Posthumanism: What is Humanity’s Tie to Animals?

Reflections on the relationship between humans and animals from the Posthuman perspective. From the New Humanist.

By John Appleby

If there are two threads which bind all varieties of humanism together they must surely be a rejection of deities in any form and the claim that humans are unique in some meaningful manner. But how secure and, more importantly, how ethically sound are both these claims?

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.

This erosion of the argument for human uniqueness has not gone unnoticed and has led to a new spate of attacks upon humanism, not so much from the religiously minded but from those who are interested in the welfare of animals, and in establishing a properly ethical relationship between humans and other beasts.

For decades proponents of animal rights have used the scientific evidence of biological continuism to advocate a complete rethinking of our relationship to, and treatment of, other species. The term “speciesism”, coined by psychologist Richard Ryder in 1971 and popularised in Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation, was used by animal rights advocates to describe what they denounce as an immoral form of radical anthropocentrism. For them, assuming the superiority of the human, and owning and using animals for labour or entertainment, amounts to a form of prejudice akin to racism.

Human uniqueness is also under attack from a quite different perspective. The so-called Transhumanists argue that humans have now become such advanced creatures that they are able to direct their own evolution by technological means. They are excited about the possibilities of genetic manipulation, digital interfacing (like the downloading of consciousness into computers) and especially the image of the ultimate synthesis of human and machine, the cyborg. Transhumanism is critical of humanism because it doesn’t go far enough. Since humans are so special and there is no God, why not follow through by developing a “better” person through technology?

A third, more complex stream of anti-humanism derives from the poststructuralism and postmodernism of the 1980s and ’90s. Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida launched a sustained attack upon the humanism embodied in the tradition of the Enlightenment and particularly in the ideas of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s theory of human subjectivity we are the only creatures who think and feel the way we do. But the way in which we do this is the same for every individual. In other words, we are exceptional as a species, but fundamentally identical as members of that species. Poststructuralism, inspired in part by the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who called Kant a “moral fanatic” and refuted his universalism), denies the existence of this universal human subject and is thus “anti-humanist”.

There is now an even newer critique of humanism, which combines elements of these three versions of anti-humanism. It comes complete with a new disciplinary name, Posthumanities, and a book series of the same name edited by Cary Wolfe, Professor of English at Rice University, Texas. This version of posthumanism relies upon the latest findings in animal behavior to challenge previous assumptions about the “different” character of animal consciousness and behavior. It aims to produce a theory which would displace humanism altogether and substitute a sound ethical theory upon which to base human interactions with other species. How well do its products match its ambitions?

In Cary Wolfe’s book What is Posthumanism? we find the following definition: “Posthumanism in my sense isn’t posthuman at all – in the sense of being ‘after’ our embodiment has been transcended – but is only posthumanist in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy inherited from humanism itself.” Confused? Happily Wolfe provides a diagram to clarify matters. In this he distinguishes between “external relations” (what individual theorists say about the world) and “internal disciplinarity” (the way they go about saying it). So, for example, Peter Singer can be said to have a posthumanist attitude to the world (because he thinks animals are akin to humans in morally significant ways), but chooses a humanist way of expressing it through the language of philosophical utilitarianism and animal rights. For Wolfe, this makes Singer a good guy for what he says, but a bad guy for how he says it. Interestingly, this schema would appear to make Richard Dawkins, who is definitely a bad guy as far as Wolfe is concerned, a proponent of humanist posthumanism as well: his biological continuism stops him completely separating humans from other animals, but his reliance on science makes him express this in a humanist way because, as Wolfe is quick to point out, the supposedly disinterested nature of scientific enquiry is generally nothing of the sort.

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