A Trans-Species Perspective on Nature

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and Center for Ethics, Emory University

“Learn to live like animals again.” —Gay Bradshaw, 2010

What is a trans-species perspective?

The general term trans-species perspective derives from and encompasses Trans-Species Psychology, a new paradigm of science, knowledge, and culture established by psychologist/ecologist Gay Bradshaw. Bradshaw is currently the Executive Director of The Kerulos Center, a non-profit organization that implements trans-species psychology through various programs of service and education. As she defines it:

Trans re-embeds humans within the larger matrix of the animal kingdom by erasing the ‘and’ between humans and animals that has been used to demarcate and reinforce the false notion that humans are substantively different cognitively and emotionally from other species.” (Animal Visions, September 17, 2010)

Therefore, a trans-species perspective is an all-encompassing stance towards nature that embraces the continuity and comparability of all species’ lives. It shapes the way we view ourselves in relation to other animals and involves changing our current model of those relationships from one of separation and condescension to one of communalism and respect. I argue that a trans-species perspective provides us a way to move forward in a more in a more authentic, productive, and ethical manner with respect to ourselves and the other animals with whom we share the planet. Furthermore, I argue strongly that a change in perspective is critically needed because our current model of nature is not working. Given the mass extinctions, global destruction of habitat, environmental degradation, and continued mass exploitation of other animals, nothing short of a shift in human psychological perspective is needed to turn things around.

TSP is concordant with the evidence

As a scientist and human being it is important to me to take a perspective of nature and our place in it that conforms to reality. Science provides that perspective through empirical knowledge. I argue that for the past two millennia or more we have been in the grip of a model of nature that is artificial and perpetuated by human bias — not generated by data. Despite the overwhelming evidence for continuity and shared capacities across species we continue to carry on as though the world were a very different place — a world where, at best, other animals are a mere rudiment of human existence. This persistent world view harks back to ancient times when it was most well known as the Scala Naturae (“Natural Scale” or “Great Chain of Being”) — a philosophical view of nature attributed to Aristotle from the third century BCE. According to Aristotle, nature could be arranged on a fixed scale of complexity, perfection, and value. The scale moves up from “lower” animals (invertebrates) to “higher” animals (vertebrates), to humans, who occupy a position separate from and above all other life forms. Key to understanding the scala naturae is noting that it is not just an organizational scheme of nature. It is also a scale of worth. What is higher on the scale is viewed as more valuable than what is lower because, according to Aristotle, the “principle of form” is more advanced in higher organisms than in lower ones.

The scala naturae became known as the “phylogenetic” or “phyletic scale” in post-Darwinian times. The phylogenetic scale has a patina of scientific legitimacy because it appears to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms. Yet, like the scala naturae, the phylogenetic scale is a hierarchical scheme that promotes the idea that organisms on a higher level of the scale than others are more “evolutionarily developed” than those on the lower levels.

The human species has spent a lot of effort trying to find the “holy grail” that will confirm a qualitative difference and position of superiority above other animals. Neurobiological studies have failed to turn up a single property of the human brain that is qualitatively different from that of other species (i.e., that is not explainable within the common framework of comparative evolution). Specific focus has been placed on finding the basis for the uniqueness of the human brain among our closest primate relatives, that is, what separates us qualitatively from chimpanzees. But moving beyond the range of primates provides an important perspective on this effort. I have studied cetacean (dolphin, whale and porpoise) and primate brains for the past twenty years and there are compelling differences among them. Primate and cetacean brains are arguably two of the most different, morphologically, among the large mammals. These differences exist in cortical topography and cytoarchitecture and represent different ways of distributing and processing information in the brain. The cetacean brain not only possesses very unusual features but also a uniquely elaborated paralimbic lobe not found in primates. Despite these striking neuroanatomical differences driven by adaptation to different physical environments for tens of millions of years there is striking convergence in psychology across cetaceans and primates — not equivalence — but comparability and shared aspects of mind. To the point, cetacean and primate brains are vastly more different from each other than any two primate brains are. Yet, they are most validly understood as variations on a theme. Therefore, what would be the basis for arguing that there is a “bright line” between human brains and those of other primates? Compared to cetacean brains human and chimpanzee brains, for instance, are almost identical.

