Are We "Really Just" Animals?

The Layer Cake Model

There’s a common theme in European thinking about human nature that I’ll call the “layer cake” model. You find an influential version of this model in a superficial reading of Aristotle (there’s good reason to think Aristotle himself didn’t adopt this model). It goes like this. Human beings have various capacities, some of which (nutrition and growth) they share with all living organisms and some of which (perception and locomotion) they share only with other animals. But in addition to all those capacities, human beings have a capacity for reasoning that is unique to them. Hence the layer cake: there’s a vegetative bottom layer, an animal middle layer, and then, as the crowning achievement, a distinctively human layer of rationality.

The layer cake

You find variations on this layer cake model all over the place. Philosophers talk a lot about how humans are essentially, fundamentally different from all other animals. Over the centuries, they’ve come up with a range of different claims about what marks us out as unique. Rationality and language use are the two most favoured distinguishing traits, but they’re only two items on an indefinitely long list: opposable thumbs, tool use, transmitted culture, science, religion, awareness of mortality, clothing, and on and on.

I think this way of thinking is deeply wrong—not just in the sense that I think it’s very wrong but also in the sense that I think there’s something deep about its wrongness, something worth taking time over and examining carefully. The short version is this: I think it’s important to acknowledge that, as humans, we are animals, and to insist that we’re something more or other than animals is a symptom of alienation from our animal selves.

The Debunking Argument

Unpacking all that would be too long for a blog post (I’m trying to write a book about it). In this post, I want to do something simpler. I want to distance myself from a familiar way of dissenting from the layer cake model. This is the idea you might sum up with the phrase “we’re really just animals.” Call it the debunking argument. Strip away all the pretensions and decorum, the debunking argument runs, and you’ll see humankind for what it really is: one species in the family of great apes. You encounter this idea in pop songs and pop science.

We're nothing but mammals

The debunking argument often gets trotted out with a kind of reductive swagger. The rest of you have inflated pretensions about what all your humanness amounts to, the debunker says, but I see things as they really are. “We’re really just animals” is a triumphant battle cry of the undeceived.

I said I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re animals. So why do I take issue with the debunking argument? What I take issue with is the idea that we’re “really” ”just” animals. I’ll address each of those words in turn.

Are We "Really" Animals?

Start with the “really.” This word implies that the perspective advocated by the debunker is the correct one and that other ways of seeing things are mistaken, superficial, or don’t get to the heart of things. A kind of reductive naturalism lies behind the “really,” that is, the idea that the only correct terms in which to make sense of the world are those furnished by the natural sciences.

Consider, for example, the claim that objects never really make contact. I might naïvely think that I’m touching the keys of my laptop keyboard as I type but particle physics shows otherwise. What the layperson calls contact is actually electromagnetic repulsion between the atoms in my finger and the atoms in the keyboard, which never quite come into contact.

This argument sounds sophisticated and clever in the way that denials of common sense often do. But it rests on what seem to me to be some very tendentious assumptions. It supposes that there’s one true story about the world and it’s the one given to us by fundamental physics and that, for any statement to be correct, it must line up with the terms provided by fundamental physics. But my ordinary way of talking about touching keyboards, pushing doors, and so on doesn’t presuppose any claims about the interactions of subatomic particles, nor is this language of touching and pushing some rough approximation, good only for practical purposes. Words like “touch” and “contact” originate in the language of the everyday and if there are criteria for their correct use, it’s to those everyday uses that we should appeal.

There’s something similarly fishy going on with the claim that we’re “really” just animals. Again, there’s a supposition that there’s a single correct way of looking at human beings and that correct way is supplied by the sciences. Except this supposition is on even shakier ground than the one that feeds the claim that we never “really” touch objects. With human beings it’s not clear, even if you do want to suppose some kind of scientific supremacy, why biology should have the last word. Anthropology is the study of human beings and it’s not a premise of anthropology that we’re “really” animals. And why not go back to fundamental physics and say that we’re “really” just a conglomeration of quarks and leptons?

I’m an animal. I’m also person. I’m a moral agent, I’m a member of various communities and institutions, I’m a collection of elementary particles, I’m an embodied soul. To say that I’m “really” one of these things presupposes an essentialist metaphysics that I reject. And it would require further argument to establish why precisely that perspective and that alone gives the “real” picture of what I am.

Are We "Just" Animals?

Now let’s consider the “just.” To say that something is “just” or “only” something else is subtractive. You thought that there was more to it than that, but really (again with that “really”!) that’s all there is to it. Consider: “It was just a bad dream.” I wake up in a fright, with a feeling that something dreadful has happened. But then I remind myself: it was just a bad dream. The bad thing can be consigned from reality to the less real domain of dreams. Or: “he’s just bluffing,” which is a way of saying that you shouldn’t take fully seriously the bet/threat/boast he issued. It amounts to less than he’d like it to seem.

To say that we’re “just” animals is to say there’s less to us than meets the eye. The layer cake model asserts that humans have something more that distinguishes them from other animals. The reply that we’re “just” animals rejects the more. No, the debunker says, there’s nothing more to it than that: we’re just animals.

But note how the debunking argument holds on to the guiding thought behind the layer cake model: that it’s a step down to consider yourself an animal. That word “just” retains the hierarchical thought that it would be better if we were something more than animal. The debunking argument seems to share with the layer cake model the idea that only a creature with that top layer to the layer cake is worthy of dignity. It’s just that it turns out that no one deserves that dignity.

This way of thinking is degrading to both humans and animals. It’s a way of bringing humans “down” to the level of animals while not questioning the common prejudice that “down” is where other animals do indeed belong, in terms of dignity.

Let Us Be Animals

There’s a cryptic one-sentence remark in Wittgenstein’s notebooks: “Let us be human.” One of the prevailing concerns in his later thought is our tendency, especially when doing philosophy, to reach beyond ourselves, to try, as it were, to step out of our own skins. He frequently admonishes us to return to the question of what place a word or an activity has within our ordinary lives. He’s constantly on guard against tendencies toward metaphysical or skeptical thinking.

You could say that the “really” manifests a metaphysical tendency and the “just” a skeptical one. In admonishing us (and himself) to “be human,” Wittgenstein wants to keep those tendencies at bay.

I want to develop my interest in human animality in a similar spirit. I’m not trying to reach beyond my human circumstance to a metaphysical “really” or to debase it with a skeptical “just.” I’m trying to get clear on my place in a world that I inhabit with an animal body. That requires resisting layer-cake-like attempts to inflate my significance beyond the animal. But it also requires resisting attempts to deflate it.

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