Humans and Humanists (and Scientists)

Although humanism itself has often been controversial, until recently there has been a fair amount of consensus about the denotation of “human” among practitioners and critics.  This consensus has been notably durable.  In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first three senses of “human” distinguish “mankind” from animals, from “mere objects or events,” and from “God or superhuman beings.”  All three senses emerged before 1600; none have yet been labeled as obsolete.[1] The definition of “humanist” offered by the historical dictionary is much more restricted, focusing on divisions among learned men, rather than among orders of creation.  Its senses refer to the various subcategories of scholarship that humanists have chosen to explore, and none of these senses has yet been labeled as obsolete either.[2] This long-established consensus is currently under challenge, both by self-described “post-humanists” and by scholars who more tentatively test the limits of the human.  But neither blurry edges nor strenuous attempts to clarify them are recent developments.  Humanists have never been alone in their interest in the human; certainly they have never had the last word in defining it.

Categories and boundaries have long obsessed students of the natural world.  The organization of information about animals, plants, and minerals into a coherent system was part of the core disciplinary or protodisciplinary agenda of eighteenth and nineteenth-century naturalists.  On the most practical level, system was necessary for purposes of retrieval and comparison, as knowledge about the world and its contents expanded exponentially during the centuries of European exploration and expansion.  More abstractly, especially in the wake of Newton, taxonomy constituted a vital component of naturalists’ claim to intellectual respectability and prestige.   Without system, they feared, natural history would be “but a confused, undisciplined crowd of subjects” and naturalists “mere collectors of curiosities and superficial trifles…, objects of ridicule rather than respect.”[3]

Before any natural kind could be assigned its place in a system, its limits had to be ascertained.   That is, it had to be described with sufficient precision to make clear which individuals it included and which it excluded. This was often easier said than done.  Numerous concrete obstacles to producing accurate and comprehensive descriptions existed at a period when transportation was slow and uncertain, communication among specialists was difficult, and preservation techniques were often ineffective.  In addition, although some organisms, like the giraffe, can be easily differentiated from all others, many plants and animals have relatives close enough to undermine the distinction between similarity and sameness.  Additional study did not necessarily make things clearer; indeed, intensified examination of dubious cases often made them seem more difficult to describe and delimit.  As Charles Darwin observed in relation to the differentiation of species and varieties, “it is in the best-known countries that we find the greatest number of forms of doubtful value.   …if any animal or plant…closely attract [human] attention, varieties…will almost universally be found recorded.”[4] Human beings fit both criteria.  The territories where they lived were inevitably very familiar and well-documented, and most people found them (that is, themselves) to be the most fascinating of the earth’s inhabitants.

Consequently many naturalists struggled to determine where people fit in the natural order.  One possibility—the one implied by the OED definitions, as well as by the chain of being that had descended from antiquity—was that humans occupied a position just outside or on top of it.[5] But other possibilities existed, and they suggested greater integration. As the gap between humans and other creatures diminished, the possibility of boundary confusion increased.  Many naturalists followed the lead of Linnaeus, the Swedish taxonomist whose system of latinate binomials remains the foundation of botanical and zoological nomenclature. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had no doubt that people were a kind of animal, if an unusual kind.   He embedded humans firmly within his taxonomic system, devising the primate order to accommodate four genera: Homo, Simia (monkeys and apes), Lemur (prosimians), and Vespertilio (bats).  He did not, however, treat humans and their ilk in quite the same way as he treated these structurally parallel categories.  Instead, he signaled human distinctiveness in the brief characterizations that accompanied his schematic list of genera.  For simians and prosimians he highlighted dentition, and for bats, wings; with regard to Homo he identified no distinctive physical feature, but merely commented “nosce te ipsum” (know thyself).[6]

