Actual Animals

Who defines what an animal is?  Is an animal rational or irrational?  Are the animals inside of us or outside? Descartes wondered how they were different from machines.

In what way are we different from animals? We are reproducing and consuming our way into overshoot, just like any animal.  Do they know about overshoot as well but, like us,  cannot help themselves?

I look outside and I see the landscape reasoning with itself.  How to handle water, how to manage grass.

Reason (if it ever existed at all) is possibly the most delicate thing in the world – a dream before dawn, a fleeting glimpse.   Something we thought we saw, for a moment, like God.

Reason, which the Founding Fathers invoked,  is rooted in that strange medieval hierarchy, with God (pure Reason) at the top, certain kinds of men in the middle, and animals below. Animals therefore have no Reason because they are the opposite of God.  Or something like that.

(Not everyone threw the animals out, for instance, Montaigne.)

The reason we build, we build together – men with women, tribe with tribe, human with animal.  Pure Reason is delicate and distant, like God.  Every other kind of reason we will have to keep working on.


8 Replies to “Actual Animals”

  1. I like to think that I’m an animal too. That way when, for example, a particular bird flings through my field of vision or maybe a fox sneaks around a tufa outcropping or some such sighting, I realize that there is no difference between us, that this thing called ‘existence’ or ‘happenings’ is all merely one tissue of which we’re all a part. In fact, I’ve had the profound sense that distinctions of inside and outside, them/us, animals and humans aren’t actually saying the right things. It’s a quirk of reason, a cul-de-sac in which reason likes to go down that gets us stuck in binary modes (at least in the western traditions).

    “Pure Reason is delicate and distant, like God.” This is very nice.

  2. Thanks, Andrew, for those very perceptive comments.
    This might seem totally OT and random but I read a book a few weeks ago about how Russian scientists bred foxes for docility in their fur farms, and the genetic cascade that resulted in domesticated foxes. The book mentions in passing how this research could help us understand how humans were domesticated. And I couldn’t help thinking what was the trait that started our genetic cascade? And who or what was doing the selecting? (Not saying it was aliens or anything, though who knows.) Perhaps our domestication has something to do with the torturous way we separate ourselves from all other animals.

  3. The Reason cul-de-sac. How many times have I (all of us?) been caught there? Too many I suppose.

    And getting stuck in binary modes (or some number of modes insufficient for the task) – lazy thinking I’d suggest. Like assigning our values onto other animals… this one is yucky, but that one is nice. What go girl moles see in guy moles?

    How humans were domesticated…. hmmm, are we certain we really are? If the bar to be reached is ‘house broken’ then I suppose many of us have a claim. But if the bar is ‘planet broken’ then maybe some selection remains to be made in our overall domestication.

    1. Michelle – you’ve outed me as a plant breeder 🙂 … what will the animal folk think of my comments now? And over at SFF you pegged my style as droll… hard to hide in the shadows when always being called out. But aside from all that, let’s have a look at the animal domestication world.

      I do want caution that you are quite correct in labeling me a plant breeder – so anything I have to offer will need to be understood from that framing. Genetics seem to work the same in both kingdoms, but life history aspects, shade results. Factor too that we humans belong in the animal kingdom and this likely influences how we think about plants vs. fellow animals. That dichotomy is as ancient as Cain and Abel.

      I do want to take a poke at a paragraph in the article you’ve cited:

      Why should domesticated species share these characteristics? Pig farmers would not have cared whether animals had curly tails. Early cattle breeders had nothing to gain from producing cows with black- and-white spotted hides. And yet the domestication syndrome is very real.

      The authors are projecting backwards to an ancient time using modern values and modes of thinking. I find it difficult to be persuaded that we have any real notion of what those animal domesticators thought, what their cultural values included, or what the standing genetic variation among the critters they worked with amounted to. I agree with them that a domestication syndrome does seem to exist, but not because of their argument as presented here.

      Plant domestication history exhibits some similar phenomena – a syndrome if you will. But we are now finding ourselves working at cross purposes to a few of the domesticated traits our forebears handed down to us. One might simply assign this to our finding the world a bit different (mostly of our own doing perhaps, but there it is.).