Try as we might we have yet to find any fundamental mechanism or principle unique to the human brain. As Robert Sapolsky has pointed out recently in this forum:

The fly brain and the human brain “…have the same electrical properties, many of the same neurotransmitters, the same protein channels that allow ions to flow in and out, as well as a remarkably high number of genes in common. Neurons are the same basic building blocks in both species. “ (Sapolsky, November, 2010)

and this truth was also articulated by another forum-contributor, Frans de Waal:

“If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts [my italics].” (de Waal, October, 2010).

In the twenty-first century our understanding of the nature of biological evolution is elucidated by revolutionary methodologies in genomic research. The present model of biological evolution is that of descent with modification. All modern species — sparrow, human, sponge, etc. — are extant representatives of that process. Therefore, when it comes to the claim that there is a fundamental difference between our species and others (or that humans are uniquely special in some truly objective measurable way), there is no there there. Moreover, the very fact that we stand to benefit so much from scala naturae thinking should give us pause as to its validity. I argue that, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, the scala natura remains the fundamental paradigm of nature and the core validation for the inequalities and abuses imposed on other animals by humans.

One might think that I am setting up a strawman argument and that modern scientific thinking is too sophisticated to adhere to such an outmoded model of nature. But there is evidence all around us that the scala natura remains the dominant paradigm. I will provide evidence within three domains — language and representation, science, and ethics — and contrast the current model with the trans-species paradigm that I argue should replace it.

Language and Representation

Many authors have pointed out that language shapes the power relations in society by creating and perpetuating various attitudes. Nowhere is this more true than in our use of language to maintain scala naturae thinking about other animals. Even in modern science textbooks and peer-reviewed papers we find such phrases as “lower animals” and “higher animals” and other hierarchical representations such as depicting the evolution of life on the planet as a linear progression from “lower to higher” with humans at the pinnacle. I have used many biology textbooks during the course of my academic career and I have found only one that portrayed humans in our proper evolutionary relationship to the other primates, i.e., not as the endpoint of primate evolution but, rather, as another species embedded within the great ape clade. And even if one does not consider humans great apes the fact that almost all pictorial depictions of primate evolution show humans on top or at the end of a progression belies an objective viewpoint. These representations are internalized and propagated throughout society, along with others too numerous to detail here, including the use of the pronoun “it” when referring to another animal. Of considerable concern is the pervasive use of speciesist and scala naturae language in books and other media materials for young children who are being enculturated into a scala naturae model.

A trans-species language would reflect the veridical relationship among species without injecting hierarchical notions of value. The fact that we do not have linguistic terms and concepts that readily articulate our true relationship to other animals is remarkable and concerning. Trans-species language will have to be developed hand-in-hand with the perspective. Scientific, educational, entertainment and news materials will need to reflect a more objective and varied representation of the human species in the context of evolution, explicitly hierarchical and value-laden concepts must be rejected, and other animals ought to be referred to in comparable terms as humans. For instance, at the very least individuals of other species should be referred to as “she” or “he”, when appropriate, rather than “it”. What appears to be a small issue — the use of pronouns — is really a very strong influence on how we view other animals. Generally, we should consider comparable terms for comparable phenomena without the torturous measures we employ to avoid the appearance of anthropomorphism when, in fact, everyone knows that certain behaviors are shared entirely with other species. To take a common example, the ethological term for a certain behavior is “consumatory or gustatory behavior”. We know it as… eating. Revisions of language to accommodate a trans-species perspective would, I argue, facilitate a more authentically comparative view of behavior in humans and other animals than currently exists.