This very terse description left many questions unanswered, the most obvious of which was how to define “thyself.” And at the next level of analysis, where he described each genus in greater detail and itemized its constituent species, Linnaeus offered some very suggestive answers.  In his classification, Homo was not a monolithic taxon.  It contained two species, of which Homo sapiens, the first and largest, was further subdivided into the conventional geographical races (American, European, Asiatic, and African), with additional categories for the wild children who occasionally turned up (Ferus) and for still more unusual kinds of people (Monstrosus).[7] According to Linnaeus’ descriptions, they all differed sufficiently in their physical and temperamental qualities to make it unlikely that the self-knowledge of members of one group, however comprehensive and accurate, would automatically illuminate the nature of the others.  For example, Homo Europaeus was “sanguineus,” while Homo Afer was “phlegmaticus.” The other species within the genus Homo more severely challenged the limits of empathetic insight.  Linnaeus’ correspondence and his lectures at Uppsala University contained repeated suggestions that he found it difficult to establish a firm dividing line between humans and apes.[8] Homo troglodytes was not subdivided; its sole occupant was the orangutan.[9]

The evidence offered by this placement is ambiguous, however.  The orangutan was also known as Homo sylvestris or the wild man of the woods (a translation from Malay, although not of the Malay word for the orangutan), and, at a time when the unity of the human species was the subject of vigorous debate, there was widespread uncertainty about whether or not orangutans were human.  In addition, naturalists had not yet clearly distinguished the orangutan of southeast Asia from the chimpanzee of Africa, about whose taxonomic placement there was, therefore, similar (or identical) uncertainty.  In 1699, for example, the anatomist Edward Tyson had published a treatise entitled Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris.  Or the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape and a Man.[10] By “ape” he meant baboon, and by “pygmie” he meant “chimpanzee.”  The human status of the quasi-mythical pygmies had, conversely, long been the subject of European speculation. Even at the end of the eighteenth century, naturalists could claim that the “race of men of diminutive stature” or “supposed nation of pygmies” described by the ancients, was “nothing more than a species of apes…that resemble us but very imperfectly.”[11]

Despite Linnaeus’s iconic status as a systematizer, in his own time as well as subsequently, his inclusive primate order was frequently rejected.  Not everyone, whether a serious naturalist or a casual observer of nature, enjoyed being placed firmly within the animal kingdom, even at the head of it; the closer juxtaposition within the genus Homo was inevitably even more troubling.  According to the British naturalist Thomas Pennant, “my vanity will not suffer me to rank mankind with Apes, Monkies, Maucaucos, and Bats”; a colleague further asserted that “we may perhaps be pardoned for the repugnance we feel to place the monkey at the head of the brute creation, and thus to associate him…with man.”[12] Such reluctance occasionally moved dissenters to propose alternative taxonomies that implicitly posited a much wider separation.  Thus early in the nineteenth century the anatomist William Lawrence suggested that “the principles must be incorrect, which lead to such an approximation” (that is, between humans, apes, and monkeys within the primate order); instead, he argued that “the peculiar characteristics of man appear to me so very strong, that I not only deem him a distinct species, but also…a separate order.”[13]

Nevertheless, such assertions were rearguard efforts and, at least among specialists, Linnaeus’s primate order ultimately triumphed.  By the middle of the nineteenth century most zoologists had accepted it.  In non-specialist understandings, the possibility that apes might actually be people lingered in various ways.  The illustrations in books of popular natural history often portrayed apes as particularly human in both appearance and behavior, showing them assuming erect posture, using human tools (frequently a walking stick), and approximating human proportions in the torso and limbs.[14] This visual tradition was not confined to the page or the canvas.  It was constantly reenacted  by the chimpanzees and orangutans who inhabited nineteenth-century zoos and menageries.  Show apes ate with table utensils, sipped tea from cups, and slept under blankets. One orangutan who lived in London’s Exeter Change Menagerie amused herself by carefully turning the pages of an illustrated book.  At the Regent’s Park Zoo a chimpanzee named Jenny regularly appeared in a flannel nightgown and robe.  Consul, a young chimpanzee who lived in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, greeted the public dressed in a jacket and straw hat, smoked cigarettes, and drank his liquor from a glass.[15]

In addition, rumor persistently whispered that these visual analogies might represent more substantial and productive connections.  Thus one seventeenth-century report featured a “poor miserable fellow” who had copulated with a monkey “not out of any evil intention…, but only to procreat a Monster, with which he might win his bread.”[16] At the end of the eighteenth century the surgeon and naturalist Charles White reported that orangutans “have been known to carry off negro-boys, girls and even women…as objects of brutal passion.”[17] In his pioneering account of chimpanzee anatomy, Edward Tyson had gone out of his way to assure his readers that “notwithstanding our Pygmie does so much resemble a Man…: yet by no means do I look upon it as the Product of a mixt generation.”[18]

