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While Mazlish ably describes four major challenges to human identity from the sixteenth century to the contemporary era, there are many additional developments in the decentering process and human identity formation that are important to highlight and thematize [9].


Many of the conceptual breakthroughs and revolutions in the last half century relate to a deepening understanding of animal minds and our own animality. The fact is that only since has humanity begun to understand the forces of life and their origins and nature at all. Mythology, religion, philosophy, and science all contributed to constructing myths, distortions, and false consciousness that failed to grasp the organic emergence of Homo sapiens in evolutionary processes.

Archaeology dates back only to the late s, and it did not become a systematic science until after World War II. Humans had virtually no conception of apes until the late nineteenth century, and accounts from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries describe gorillas as dangerous degenerates, beast-men, or monsters.

In the eighteenth century writers such as Lord Monboddo believed that the great apes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans were races of primitive people ignorant of the ways of speech. Growing acquaintance with their physiology and behaviors, however, began to subvert human belief in their own uniqueness as it became increasingly obvious that primates were our closest biological relatives and that humans were part of an animal continuum and evolutionary process.

Animal cognition

Gradually or fitfully, the process has continued ever since. Philosopher Raymond Corbey describes the threat and challenge posed to human identity with the discovery of the great apes:. Apart from a progressing modernisation and secularisation and the growing influence of the natural sciences, a crucial factor which led to the profound change in the North Atlantic way of seeing the world was the discovery and the study of the apes and the early apelike hominides. Finally, it was no longer theology with its creation story which gave humanity its position within nature but the development of evolution.

Anthropomorphism: how much humans and animals share is still contested

These newly discovered creatures, similar to humans but yet animals, turned out to be our closest relatives and therefore threatened traditional and well loved beliefs of human God-likeness and uniqueness. Nevertheless, the sacrosanct boundary between humans and animals which determined who could be owned, who could be killed, who could be eaten was not given up but redrawn.

The exclusively human area was vigorously defended and again and again redefined … [it is important to describe] the involuntary withdrawal from former beliefs of human uniqueness which have been challenged over and over again by debates on apes. As the study of organisms in their relation to one another and their environment, ecology is an inherently holistic outlook that contextualizes the origin and nature of human animals within a larger web of life.

Yet, whereas humans arrogantly assume they live in technological castles that hover above the natural world, ecology showed that they in fact are an extension and part of nature and are deeply interdependent on an inconceivably complex system of relationships. The earthworm, dung beetle, butterfly, and bacteria are far more crucial for the dynamics of the Earth than humans who, indeed, at this critical point in their social evolution are a destructive and disruptive force threatening all life systems of the planet.

At the beginning of the twentieth century it was believed that a large brain was the initial step and driving force of human evolution, a falsehood encouraged with the hoax of the Piltdown man. Only in the s and more fully in the s did anthropologists discover more australopithecine fossils in Africa and thereby begin to understand that our earliest ancestors were more like non-human primates than modern humans. Archaeology bears direct relation on the construction of species identity.

Why exclude still earlier generations of human ancestors? Why not include Ardepithecus ramidus , an apelike hominid capable of upright walking 4.

Human brains compared to other animals

Or chimpanzees? How and where does one draw the line between human and nonhuman? Are there objective, non-arbitrary grounds for delineation? Not until , when Jane Goodall made her historic journey to Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Africa did human beings possess even a rudimentary understanding of the higher apes, specifically the chimpanzee. Such discoveries, in addition to the genetic confirmation of our evolutionary closeness to chimpanzees, are crucial for any informed discussion of human nature and identity.

In the s and s, researchers began to pioneer the genetic sciences and technologies that would prove crucial for an adequate understanding of human evolution. Linnaeus, Darwin, and others recognized that humans have significant physical and structural similarities with chimpanzees and gorillas, and on morphological grounds belong in the same general grouping.

DNA analysis established just how close we are to the great apes, showing that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ape ancestor, and diverged from one another along different evolution paths some five to seven million years ago.

Through genetic science, scientists have established that humans share percent of their genes with chimpanzees, such that chimpanzees are biologically closer to us than they are to orangutans and gorillas. Scientists started understanding the details of our genetic relationships to apes, and in molecular genetics determined that chimps and humans are at least 96 percent alike in their DNA and 99 percent alike for genes that encode proteins.

In , these findings were verified by the Human Genome Project, which decoded the human genetic structure. In an important study scientists at Wayne State University provided new genetic evidence that humans and chimpanzees diverged so recently that chimps should be reclassified as Homo troglodytes. They advocated a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes which would grant them rights to liberty and would free all captive great apes over 3, are currently held in research laboratories in the US alone.

Indeed, as I write, there are cases pending in international courts that could officially recognize great apes as persons. The Conceptual Revolution of Cognitive Ethology. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Karl Marx. Beginning in the seventeenth century, modern science constructed a mechanistic paradigm which views animals as automata or machines.

