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Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism

H-Net Discussion List on Nature in Legend and Story
Subject: Review of Thinking with Animals, ed. Daston and Mitman - from H-Animal
Date: Thu, 7 Jun 2007 08:09:51 EDT

Published by (June 2007)

Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman, eds. Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 230 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-231-13038-4; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 0-231-13039-2.

Reviewed for H-Animal by Mary Trachsel, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa

Contemplating Animals and Selves

Editors Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman introduce this collection of essays on anthropomorphism by identifying themselves and their readers as animals who think. "We are animals; we think with animals," their first line announces (p. 1). The essays that follow collectively contemplate the second clause of that opening statement. What does it mean to "think with animals"? Daston and Mitman respond to this question by pointing to the "appropriate ambiguity" of the phrase: "This is the double meaning of the title of this book, _Thinking with Animals_: humans assume a community of thought and feeling between themselves and a surprisingly wide array of animals; they also recruit animals to symbolize, dramatize, and illuminate aspects of their own experience and fantasies" (p. 2).

The essays Daston and Mitman have collected to probe this ambiguity represent an impressive array of disciplinary interests and approaches, all trained upon questions of whether and to what degree other, nonhuman creatures are members of the community of thinking animals--and, on the other hand, how and to what degree we humans use other animals as instruments of our own uniquely human thought. The book's interdisciplinary breadth of response represents the complexity and depth of its core questions. The first section, titled "Thinking with Animals in Other Times and Places," draws from text-based, historical scholarship to demonstrate the temporal, cultural, and geographical sweep of human interest in connections between human and animal selves. Wendy Doniger's "Zoomorphism in Ancient India: Humans More Bestial than Beasts" reports on ancient Sanskrit texts that combine the complementary powers of anthropomorphism (perceiving animals in human terms) and zoomorphism (perceiving humans in animal terms) to inquire into the morality of human behaviors and communal. This is followed by Daston's "Intelligences Angelic, Animal, Human," an essay comparing the efforts of two western intellectual traditions--medieval Christian angelology and post-Darwinian comparative psychology--to comprehend the workings of nonhuman minds.

To conclude this section, Paul S. White's "The Experimental Animal in Victorian Britain" describes ideological conflict arising out of the collision between Charles Darwin's doctrine of biological continuity and Judeo-Christian beliefs in human uniqueness. White sets his study of the opposing perspectives of "anthropomorphism" (recognizing animals in human terms) and "anthropodenial" (refusing to recognize animals in human terms) in scientific laboratories in Victorian Britain. Noting that the scientific assumption of physiological continuities between humans and animals endorsed such laboratory practices as vivisection, White asks how the Victorian scientists who engaged in these practices were troubled by speculations about the cognitive continuity among species. How, he wonders, might the vivisection and other objectifications of animal subjects have affected the psyches of Victorian laboratory scientists?

The second section of the book, "Thinking with Animals in Evolutionary Biology," continues the focus on laboratory science but shifts attention from the moral and emotional state of the scientist to the underlying logic of scientific method as it imposes a subject-object framework upon human-animal relations. Elliott Sober's "Comparative Psychology Meets Evolutionary Biology: Morgan's Canon and Cladistic Parsimony" begins with an account of Darwin's own anthropomorphic descriptions of animal behavior, and goes on to trace the effects of subsequently developed scientific observational methods upon our understanding of animal behavior and mind. Sober's essay worries the epistemological question of how anthropomorphic perspectives either _attribute_ human identity _to_ nonhuman animals or _apprehend_ it _in_ them. The other essay in this section, Sandra D. Mitchell's "Anthropomorphism and Cross-Species Modeling," traces the shifting status of cross-species modeling in medical, cognitive, and behavioral studies from its origins in nineteenth-century British evolutionary theory (Darwin and George Romanes) through twentieth-century European ethology (Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz) to contemporary biology and environmental ethics. Analyzing the historical debates over the status of anthropomorphic understanding, Mitchell insists upon the need for evidence to support claims on either side of the anthropomorphism question and concludes that the moral value of the debate is to be found in the de-centering self-reflection it commands us to engage in.