Some claims were less restrained, or more enthusiastic.  For example, a Victorian impresario advertised the merely hairy Julia Pastrana as “a hybrid, wherein the nature of woman predominates over the ourang-outangs.”[19] And there were other ways of positing similarly concrete connections between people and the non-human animals most nearly allied to them by anatomy.  Well into the nineteenth century, physicians explained many kinds of birth defects as the unfortunate consequences of what was termed maternal imagination or impression– a kind of mental hybridization. Thus in 1867 the Lancet attributed the dense fur covering an unfortunate girl’s back to the fact that her mother had been frightened by an organ grinder’s monkey.[20] The rhetoric of evolution could be deployed to suggest that human-ape intermediaries existed in the present, as well as in the ancestral past.  For example, a Laotian girl named Krao was exhibited in 1883 as “Darwin’s missing link,” because she was unusually hairy, and because she allegedly possessed prehensile feet and could pout like a chimpanzee.[21]

Among scientists, the conviction that apes were not people did not exclude the possibility that some people might be apes.  Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth century this possibility loomed increasingly large, as specialists focused more intensely on ways to subdivide the human species. The stakes could be high, both intellectually and politically.  During the 1860s, the nascent British anthropological community was riven by a struggle between so-called “ethnologicals,” generally monogenists (believers in the common descent of all human varieties), and the “anthropologicals,” generally polygenists (believers in the independent origin of human varieties).[22] In the presidential address that inaugurated the Anthropological Society of London in 1863, which was billed as a consideration of “the station to be assigned to [the Negro] in the genus Homo,” James Hunt argued that “there is as good a reason for classifying the Negro as a distinct species from the European, as…for making the ass a distinct species from the zebra.”  After a series of disparaging characterizations, Hunt concluded that “the Negro race can only be humanised and civilised by Europeans.”[23]

As displays of great apes suggested their latent humanity, the anthropoid qualities of derogated human groups could be mapped concretely as well as in words.  Museums frequently exhibited the remains of non-European humans in ways that underlined their difference from Europeans, or suggested their greater affinity with other animals.  Thus in 1766 a travelling collection of “curiosities” grouped a “Negro Child” with a “Monstrous Cat with 8 legs,” a “Chicken’s Foot with 6 Toes,” a sloth, and an armadillo; a century later the Cambridge University anatomical collection listed separate entries for the “Tegumentary System or Skin” of the “Human” and the “Negro.”[24] If twentieth-century natural history museums included displays of human artifacts, or dioramas showing human activity, they were much more likely to feature people who could be characterized as exotic or primitive, than people wearing business suits and carrying briefcases.

Human uniqueness has come under increasing taxonomic challenge. The phylogenetic relationship between people and the other great apes has also become better and better documented, so that it is now generally recognized that a classification that groups chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans together, and leaves humans in splendid isolation, is based primarily on wishful thinking.  Although the fine points of ape taxonomy are still subject to debate, it has become clear that orangutans rather than humans are the outliers. And if the claim embodied in the title of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee might still seem provocative, a more generic version of it is definitely ready for prime time.[25] A publicity release for a Nova television program entitled “Ape Genius” begins, “Congratulations:  You are an ape.”[26] I have visited zoos that provide a mirror in which visitors can admire one last specimen as they leave the great ape house.

This increasing convergence has destabilized the assumptions on which the dictionary definitions of “human” and “humanist” have been based.  If people are apes, then they must understand and justify their pre-eminence in novel ways, or, if they are committed to traditional understandings of human distinctiveness, they must at least find novel evidence to support them.  As the evidence of physical difference has become less persuasive, evidence from the behavioral, intellectual or spiritual sphere has gained prominence.  Nineteenth-century naturalists uneasy about the human-ape connection frequently posited an alternative alliance.  They reasoned that if non-primate animals resembled humans more closely than apes, then they would necessarily displace apes from their awkward proximity.  In 1881, for example, George J. Romanes, a close friend and colleague of Darwin’s with a special interest in animal behavior, celebrated the “high intelligence” and “gregarious instincts” of the dog, which, he claimed, gave it a more “massive as well as more complex” psychology than any member of the monkey family.[27] And since the competing closeness so constructed was clearly figurative, the whole animal creation was thereby implicitly removed to a more comfortable distance.