From Descartes to sociobiology and behaviorism in the present, the modern tradition cast animals in the role of brutes or machines who can neither feel nor think.

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Students trained in this paradigm quickly learned to avoid reference to the subjective life of animals unless they desire ridicule. Having misled us for so long about animals, science is initiating a revolution in our understanding. Through evolutionary theory, genetics, neurophysiology, and experimental procedures, many scientists are providing strong evidence that animals feel and think in ways akin to us.

As we saw above, the changes began with Charles Darwin. His theory of natural selection informed us that human beings are in fact animals and, as such, they evolve according to the same evolutionary dynamics as nonhuman animals. In The Origin of Species and later works such as The Descent of Man and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals , Darwin established the animal roots of humanity, and described close psychological and behavioral relations between humans and other animal species.

Eileen Crist | College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences | Virginia Tech

Scientists embraced his theory of evolution while ignoring his ethological work, for this they found repugnant to their speciesist prejudices and subversive to business-as-usual in the vivisection research and pharmaceutical industries where the pursuit of profit cannot be troubled by moral conscience and ethical truths. Donald Griffin's work dealt powerful blows to the behaviorist tradition of John Watson and B.

Since Griffin's work, a rich scientific literature has been assembled proving the sophistication and flexibility of animal minds. Through ingenuity and countless instances of observation and experimentation, a solid case for animal intelligence has been established that is changing not only our view of animals, but ourselves.

Clearly, results can be interpreted in different ways, and staunch defenders of behaviorism remain unconvinced. In , C. Behaviorists used his principle in an aggressively reductionist manner, subsuming all behaviors to crude instincts and learning mechanisms. But Morgan himself admitted animal intelligence exists, and his principle establishes just the opposite. When confronted by the overwhelming evidence of animal intelligence, the lower functions do not explain the behaviors; rather, they make sense only through reference to higher level principles.

In other words, the simplest explanation, the one not saddled with ad hoc qualifications, is an appeal to the flexible and thinking qualities of animal minds. While this account of the emotional and intellectual richness of animals may touch the layperson, it offends the hard-nose scientist. From a mechanistic scientific perspective, it is nonsense to speak of animal emotions and minds, since they can't be observed or measured.

And such stories at best are merely anecdotal. Today, this situation is changing decisively as science undertakes an exciting paradigm shift that embraces the study of animal emotions and minds. Until the last few decades, human beings have languished in the Paleolithic Era of their knowledge about animals.

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As evident in a spate of recent books and the new discipline of "cognitive ethology" that studies animal intelligence, science finally is beginning to fathom the depth of animal complexity. It revolutionizes our shallow understanding of nonhuman animals, while altering our vain image of ourselves. Mechanistic science submerges all pre-human evolution into a vast vat of unarticulated consciousness, viewing animals as automatons or machines who merely react to the world instinctually and passively play out their biological programming. The belief that animals are primitive only betrays the archaic limitations of the human mind and its inability to grasp the otherness of animal life and behavior.

This paradigm is now utterly bereft and bankrupt, and many quarters of science and philosophy have abandoned Cartesian mechanism, behaviorism, and speciesist dualism. In the shift to a post-Cartesian science, there are now scores of books, spates of documentaries, and a proliferation of papers that document the breadth and depth of animal complexity and intelligence, chronicling one staggering discovery after another.

The pace of discovery is such that, literally, our views of nonhuman animals are changing by the day. We are recognizing distortions and fallacies on each side of the ontological chasm Western society dug between human and nonhuman animals, and ethology has broken down the thick walls of separation. Just as many humans are not rational in many ways, so animals are rational in many ways. Humans overestimate their own rationality as they underestimate the rationality of animals.

Similarly, whereas humans have reduced animals to biology and thus denied them culture, so humans, focusing only on the voluntarist facets of their culture, have failed to grasp the biological dimensions of human culture. Only the most retrograde Cartesian still denies or is skeptical of the fact that animals are sentient, and we know, moreover, that have every feeling we have, including fear, stress, loneliness, sorrow, jealousy, embarrassment, pride, empathy, love, happiness, and joy.

In their vivid vignettes, Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy describe how Michael the gorilla loved opera singer Luciano Pavarotti; how Hoku the dolphin grieved over the death of his marine park companion, Kiko; and how Flint the chimp even died of grief upon the death of his mother, Flo. Animals know joy as well as sorrow, and can be playful as well as serious. They also possess an aesthetic sense, and sense of humor, as evident in the behavior of birds who delight in dancing and chimpanzees who love to bang drums, throw balls, and paint. Complex forms of intelligence run broad and deep throughout the world of animals.

Many animals have abilities to count simple amounts and to recognize patterns and visual relationships and analogies — often better than children and even college undergraduates! Koko the gorilla has a sign vocabulary of words and does internet chats. Alex the African Grey parrot could name over different objects, 7 colors, and 5 shapes; moreover, he can count objects up to 6 and speak in meaningful sentences.