The scala naturae model pervades modern scientific reasoning and methodology. Historically, humans have denied other animals traits such as emotions, complex cognitive abilities, reason, culture, the ability to suffer, and other attributes thought to be uniquely human. Today we pride ourselves on taking a less extreme, more “enlightened”, view than in the past yet we remain reluctant to attribute anything but the most rudimentary versions of human abilities to other animals. Therefore, we are willing to accept the evidence for certain shared capacities, e.g., morality, culture, self awareness, with members of other species but we rarely if ever allow them to possess comparable, let alone more complex or sophisticated, thoughts and feelings. This modern view of other animals as simpler or incomplete versions of humans is hardly more than a small advance over the older extreme view denying any and all complex traits to other animals. As an example, we speak of other primates as having the “beginnings” of morality or culture as if they are partial versions of “full blown” humans. But given that modern primates are not ancestral to us, by what logic or empirical base do we assume that they have the less complex, the less profound, the less intelligent, if you will, versions of such traits?

Furthermore, while we are forced to admit that some other animals possess more sophisticated sensory-perceptual capacities (e.g., olfaction in dogs, audition in cetaceans) we tend to frame these abilities in terms of non-cognitive descriptions, e.g., numbers of sensory receptors or other peripheral mechanisms. Clearly, echolocation — the use of high frequency sound for processing information — by cetaceans is more than a fancy receptor device. It is a highly sophisticated cognitive capacity that humans lack — and all that that implies.

The entire scientific research enterprise using other animals as so-called animal models is based on the scala naturae. We make inferences about human minds from animals yet it is considered anathema to make inferences from humans to other animals. When we do so we deride it as anthropomorphism. The very nature of modern scientific thought and inquiry is based on what Bradshaw calls “unidirectional inference” (from other animals to humans). Implicit in the animal model paradigm is the view that other animals (and their characteristics) represent lesser, simpler or partial versions of humans.

A shift to a trans-species perspective in science would complete the broken circle of logic by requiring that scientific inference be bidirectional. We can learn about other animals from humans. (I am not, of course, proposing we experiment on humans to learn about other animals nor do I advocate the opposite.) I am suggesting a new way of thinking about the relationship between humans and other animals that opens up avenues of inquiry and insight that are currently unnecessarily closed off by a unidirectional paradigm. For example, several recent papers have described the psychopathology exhibited by chimpanzees used in biomedical research with the human-derived concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These studies show that bidirectional inference, that is, applying what we know about humans to members of other species (chimpanzees in this case), can be a highly productive way of gleaning insights into the psychology of both species.


Scala Naturae thinking justifies the long history of objectification, exploitation and abuse that characterizes human-other animal relationships. By definition, an animal model is an animal sufficiently like humans in anatomy, physiology or psychology to be used in research considered too unpleasant, harmful or intrusive for humans. The animal model meets a kind of taxonomic equivalency to humans so as to react to manipulation in a way that resembles the human response. We “determine” through historical consensus that members of other species can be like us in ways that are convenient and yet dissimilar in ways that would be inconvenient if acknowledged otherwise. For instance, rats, dogs and monkeys have been used in studies of depression for decades without an adequate explanation to this day of precisely how they are appropriate subjects for this research without deserving equal ethical concern. All such “explanations” appeal to scala naturae thinking about other animals experiencing lesser suffering than humans, or only partial suffering. This is a convenient assumption but not one based on compelling data.

A trans-species perspective requires us to not only divest ourselves of the ethical double standard of the animal model in science and education, but transform how we deal with other animals in all aspects of living from a model of exclusivity to one of inclusion. This means finding ways to live that allow, to the best of our ability, all to thrive. For example, traditionally, conservation efforts have focused on ways to “manage” populations of other animals who come into conflict with humans because of over-crowding, climate change, etc. These efforts typically include drastic disruptions to the lives of other animals in the form of culling, relocation, fencing, etc. As a result, conservation has not stopped the current landslide of extinctions and, instead, has resulted in individual animals in these populations becoming psychologically disturbed and even less resilient. But relatively little attention is given to the most obvious cause of the current mass extinctions: human behavior. Finding solutions to human overpopulation and consumerism are politically uncomfortable subjects. But a trans-species perspective would not expect other animals to accomodate (often with severe consequences for them) to our excesses without our own species making reasonable adjustments in our own behavior.