Temperament, of course, is hard to pin down; as with Linnaeus’ characterization of human types, it is often in the eye of the beholder.  And the more that we have come to know about the dispositions of chimpanzees and other primates, the harder it has become to maintain a firm separation.  Many characteristics that once seemed exclusively or at least distinctively human, including moral intuition, oppressive patriarchy, internecine strife, and cannibalism, turn out to be more widely distributed.[28] Intelligence has proved a weak reed for similar reasons.  None of the intellectual barriers erected to isolate people have proved reliably robust.  In Sartor Resartus Thomas Carlyle chose “Tool-using Animal” as a definition that emphasized human uniqueness, noting that “Man is called a Laughing Animal, but do not the apes also laugh, or attempt to do it.”[29] In the wake of Jane Goodall’s pioneering observations of chimpanzees, tool creation has been observed in several primate species (many kinds of animals are capable of using found tools).[30] The obstacles to speech in other primates are located in their vocal tracts rather than in their brains.[31] In any case, parrots can talk, as can a few other kinds of birds; some of them, like the recently deceased Alex, arguably make sense.[32] With the aid of sign language, computers, or other accessories, apes and dolphins can breach the final barrier, that of symbolic communication.[33]

The implications of these snowballing recognitions are not just abstract or theoretical.  In the preface to The Great Ape Project, the editors argue that the “sphere of moral equality” to which we all belong should be based not on reductive taxonomy—membership in the species Homo sapiens—but on “the fact that we are intelligent beings with a rich and varied social and emotional life.”  Since these “are qualities that we share…with our fellow great apes,” the boundary of the sphere should be redrawn so that they are included too.[34] Contributors include scientists who study apes in the wild, scientists who study apes in captivity, and specialists in language, philosophy, and law, among other things.  They all subscribe to the “Declaration on Great Apes,” which specifies that for human beings, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture should all be enforceable by law.[35]

Since not all humans enjoy these legal protections, it is not surprising that apes remain outside the “sphere of moral equality.”   Some recent developments in Europe suggest the possibility of future change, especially the resolution adopted in 2008 by a committee of the Spanish parliament, giving great apes the rights formulated in The Great Ape Project.[36] But such change will certainly be slow, and in any case most apes do not live in Europe, at least not yet.  These developments reflect the evolution of an argument that has been going on for centuries.  In comparison, most humanists have just begun to wonder about the limits and limitations of the human.  We might, indeed, wonder whether the label “humanist” has always carried a certain amount of hubris (or at least tunnel vision), as well as what it would take to become “post-human.”  Perhaps the liberation of all the apes now held in captivity, not to speak of all the other animals.

[1] Entry for “human,” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Entry for “humanist,” OED.

[3] William Borlase, Natural History of Cornwall (Oxford: W. Jackson, 1768), viii; Richard Pulteney, A General View of the Writings of Linnaeus (London:  J. Mawman, 1805), 11.

[4] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ed. Ernst Mayr (1859; Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1964), 50.

[5] Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1997), 23, 28-31.

[6] Carolus Linnaeus, Systema Naturae: Regnum Animale (1758; London:  British Museum (Natural History), 1956), 18.

[7] Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, 20-23.

[8] Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus:  Nature and Nation (Cambridge, Ma.:  Harvard University Press, 1999), 87-88.

[9] Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, 24.

[10].  Edward Tyson, Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris.  Or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man (London:  Thomas Bennet, 1699), “Preface” n.p.

[11]. An Historical Miscellany of the Curiosities and Rarities in Nature and Art… (London:  Champante and Whitrow, ca. 1800), III, 288-89.

[12].  Thomas Pennant, History of Quadrupeds (London:  B. and J. White, 1793), iv; William Wood, Zoography; or the Beauties of Nature Displayed (London:  Cadell and Davies, 1807), xvii.

[13]. William Lawrence, Lectures on Comparative Anatomy, Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man; delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons in the Years 1816, 1817, and 1818 (London:  R. Carlile, 1823), 127, 131.

[14] See, for example the illustrations in Thomas Bewick’s popular General History of Quadrupeds, first published in 1790.

