Review: ‘What It Means to Be Human’ (Joanna Bourke, 2011, Virago Press)

It is increasingly evident that the skills psychologists assume are uniquely human are observable in many other animals. Chimpanzees appear to act according to the false beliefs of others; Ravens take into account the vision of others when hiding their cache; Bonobos use different vocal signals for different situations. As the latter study’s author, Dr. Clay, puts it: “It appears that the more we look, the more similarity we find between humans and animals”.

So what is the relationship between human and non-human animals? De Waal argues that what we need is greater anthropomorphism, to be unafraid of describing life in human terms. I am unconvinced: from an embodied, ecological perspective, we acknowledge the integral role of our unique body structure and anthropogenic environment in producing our experience. A different body would access different information, a different environment would provide different information (see Von Uexkull and Sebeok’s concept of the umwelt). One of the implications of this theory is that human perspective is radically de-centred, and simple anthropomorphism becomes deeply insufficient:

“If body and environment form constituent parts of what we call ‘mind’, it becomes very difficult to see how other animals, with other kinds of bodies, living in other kinds of environments, will ‘mind’ in ways sufficiently like our own to permit the attribution of humanlike mental states… We have to accept that we don’t see the ‘world-as-it-really-is’; we see it only as it reflects our human needs and physical capabilities” (Louise Barrett, Beyond the Brain, p.223).

To further explore this issue, I recently read Joanna Bourke’s What It Means To be Human, a massively multi-disciplinary discussion of the border between human and animal, exploring the history of cross-species comparison, its legal and ethical implications, and possible futures.

The scope and ambition of the book can’t be faulted (the subtitle ‘reflections from 1791 to the present’ being the most concise summary of the issues contained within should forewarn the reader). Within, Bourke lays out a richly referenced argument that the border between animal and human is an exercise of power, of determining who may be treated violently. Just as animals may become ‘human’ by showing language skills, for example, subaltern groups, such as immigrants, might become lower than vermin and fit for extermination. Bourke shows how women, black people, the disabled, and so on, have used their position ‘outside’ of humanity to question where the line is drawn, often invoking a comparison to animals in the process. The letter from the ‘Earnest Englishwoman’, which begins the book, makes the plea for women to be recognised, if not as equal to men, then surely at least equal to animals, who were afforded more protections under the law.

The many implications such a comparison entails is explored well. As powerful as the Englishwoman’s letter might be, the obvious pitfall is that the society at the time thought little of making the same equivalence, and the book documents the many examples of times throughout history when oppressed groups were routinely categorised as animals to legitimise violence towards them.

As much as evidence from biology and psychology point towards a fundamental relatedness between living things, a simple repudiation of any difference at all carries as much risk as gain. As well as many examples, historical and contemporary, of those in power comparing slaves or women to animals, the book also contains a section on attempts at benevolent comparisons, attempting to improve the conditions of animals by linking their experiences to humans. For an extreme example, there is a disturbing tendency of some vegan and animal rights organisations to directly compare animal farming to the holocaust. Such crass comparison only seems like the logical end point of abolishing any separation between humans and animals, and yet the separation is obviously arbitrary and unscientific.

Bourke agrees that life on earth has no natural dividing line between human and animal. However, she does not support the idea that we can equate the two groups, or at least not in human terms: it would be a “radical flattening out of the contours of our world”.  To Bourke, “Violence is done by injections of ontological solidities: unity or disunity, sameness or difference”. A deconstructionist to the end, Bourke excoriates these linear-gradient conceptions of life, and instead offers ‘negative zoélogy’, a deliberate abstention from describing life akin to negative theology’s refrain from describing God. Speaking only in terms of negation, or by describing what life is not, purportedly enables us to: “move beyond comparisons based on similarities and differences”.

But the theologic roots of such a theory translate poorly to describing the material world: life is not ineffable. Bourke offers little idea of what a negative zoélogist perspective might make of a chimp fashioning a hand-axe from flint, or the meaning shared between a pet and their owner, without resorting to some degrading comparison, an admission that in some sense, we can share a common ground (a dreaded ontological solidity!) with other living creatures. Moreover, this solution presents further problems for how we relate to one another, as human beings.


What it Means to Be Human contains many deeply affecting tales of feminists and abolitionists making comparisons between their own oppression and the oppression of others. But without some ground on which to build, some recognition of sameness of difference, there can be not identification of allies, or common enemies. Author and activist Norman Finkelstein demonstrates how vital comparison across very different groups can be for building solidarity:

“When she saw the segregation of African-Americans, whether at a lunch counter or in the school system, that was, for her, like the prologue to the Nazi holocaust… my mother’s credo was, always compare. She gladly and generously made the imaginative leap to those who were suffering, wrapping and shielding them in the embrace of her own suffering.

For my mother, the Nazi holocaust was a chapter in the long history of the horror of war. It was not itself a war – she was emphatic that it was an extermination, not a war – but it was a unique chapter within the war. So for her, war was the ultimate horror.” Norman Finkelstein, 2016

I find a more fruitful solution in Gibsonian psychology. For Gibson, the primary stuff of perception is affordances, what action the environment can allow for you. Action possibilities exist objectively, regardless of whether they are available to you, whether you are aware of them, or opt to use them. However, they are also subjective, as Barrett notes in the quote I included earlier in this post: they depend on your subjective position in how you relate to them. The handle of a cup affords lifting and gripping if you have a free limb and an appendage on the end, but if you are a cat, or an ant, you cannot access this affordance.

The affordance, then, is both an objective property of the environment, common to all, but the relation between the organism and the affordance is a subjective one. Gibson summarises this point well:

An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer.” (Gibson, 1979)

Humans and other creatures share a common world, and “the possibilities for mutual understanding can grow prosperously in its soil” (Heft, 2001, p.396). When information is publicly accessible, there is the possibility to come to experience the same world. In some instances, it is as natural as the meaning of a baby chimp’s laughter from merciless tickling, which needs little interpretation. In some instances, it requires more active participation.

Gibson’s crucial insight into environmental information is that there are infinite vantage points of any given object, which give unique access to the structured light bouncing off the object in question (this is the ambient optic array). To share your perspective I can stand, literally or figuratively, in your shoes (at the same time or the same location, but not both of course). Over time we can come to mutual understanding on the basis of shared information: Gaining empathy (or building solidarity) is a material, active process.

In this way, we can overcome the difficulties presented by Bourke. It is true that the environment is encountered subjectively, with unique bodies, unique histories, unique positions and perspectives. This indeed separates us, by degrees, from others, be they different species or different persons. But are not insulated from one another: we merely select different information from the same environment. The comparisons we make (between human and animal, between oppressed groups such as slaves and women) must take into account the subjective viewpoint they come from, but they do exist due to the common world we inhabit. This is not a common ground granted to us by biology, some ill-defined species difference, or some cultural or legal fiction, as dispensed with by Bourke: it is one that must be built and maintained by our common struggle.

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