Case in point is the plight of African elephants brought to light by Gay Bradshaw in her recent book Elephants on the Edge (2009). In it she details a disturbing phenomenon of documented abnormal behaviors (i.e. poor mothering, hyperaggression, increased conflict with humans, etc.) in elephants. She provides a cogent analysis of the causes of the situation by noting that human activities, including those that are considered “conservation measures” are disrupting the psychological development of the elephants and leading to deregulation of their social behavior. She points out that, as highly intelligent emotional social mammals, elephants are vulnerable to psychological trauma from the loss of family members and violence as we are. The result is an all-too-familiar pattern of individual trauma and breakdown in social relations within elephant groups much in the same way that psychological trauma and disturbance produces dysfunctional human families and groups. This example of bidirectional inference provides a richer and more productive way to understand and empathize with this kind of perplexing behavior in other animals and should guide our response in terms of conservation and human-other animal interactions in general.

Caveats and Conclusions

A trans-species perspective involves a dismissal of our current scala naturae model of nature and a profound change in our view of ourselves and the other animals. I want to caution, however, that this is not tantamount to rejecting the notion that there are discontinuities across species. Discontinuities exist across all species and are a natural part of the biological world. For example, dolphins are capable of echolocation, a highly sophisticated use of sound echoes to form mental representations. Humans do not have this perceptual system, plain and simple. This is a discontinuity. But it does not make humans or dolphins different in nature, only in some features. And it certainly is silent on the issue of who is more valuable as a species.

The scala naturae view of nature might have become an historical oddity, much the same as flat-earth theory and other geo- and anthrocentric schemes had it not so eagerly been passed down by successive generations of scientists, philosophers, and others. This begs the question of why. The answer is complex. At one level it is mightily convenient to internalize a view of humans as superior to other animals because it justifies our exploitation of them. At a deeper level, however, it may be related to the fact that we are afraid to be what we are — animals — because it means that we are subject to the same processes of nature as our animal kin, i.e. mortality. Much of human effort is spent on denying our own nature and, thus, denying death at various levels. The fact that there is a relationship between scala naturae views and other social models that provide a way “out” of a natural death, i.e., religion, is compelling. Whatever the reasons, we need to get over it.

So the reasons for holding onto a scala naturae view of nature are psychologically forceful. Arguably, given that this model has not provided a sustainable way to live on this planet, we may be forced to confront who we are. In doing so, we may ultimately find more life than death.


Animal Visions (http://animalvisions.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/trans-species-living-an-interview-with-gay-bradshaw/)

Bradshaw, G. (2009) Elephants on the Edge. Yale University Press.

de Waal, FBM (2010) Morals without God? On the Human (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2010/10/morals-without-god/)

Sapolsky, R. (2010) This is your brain on metaphors. On the Human (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2010/11/your-brain-on-metaphors/)

12 comments to A Trans-Species Perspective on Nature

  • Let’s get rid of misleading hierarchical thinking once and for all: It’s not all about us.

    Dr. Marino’s essay is a wonderful entry into what I hope will be a new paradigm of thinking that is followed by action, namely, to get rid of hierarchical schemes once and for all in which humans place themselves ‘higher’, which invariably translates into ‘better’, than other ‘lower’ species and to treat individuals of other species with the dignity and respect they deserve. Sure, we’re special and unique, but so too are all other species. Researchers conducting comparative studies of the social behavior, social organization, and minds of other animals have shown repeatedly that individuals of a given species do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species. We must appreciate and respect the similarities and differences among species and not offer glib hierarchical conclusions about their cognitive, emotional, or moral capacities in comparison to humans or other primates. When birds such as New Caledonian crows do something that chimpanzees don’t do as well — make and use complex tools, for example (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201010/crows-and-tools-calling-someone-birdbrain-can-be-compliment), few say the birds are ‘smarter’ than the chimpanzees. However, when chimpanzees or other great apes/non-human primates do something that individuals of other species can’t do many people take the narrow primatocentric view that the primates are smarter than the others. This often translates into how they are treated. Much recent research has shown that their are many ‘surprises’ in the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of a wide range of animals including moral sentiments or what Jessica Pierce and I call ‘wild justice’ (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=6407651). Many other-than-human animals can be nice, compassionate, empathic, and kind to one another and Bob Sussman and his colleagues have shown that among many non-human primates the majority of their interactions are prosocial (positive and cooperative) rather than divisive and competitive. The nature red in tooth and claw way of thinking is very misleading. For me, one for of the most important outcomes of appreciating what other animals are telling us — their manifesto would be ‘Treat us better or leave us alone’ — is that we stop mistreating millions of other animals in the name of science, education, entertainment, food, or clothing and that we offer more and more animals formal protection from invasive research and from being used in reprehensible ways. For example, we know mice are empathic beings but this has not figured into any new legislation that would protect them from wide-ranging invasive research. Likewise, chimpanzees who have already been used in research and then placed in sanctuaries where they can live out their lives in peace and dignity should be left there and not placed back in research facilities. Shame on the people who want to place them back in laboratories.