[15].  C. V. A. Peel, The Zoological Gardens of Europe:  Their History and Chief Features (London:  F. E. Robinson, 1903), 205-206; “In Memory of Consul,” pamphlet in the Belle Vue collection, Chetham’s Library, Manchester.

[16].  Quoted in Dudley Wilson, Signs and Portents: Monstrous Births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment (Routledge: London, 1991), 56-67.

[17] Charles White, An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables: and from the Former to the Latter (London:  C. Dilly, 1799), 34.

[18].  Tyson, Orang-Outang, 2.

[19].  Jan Bondeson and A. E. W. Miles, “Julia Pastrana, the Nondescript:  An Example of Congenital Generalized Hypertrichosis Terminalis with Gingival Hyperplasia,” American Journal of Medical Genetics 47 (1993), 199.

[20] Lancet, 1867.

[21]. Nature 12 May 1882, cited in Martin Howard, Victorian Grotesque:  An Illustrated Excursion into Medical Curiosities, Freaks and Abnormalities–Principally of the Victorian Age (London:  Jupiter Books, 1977), 56-57.

[22] Stocking, Victorian Anthropology, 248-254; for the subsequent evolution of this debate, see Douglas Lorimer, “Theoretical Racism in Late-Victorian Anthropology, 1870-1900,” Victorian Studies 31 (1988), 405-430.

[23] James Hunt, “On the Negro’s Place in Nature,” Memoirs Read before the Anthropological Society of London 1 (1863-64), 1, 51-52.

[24] Catalogue of a Great Variety of Natural and Artificial Curiosities, Now Exhibiting at the Large House, the Corner of Queen’s Row, facing the Road, at Pimlico (London, 1766), 4; G. M. Humphrey, Analysis of the Physiological Series in the Gallery of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy (Cambridge, 1866), 9.

[25] Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (New York:  HarperCollins, 1992).


[27].  George J. Romanes, Animal Intelligence (New York:  D. Appleton, 1896), 439.

[28] See, for example, Frans De Waal, Good Natured:  The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, Ma.:  Harvard University Press, 1996) and Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males:  Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

[29] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1836; London:  J. M. Dent, 1908), 30.

[30] Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man (rev. ed. Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1988),  277-80.

[31] Diamond, Third Chimpanzee, 55.

[32] Irene Pepperberg, The Alex Studies:  Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Gray Parrots (Cambridge, Ma.:  Harvard University Press, 2002).

[33] Donald Griffin, Animal Minds:  Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2001),  228-51.

[34] Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, eds., The Great Ape Project:  Equality Beyond Humanity (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 1.

[35] Cavalieri and Singer, Great Ape Project, 4-6.

[36] Jeffrey Stinson, “Activists pursue basic legal rights for great apes; Spain first to vote on some freedoms,” USA Today (July 15, 2008), 7A.  (Accessed on Lexis-Nexis)

8 comments to Humans and Humanists (and Scientists)

  • The predominant view through most of Western history situated human beings on a continuum “between the angels and the beasts.” In many ways, this perspective has changed remarkably little, but computers have taken the place of angels. Transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil foresee a collapse of boundaries between human beings and computers, rather than between human beings and animals. His position may be extreme, but it raises many difficult question. As we live increasingly on the Internet, where animals are unable to follow, could human beings not place increasing distance between animals and ourselves? Could we not drive them further to the peripheries of our lives and ultimately, in ever greater numbers, to extinction? Could we promulgate fantasies of animals, which may make the real ones appear disappointing by comparison? At any rate, I do not think that any reconsideration of what it means to be human can realistically ignore the growing significance of computers in our lives.