Positioning the third section of the book, "Thinking with Animals in Daily Life," immediately after Mitchell's call for self-reflective inquiry, the editors suggest that self-awareness is as necessary in our ordinary, taken-for-granted encounters and interactions with nonhuman animals as it is in the laboratory or the field where animals are the object of deliberate study. James Serpell's "People in Disguise: Anthropomorphism and the Human-Pet Relationship" describes domestication of nonhuman animals as a consequence of an innate anthropomorphizing tendency of humans. Human nature thus becomes an environmental force to which domestic breeds have adapted throughout the generations that separate modern-day pets from their wild ancestors. Serpell concludes that human uniqueness derives in part from our unique interspecies relationships, whose depth and variety are unmatched anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Paired with Serpell's study of pets as an index to human identity is Cheryce Kramer's "Digital Beasts as Visual Esperanto: Getty Images and the Colonization of Sight." Kramer's essay, beautifully illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of animal photographs by Tim Flach, explores how late capitalism's digital distribution of animal imagery in a visual age shapes popular understanding of human and animal identity and the relationships between them. Describing Flach as someone who "thinks in animals as others think in concepts," Kramer asks of his photographs, "What concept of humanity is enshrined by his images?" (p. 157). Her study inquires how Flach's primary distributor, Getty Images, controls our "daily diet of images" and ultimately warns that global consumption of animal imagery such as we find in Flach's photographs "may be gradually and imperceptibly recalibrating our emotional literacy" (p. 167).

Kramer's study of commercial mass media's distribution of animal imagery in a visual age aptly paves the way to the fourth and final section of the collection, "Thinking with Animals in Film." Like Kramer's the two essays that comprise this section are illustrated, in this case with still shots excerpted from two documentary films on wildlife conservation. The first of these essays, Gregg Mitman's "Pachyderm Personalities: The Media of Science, Politics & Conservation" discusses the use of film by Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Cynthia Moss, first to investigate the ecological advisability of "culling" African elephant herds and eventually, to advocate on the elephants' behalf against both the practice and one of its most direct beneficiaries, the African ivory trade. As their familiarity with the complex social systems of elephants in the wild developed, both Douglas-Hamilton and Moss came to perceive individual elephants as personalities and accordingly used anthropomorphic film depictions of these pachyderm personalities to stimulate viewers' empathic support Mitman's essay concludes with a meditation on the convergence of "media-chic" sciences such as primatology and oceanography with commercial media giants such as Discovery Communication, leaving readers to ponder how the values of commercial entertainment may shape and direct the progress of science. The final essay of the collection, documentary filmmaker, Sarita Siegel's "Reflections on Anthropomorphism in _The Disenchanted Forest_," recounts her deliberate use of anthropomorphism in her film documenting the plight of orphaned and displaced young orangutans and the relationships these animals develop with the humans who are dedicated to their rehabilitation. Describing her film as a "packaging of nature," Siegel explains how she weighed the need to avoid using anthropomorphism to make explicit and erroneous claims that these Asian apes are "just like us" (p. 197) against the need to document the orangutans' predilection to mimic human behaviors and enculturate to human society in the absence of their own species' social structures. While attempting to remain within "the limits of scientific acceptability" (p. 208), Siegel defends such editorial decisions as retaining literary allusions; an example is her decision to retain the scene in which one interviewee likens the orphaned adolescent male orangutans to the unsupervised and undisciplined community of boys in _Lord of the Flies_ (1954). Interestingly, Siegel validates her anthropomorphic methodology with references to scientific precedent, noting, for instance, the use of a Piagettian developmental framework in studies of nonhuman cognition.

Such cross-referencing among disciplines, media, and methodologies is, in fact, one of the most valuable features of this collection. Its multidisciplinary, multimedia examination of the core epistemological concern of Animal Studies--the question of how we humans can know the animals we study--makes _Thinking with Animals_ an ideal introduction to this "highly electrified" field of study. The book's broad representation of academic disciplinary approaches, along with its consideration of media transformations of human and nonhuman animal identities, exemplifies the need for us humans to think with one another about the pressing issues that we and other animals face in the twenty-first century. This is a book whose multidisciplinary whole equals much more than the sum of its disciplinary parts, and the anyone who reads it comprehensively from cover to cover will gain a multifaceted appreciation for the complexity of human-nonhuman animal relationships. This same multidisciplinarity, on the other hand, might also be seen as the book's primary shortcoming. Thinking with one another across disciplinary divides may throw our disciplinary differences into relief, illuminating the specialized disciplinary language uses that divide us and complicate the task of thinking with one another instead of in separate academic enclaves. Scholars of the biological sciences, for instance, may find the discourse conventions informing Kramer's analysis of Tim Flach's photographs maddeningly obscure. A representative case in point is a sentence drawn from the first page of Kramer's essay: "Incrementally, image by image, visual expectations shift, as does the nexus of unspoken shared assumptions within which visually mediated symbolic relations operate" (p. 138). By the same token, other scholars may find the formulaic rationality of Sober's essay equally alienating: "Suppose that O is a nonhuman organism and we are considering whether O has or lacks a mental characteristic M that we know attaches to human beings" (p. 85).

Ultimately, however, the challenge of contemplating animal selves with our colleagues across the disciplines is well worth the effort it takes to read this book in its entirety. _Thinking with Animals_ delivers on its promise to present new and provocative perspectives on anthropomorphism, and in doing so, it conceptualizes Animal Studies as a fascinating and worthwhile forum for thinking with one another.

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