and that should be reflected in the regulations that cover animal research, and perhaps the great apes should be put on a level closer to that of our own species. Getting all shouty doesn't help in a debate where the various points and interests are so finely balanced, I know it's your house style and all but from some of the posts you put up here I can tell you that your argument works better when you leave off the swearing.

Greg Laden, what does CPP's own research have to do with this? It might be relevent if he was doing research with chimpanzees but I seriously doubt that is the case.

By the way Coriolis makes a good point about not putting too much faith in genetic closeness as a measure of how similar a species is to us. You don't even have to go to outer space for examples, whales and elephants have more in common with us in terms of self awareness and social behavior rhan the more closely related rats and mice do. To look at another example we don't give basic human rights to early human embryos, even though they are 100% identical to us at a genetic level, because they lack many of the other characteristics we associate with personhood.

* I would add that I don't really count taking the occasional blood sample as invasive.

CPP, could you please be a little less aggressive in your tone and language. You're actually making some good points, but your choice of words obscures it.

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Dude, you're kidding, right?

@MikeB: "CPP, could you please be a little less aggressive in your tone and language. You're actually making some good points, but your choice of words obscures it.
AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Dude, you're kidding, right?"

Apparently he can't. Although I tend to agree with his arguments, he clearly has the mentality of a 5-year old: "Bad words sound funny and make me look special! People pay more attention to me when I use them! Woohoo!"

I think what Greg is asking for is the foundation on which CPP builds his moral structure(s), and how those moral structures inform CPP as to what types of animals can be morally used in experimental research.

CPP has asked for âmorally salientâ similarities regarding humans, primates, elephants and other organisms. Greg is asking for examples of organisms that CPP feels have sufficient morally salient differences such that experimentation on them is acceptable.

There are two parts to this, first; what differences and similarities are present and/or absent, and second; how are those similarities and differences morally salient.

EMJ seems to be saying that the ability to exhibit a mental state analogous to PTSD following exposure to trauma is a sufficiently morally salient property that renders elephants sufficiently similar to other organisms with that property that elephants should be treated a certain way.

What this really comes down to is what is the definition of âmorally salientâ? Is it having more than 99.4% DNA similarity? Is it being able to exhibit things like PTSD?

In my blog post I try to argue that the âmoral salienceâ that EMJ and CPP are talking about is really being on the âhuman sideâ of the uncanny valley. If you are on the human side of the uncanny valley, then you are perceived to be âhuman enoughâ so that gratuitous harm causes feelings of distress in others that are on that side of the uncanny valley and so everyone on the human side of the uncanny valley should be treated nice.

The problem is, the location of the uncanny valley is based on feelings. There is no arbitrary way of determining where the location of the uncanny valley actually is. There are actually many humans that are on the opposite side. To an Anti-Semite, Jews are on the other side and are not human enough to treat well. To the Tea Baggers, Obama is on the other side. To Glen Beck, Bruce Springsteen is on the other side. To Liz Cheney, lawyers who defended Guantanamo detainees are on the other side. To Pro-lifers, fertilized eggs are on the human side, people who consider abortion acceptable are not.

@daedalus2u: Nailed it, especially the part about some groups considering other groups on the other side of the valley. But this is beyond the topic. We were discussing humanism and some people felt like EMJ had hidden motives about his post.

I apreciate that the discussion was about humanism, but unless the discussion reaches to and informs behavior, it is rather abstract and disconnected from reality.

With EMJ, Comrade PhysioProf, and Greg Laden it's familiar academic personality types on parade:

EMJ: The young white knighter building up social capital through moralistic onanism.

CPP: The accomplished pro who thinks that his credentials entitle him to be a tempermental pottymouth. He'll keep getting away with it, so kudos to him.

Laden: Sanctimonious greybeard nostalgic for his activist student days. (And who knew what an animal rightist he was?! Gee whiz.)

@daedalus2u: I may be wrong on this but why does the discussion necessarily have to lead to action? There are plenty of posts on SB which are discussions only and are not meant to incite any action. Pretty much everything posted in Physics is "abstract and disconnected from reality" in the sense that it does not incite any action. Galaxies are light years apart. I'm totally going to do activism on that.

The way I see it EMJ's post was simply a discussion on humanism. It was not meant to incite action of any kind. I do not see where, as PalMD and CPP are proposing, he has made a statement about animal rights (even implicitly). As a primatologist, it's kind of obvious he would post stuff on... I don't know... primates? It seems to me like those who jumped on him here are in fact voicing their disagreement over what EMJ has said on other posts. If that is true, their opinions should be disregarded as void since they do not contribute to this discussion but to other discussions. Again, just my opinion.

You dumbfucks have put a lot of words in my mouth. I haven't asserted jack fuck on this thread other than that EMJ is full of shit, and I certainly haven't taken any position whatsoever on animal rights, animal research, or anyfuckingotherthing.

I correct my mistake. CPP has indeed not mentioned animal rights/experiments anywhere in this thread. PalMD has, however, here:

"I suspect, based on Eric's earlier piece, that the primary implication is for animal research."

As I mentioned on his post (Ping! above), to me this sounds pretty much like a conspiracy theory. The title (Why I am not a humanist) and the piece focus on humanism. In some places, EMJ has discussed research on elephants, monkeys, etc, but this is not the focus of the piece. Don't believe me? What about the parts on Russell, Vonnegut, Foucault, etc? How are they a setup for animal rights/research? It's amazing how nobody criticizing here had a problem with those parts. Most of the criticism focused on the difference between humans and chimps and PTSD in elephants.

Now that all the hoopla over what I "intended" with this post has died down I can reveal the truth. My essay at The Huffington Post on the incompatibility of religion and science had just been posted and I wanted anyone who linked back here to have a similarly themed piece to read. Appleby's article had just been published and I thought, "Hey, that works."

I quite like the humanists. But everything I expressed are the reasons why I decided that this perspective wasn't enough for me. Humans are wonderful and I'm very fond of them, but our arrogance makes us think we're the only species that matters.