    It is also possible that we be able to use computers to relate to animals, for example by simulating their perspectives on the world. The posthumanism which I believe lays the most comprehensive framework to address these various possibilities is that of Roberto Marchesini, who believes the defining quality of human beings is not a fixed quality but rather the tendency to affiliate with other entities, including animals, machines, and ideas. (See my summary at

  • Ritvo correctly observes that “until recently there has been a fair amount of consensus about the denotation of ‘human’ among practitioners and critics.” Such as consensus is, however, historically recent, and primarily a reaction against the racism that had pervaded Western science throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — and it reached a terrible culmination in the Nazi period. In the first half of the twentieth century it was not uncommon for popular, as well as scientific, writers to observe that the difference between Kant or Schiller and a “savage” was actually vastly greater than the difference between the savage and an ape. In reaction to this, not only did any discussion of racial differences became taboo, but questions of human identity, which had been so intimately associated with such discussion, did as well. The reasons for the taboo were basically admirable, and it may arguably have been necessary, even if it did inhibit certain kinds of scientific and philosophical investigation, but it could not be sustained indefinitely. As Robert Proctor puts it in a detailed discussion of these problems, “…political evil may be creative and political goodwill stifling” [Proctor, R. N. (2005). Human Recency and Race: Molecular Anthropology, the Refigured Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz. In H. W. Baillie & T. K. Casey (Eds.), Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genetics, Bioengineering, and the Future of the Human Condition (pp. 235-268). Cambridge, MA: MIT UP]. The consensus about human identity that is breaking down lasted only from the end of World War II until the last decades of the twentieth century, perhaps about 40 years in all. I do not know what the practical implications of reopening questions of human identity may be, but I would not assume that a “posthuman” society will necessarily be either less hierarchical or more tolerant than our own.

  • Wai Chee Dimock

    A “posthuman” society might not be in the immediate future, but rethinking the boundaries of the “human” does have tremendous implications right now. It might be helpful to go beyond a strictly scientific taxonomy to see how this question is refracted more generally across a range of discourses. I’m thinking especially of the interplay between humans and non-humans in imaginative literature, from the ancient epic to contemporary science fiction. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu initially hangs out with wild animals and has to be initiated into human society. In the Odyssey, there are a number of creatures that seem to defy simple labels. The Cyclops, for instance, has a flock of sheep and makes cheeses, but his size, his one eye, and the matter-of-fact way he devours human bodies suggest that he is a “savage” after all, perhaps even belonging to a different species. Odysseus clearly feels that Cyclops is less than human and treats him accordingly. Yet this presumption doesn’t seem to pan out, since Odysseus is soon punished by Poseidon, and sent adrift for another 10 years. So it seems that “humanness” is a vexed issue from the very first; contemporary science fiction is simply revisiting the terrain with the help of new technologies. This is a body of material humanists know very well; I would argue that this is one of the core issues in our disciplines, one that can in turn be enlisted as a bridge to the sciences.

  • Harriet Ritvo has some typically fascinating historical observations on the history of the concept of the human, but I’m not so clear how they bear on the questions raised in the conclusion on the rights of apes. Although it’s true that the gap between ourselves and related animals now looks much narrower than it once did, the nature of the gap is much clearer. Our lineage diverged from the most closely related of theirs a few million years ago, and some time between then and now we and they ceased to produce viable hybrids. In the mean time we developed syntactically complex languages, agriculture, urban cultures, arts and sciences, etc. The difference between humans and non-humans is surely much clearer for the fact that we don’t mistake it for a distinct biological essence. I do not, of course, take this imply that we should imprison, eat, or in any other way exploit other creatures that we also know to be intelligent, social, communicative, and so on. They are in addition increasingly rare, which gives another reason to be nice to them: it would be a huge loss to ourselves to lose these wonderful relatives. Indeed, it is because they are so different from us, not because they are like us, that their disappearance would be such a disaster. So I cannot agree that “human uniqueness has come under increasing taxonomic challenge”. Taxonomic uniqueness just amounts to rather less than some once thought.

    My final worry is one with which I expect Ritvo would sympathise. The Declaration on Great Apes is surely intolerably anthropocentric. Surely these animals are singled out only because they are phylogenetically related to us. I have no idea whether their lives are emotionally or socially richer than those of an elephant, a dolphin or a baboon. Surely a proper reading of contemporary biology should be to give up on hereditary privilege, and work out how to treat all animals on their merits.