    It’s time to make this the century of compassion and to expand our compassion footprint. We suffer the indignities we impose on other species and we must remember that when someone tells you “Oh, you’re acting like an animal” you can thank them and walk away with pride. We must remember that it’s not all about us and that current research on animal minds and emotions support fully the idea that coexistence must be the name of the game and that we must no longer continue to ignore nature.

  • Reading Lori Marino’s essay made me want to stand up and cheer. I will try to contain my emotions, however, since advocating on behalf of other animals in a forum such as this properly calls for critical reflection. (Although, of course, the notion of a completely dispassionate inquiry can also be questioned.) The very name of this forum — “On the Human” — has a certain scala naturae aura about it. But not to get caught up in preliminaries. Still, it seems not entirely inappropriate to do so, given that Marino’s thesis concerns a paradigm shift. What is so refreshing to me about her essay is that it expresses the commonsense frustration of observing scientists attempting to reach an asymptote (of paradigm shift) by means of “normal science.” You can’t get there from here.

    Case in point: The researcher who investigates whether other animals have empathy by making them observe their peers undergoing torture. If this is sincere, it is self-parody. If it is not a parody, then what is it? What the experiments do prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that some human beings lack empathy. Furthermore, and what I mean by the asymptote, is that no conceivable laboratory demonstration of this sort will ever prove decisive to the investigator, as evidenced by the standard conclusion from such research that “still more research is needed to….” In other words, the same sort of sadistic experiments will proceed apace, perhaps only multiplied by the encouraging results. At no point short of infinity — the end of all research — would scientists be prepared to apply the findings of their research program to the program itself by suspending it.

    But with a “simple” paradigm shift, the scales fall from one’s eyes, and suddenly all animals are as likely as not to have empathy, or at least the ones that observation in a natural setting or else some kind of evolutionary inference would lead one to believe probably have it. And at that point the benefit of the doubt could also chip in, since one wants to err on the side of non-injury … one would think!

    But now the bogey of anthropomorphism appears. It seems to me, as I gather to Marino, that it is completely obvious that humans are animals; and therefore this should give us humans clear insight into other animals’ behavior and minds. The starting point need not be the “problem” of other minds. It should not be assumed that we can never know “what it is like to be a bat.” Why shouldn’t the default be that of course we humans can empathize with other animals? Are we not in most respects alike? Yes, we humans ought to become attuned to important differences between species, just as in dealing with other human cultures or other human individuals. It is a mistake to think that others are identical to oneself. But it is a bigger mistake to think that they are utterly alien.

    Marino points out the complicity of pronouns in perpetuating our estrangement from other animals. (I had a recent run-in with a newspaper copy editor about my op-ed, who changed my “her” for a kitten to “it” in accordance with AP style guidelines. I can see that there might be an issue if the gendered pronoun were being used in a stereotypic way to identify all cats as female. But in this case there was internal evidence in what I had written that the kitten in question was in fact female.) I would just like to add that “we” and its cognates pose as serious a pronoun problem as “it.” Are we not animals? Of course that is precisely Marino’s point. Yet the understood reference of “we” is usually “humans” (or some subset thereof). Who has ever used it to refer to “all of us animals”? (Of course it could then still be used in context to refer to subsets thereof, including humans as such.) Would Marino want to propose that that become the new default? Someone needs to write a Prolegomena to all Future Pronouns.