      Maybe I should share an anecdote from college days when I went along to a swine auction with a colleague whose background was swine production in a farrow to finish operation that was totally confined. He made a point that the type of animals he was interested in had to have carcass traits that the market wanted. Leaner hogs were on the ascent then – fatty pigs were going away. But he also needed animals with sound feet and legs capable of standing/walking/breeding on the hard floor of a confinement building. He did not need the fierceness some sows posses and which is an asset for pigs raised in pasture where predators such as coyotes can be a problem. Fierce sows can actually be detrimental in confinement… so one selects against this.

      A few years later I was schooled about the difference in beef breed selection for ranches vs pasture production. This goes right to where you live so I hope my analysis isn’t too far from the truth… but cows selected to walk many miles on relatively meager range land and give birth without assistance have to be more robust than those raised on lush pasture where human support is often closer to hand. You can have similar coat colors in both scenarios… but physical characters and behaviors will be very different.

      As for genetic hitchhiking… this is an interesting phenomena… and I use the plural on purpose [here I’ll confine my examples to plants… where I think I actually know something].

      In one case there is the physical linkage of genes on a chromosome. Crossing over and reassortment of genes happens during meiosis – but the closer together genes are on a chromosome the less likely they are to reassort – i.e., they will tend to be inherited together (linked). So if gene B lies right next to gene A and we desire gene A (and don’t care about B) we’ll still tend to get gene B when we select for A. One could suggest gene B is hitchhiking.

      In a different case, genes A and B could be on different chromosomes entirely and expected to reassort with every new generation. But if we suggest that genes A and B somehow interact in a way that influences the phenotype(s) we are interested in then they could be inherited together while we select for the phenotype of interest. Correlated traits would be the easiest example here. In soybean for example, selection for higher seed yield tends to also select for lower seed protein content. If one does not pay attention to the seed protein content while making selections, then lower seed protein varieties will advance… the lower protein trait is hitchhiking along with a higher seed yield character.

      Oh, btw, I’d never come across the term neoteny before – so thanks for that.

      1. Hi Clem, thanks for the expert testimony on the genetic hitchhiking hypothesis. Very helpful.
        As for being outed as a plant breeder, it’s one of the most noble and useful of professions; imagining the countless generations of plant breeders/farmers who developed maize – and still are – is one way of being humbled.

  4. Michelle,
    Lovely thought provoking post! “Who defines what an animal is?” I suppose I’d first look to the biologists who have grouped humans in with animalia making us animals. “General characteristics of the Kingdom Animalia are as follows: Animals are eukaryotic, multicellular and heterotrophic organisms. They have multiple cells with mitochondria and they depend on other organisms for food. ” I have no problem with that definition of our general characteristics.
    I do think Descartes got it wrong, actually very wrong! But it’s understandable. His thinking was influenced by the rise of machines. He was born during the period of human history when logical thinking was replacing religious authority and the industrial revolution was beginning. So I don’t fault him for his perceptions even if I believe they are wrong.

    My own understanding of what it means to be human has been influenced by the rise of system thinkers and the study of the human microbiome that has took off after scientists completed the sequencing of the human genome. We now know that humans are a collection of cells and for every one human cell our body hosts 10 microbial cells. Fascinating isn’t it! By mass of course human cells are much larger so microbial mass only represents about 3 lbs of weight on the average person, but the influence of microbes is enormous.

    My point is that our understanding of who and what we are is always changing. It changes as we age. It changes as our culture changes. It changes as our understanding changes. Perhaps humans have a unique ability to be conscious of our consciousness. Perhaps animals don’t ‘think’ as we do. Perhaps humans have a greater ability to fantasize than animals. Perhaps humans believe our imagination is real. Perhaps animals do not. Perhaps animals see the world as it is and they don’t wonder or imagine how they can change it as humans seems to be able to do.
    Ultimately, I believe life is a continuum or as Andrew so nicely wrote “this thing called ‘existence’ or ‘happenings’ is all merely one tissue of which we’re all a part.” I think that captures reality quite well.

  5. …and I see the landscape reasoning with itself

    It does that, doesn’t it? And it might as well be instinct too.

    Hard to escape the feeling that in the totality of all living things, maybe that should be of all things, there’s an innate dao that evens out excesses and keeps the whole show running. That’s the “reason” we see in the landscape. Yet there’s also a uniquely human version of reason, a kind of mental clockwork or governing principle, which is strangely and impossibly external to that dao…

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