  • Aslihan Sanal

    The humanists held the “know thyself” mirror to social life and saw in its taxonomy an image of their fragmented nature–as humans, as apes and as other animals linked in body and soul to a great chain of being. They had observed this in chimeric beings versed in epic poems, and reinvented it in less romantic ways of science. They had observed human qualities in apes, smoking, dancing and reading, and more animal qualities among humans, as in early days of anthropology. And in time, the humanists began feeling the urge to strip the animal from the taxonomic place occupying the imagery and place it within the social contract in equal footing with humans. This is evident in the Great Ape Project as well as in other debates on humanoids, robots, etc. Why would only humans have rights in a modern capital driven order in which many, among them humanoids, primates or robots contribute with their entire labor? Yet Ritvo underlines the dramatic: we are not even close to having equality among the human society itself let alone think of giving the “next of kin”, the apes, a place in it. Beside this, in different cultures, giving “rights” to animals and other similar beings could invoke links to imaginary beings, almost materializing the fantastic within legal forms of governance. Would this not be reinventing an all new taxonomic spectrum, an all new fragmentation, an all new ground of fear amidst material life that is already dramatically unequal and unjust? Ritvo’s observation is in place for she knows the heart and hope of the humanist, the wilderness of social life, and the frame in which the legal operates, and she knows that the humanists lens is now adjusted to the “post-human condition” looking down to a modern life.

  • Leigh Van Valen

    I’m adding to Dupré’s comment, without implying his agreement with what I say.

    It’s usual in such discussions to consider only animals that are still alive. After all, we can have no ethical responsibilities to the extinct, even if we have regrets. Evolution is a continuum, though, and it’s appropriate to consider where in this ancestral continuum humanness began.

    From this perspective it’s obvious that any distinction between human and nonhuman can’t be sharp. We can propose many criteria that distinguish us from mice, baboons, amoebas, and/or bonobos. A set of distinctions from amoebas will presumably be larger than one for baboons. The criteria themselves are often fuzzy: thus some humans can’t speak, and bonobos walk bipedally about half the time. Groups of chimpanzees differ from each other in their material and behavioral culture. We gradually became human.

    An appropriate context for humanness is that of fuzzy sets. Some individual animals are fully human, others are not human, and others are or have been partly human. How partly this is for a particular individual will depend on the criteria used.

    A monist perspective implies the theoretical possibility of our constructing intelligent and even emotional entities. Would they be human? Here again absolute demarcations fail us.

    Ethical responsibilities, too, have fuzzy boundaries. They probably evolved to enhance the survival of small groups of our ancestors. We now have broader contexts. In the words of Jesus of Nazareth, Who is thy brother? Does the recent evidence that fish feel pain make the holiday fisherman a moral monster? Ethical responsibilities come in degrees, not in dichotomies.

    How much weight should we give to different criteria? There is again no unique answer.

    On a different note, I see the distinctiveness of the humanities as an approach, or a set of related approaches, rather than a set of subjects to be explored. Linguistics is a science, but it is one with a humanistic context and implications, rather like cultural anthropology in this way. Art history, like any history, is partly a science. Despite the repeated removal of parts of its domain over the centuries, what remains of philosophy merges with mathematics via logic and with all sciences via conceptual and other analyses.

    Thus the humanities in part flow into the sciences, but the perspectives of the two are nonetheless different. Unlike science per se, the humanities incorporate and are built around values. What, in a nonmaterial way, brings value to the human condition? The humanities reach, or try to reach, into the soul. Such metadisciplinary analysis, as I once called it (in a literary journal), has the potential to clarify by comparison rather than by introspection.

    But people differ from each other. There is no fully universal core, nor should we pretend to find one. Let a hundred flowers bloom; some propagate widely, others narrowly or not at all. Some flourish in a culture-specific way, others more generally. Personalities themselves constrain paths to the soul.

    In some parts of the humanities there has come to be a dictatorship of fads; in some others the superficial seems to have become paramount. These are, I think, the real crises of the humanities. Goodwill and determination should suffice to find paths from the mire.

  • Anita Guerrini

    It is interesting that although Linnaeus separated the humans into racial categories, his contemporary Buffon did not. When Buffon began to write his Histoire naturelle in the 1740s, he denied the existence of species altogether; like his seventeenth-century predecessor Claude Perrault, he believed that we could only talk about individuals, which themselves exhibited so much variation that it was impossible to make any generalizations which could qualify as a system of classification. Buffon later moderated his views to accept a definition of species based on the ability to reproduce. By this definition, humans are fundamentally different from apes, although his degeneration theory left open a possibility of some common ancestor (an idea he rejected).

    Like Leigh Van Valen, I am especially concerned with the current devaluation of the humanities (which, interestingly, has no entry in the OED). I agree that the idea of value is one way the humanities can intervene in current discourses. But I think it will take more than goodwill to keep the humanities from simply disappearing from many universities. Giorgio Agamben has argued (in The Open) that recognition of the essential identity between human and animal will result in a post-historical, post-humanistic era. I don’t think we’re past history yet, and Ritvo’s essay opens up a space where human and natural histories intersect. Science needs the values and critique of the humanities, and the humanities, as Ritvo eloquently concludes, need to look beyond the human.

  • Harriet Ritvo

    Response to responses: On Humans and Humanists (and Scientists)

    On-line forum “On the Human”
    The structure of this on-line forum, as implied by the distribution of its editors, posits animals and machines as equivalent boundaries of the human. Since the ways that humans resemble animals are not completely analogous to the ways that they resemble machines, this further suggests that the most important similarities and differences are abstract. Of course, abstract analogies are important and interesting—but they are not alone in possessing these qualities. And the consequences of thinking about concrete animals (and machines) can be very different from the consequences of thinking about notional ones: for example, a post-human future dominated or determined by (other?) machines would not be the same as one dominated or determined by other animals.

    To some extent, inclination toward the abstract or the concrete is disciplinary. As a historian I am drawn by the concrete; philosophers and literary theorists often prefer abstraction (which is not to say that they prefer the same kinds of abstraction). Wai Chee Dimock points out the traditional power of imaginative literature to consider boundary issues. The examples she gives tend to produce a still more powerful abstraction—boundary or difference per se. Enkidu is a human who associates inappropriately with non-humans; the Cyclops is not particularly human, but he is not recognizably animal either. (Of course the humans don’t treat each other very well in Homer, and there is no particular reason to think that the gods, though literally anthropomorphic, necessarily value every human above every non-human.) It would be anachronistic to wonder whether the works of ancient writers were intended or perceived as bridges between the sciences or other ways of knowing, but some modern literature certainly has been so conceived and so understood (for example, Frankenstein or The Island of Dr. Moreau among many others).

    The growing field sometimes called “animal studies” has internalized the disciplinary division: within it historians tend to pay more attention difference between animals (or kinds of animals) in particular, and scholars in literary and cultural studies tend to consider “the animal” in some comprehensive general sense. Aslihan Sanal suggests a possible way of reconciling these perspectives, while she also suggests the challenges that such reconciliation would pose. The notion of “the human” obviates numerous fine (and not-so-fine) distinctions, which may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view. The notion of “the animal” obviates many more distinctions, most of which are not fine at all. As Leigh Van Valen points out, there is no single boundary between people and other organisms; instead there are many points of contact and many complex gradations.

    The reasons for acknowledging and honoring these gradations are practical as well as intellectual. Over the last two centuries, every attempt to extend the legal protections accorded to animals, or to alter the political or religious attitudes that determine their standing, has been strenuously resisted. Arguments that do not recognize the general preference for pets over livestock are not likely to persuade. Pigs and goats are probably the intellectual and emotional peers of cats and dogs, but their position in our society is very different. Similar disjunctions exist with regard to wild animals, who are, as a category, treated very differently from domesticates. Unless they are captives (in menageries or laboratories), they are protected, if at all, as species rather than as individuals. In this context the special emotional connection to humans enjoyed by pet dogs and cats is paralleled by the special physical resemblance to humans enjoyed (or not) by monkeys and especially apes. As John Dupré predicts, I completely agree with him that phylogenetic proximity is not the appropriate standard for judging the emotional lives of other animals. But history suggests that it is the likeliest to serve as the thin edge of the wedge of consideration (and, probably, that it will be a very thin edge indeed).

    But I find phylogeny more compelling than he does. Historically, people have been more inclined to wonder about their relation to chimpanzees and orangutans than about their relation to dolphins and elephants, and also more inclined to attempt to integrate apes into their lives, whether in fact or in imagination. There is no question that this inclination has been anthropocentric (as has been most other human thinking and acting). But most historical research deals with subjects who would not measure up to current moral or intellectual standards; as Anita Guerrini illustrates, they can be, nevertheless, well worth studying.