    Finally, regarding Marino’s two explanations for anthropocentrism: a convenient excuse to exploit others, and a way to deny our own animal mortality. Rabbi Marc Gellman, who writes a syndicated newspaper column on religion, often combines these two in his advice about the proper treatment of other animals. Here is a typical remark: “It does make spiritual sense that animals don’t have souls. If they did, then eating them would be a sin.” (http://www.buffalonews.com/life/columns-advice/god-squad/article236119.ece)

    In sum: the human investigation of other animals is fraught with conflict of interest. I suppose a question that could be raised is: Why shouldn’t a species have primary concern about its own interests? But I will leave that question for someone else to ask.

  • Thanks for an excellent and provocative essay, and I agree with much of it — particularly the notion that has also been put forth by Ernest Becker and Paul Rozin that our need to psychologically distance ourselves from other animals may be rooted on our fear of death.

    However, given that you acknowledge that there are some discontinuities and differences between species, what are the moral implications (if any) of these differences? In her book Speciesism, Joan Dunayer argues that if you have to choose between saving a puppy or an infant from a burning building, you should flip a coin. While this position is absurd, it raises the question of how do we draw lines when the interests of members of species come into conflict — which, in the real world, is a common occurrence.

    What guidance does the trans-species perspective have in these situations?

  • Kathryn Denning

    What a beautiful, powerful essay.

    In my own classroom experience teaching biological anthropology, I have to work hard to break down students’ assumptions not just about great apes, but also about our extinct hominid relatives, and even about other human beings living in the world today. Their default assumption is often that of profound difference, not of commonality — even when dealing exclusively with Hominoidea, let alone other animals. They are frequently surprised and delighted to discover that other animals sing, solve problems, have politics, love, laugh, and mourn. Why should these realities defy expectation?

    As Marino eloquently points out, scala naturae thinking is behind a lot of this, as it manifests through language, scientific practice, and conservation. I also suspect an intertwined influence: the scala natura is animated and applied through old and deeply seated narratives (some even older than the scala natura) which are retold over and over, and even materialized in our buildings. I’ve found it very interesting to consider the stories of human-animal interaction that are embedded in Western society, ranging from ancient Mesopotamian stories to the medieval tale of the Hunt of the Unicorn, to more recent popular stories of human-animal friendships that are considered remarkable because they defy expectation by crossing a putative boundary (which of course isn’t really there!). We absorb such stories from our very first picture books as children. And we also absorb those stories through the physicality of the zoo – a place to which most of us are taken as small children, ostensibly to learn about animals, but where we learn instead what we are allowed to do to them, and how we are separate from them. Thomas King’s book The Truth About Stories begins with a masterful comparison of the Native creation story, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and the Judaeo-Christian tale of Adam and Eve, and asks: how might the world be different if we told a different story about how human beings and our animal kin are related?

    I couldn’t agree more with Marino’s call for a trans-species perspective — it is inspiring and elegant on both scientific and moral levels — and I hope we can learn to tell stories that embed it deeply in our not-so-special primate brains. I believe we can make progress with this, not only because of the passionate scholar-activists leading the way, but also because of precedent: science and medicine have made progress in related arenas, for example by insisting upon including basic protections for all human beings through the Nuremberg Code. That, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was instituted barely 60 years ago. Instead of treating humanity as subdivided groups of different worth, we have begun to consider all humans equal. Obviously, we have a long way to go even in that arena, but the process of conscious, deliberate change has begun and has taken root. We can keep going — we can keep expanding the circle. As Marino shows, we must.

  • I applaud Lori Marino’s trans-species approach as both a necessary prodding for researchers and as better evolutionary science. As researchers and teachers we need to do a better job of incorporating this approach and getting it out to the broader public.

    The shift away from a human centric view of nature is actively happening in many areas. From Donna Haraway’s concept of “living with others”, to anthropology’s emerging multispecies approach (see November issue of the journal Cultural Anthropology), to changes in the practice of primatology shifting foci to interfaces and shared ecologies between humans and other primates (termed ethnoprimatology), to work by Marc Bekoff (see comments above), Frans deWaal and many others. The concept of bidirectional influence and shared participation in ecologies are becoming more and more central to views of the world and our place in it. This is a good thing, and Marino’s call here reinforces this trend.

    However, we have to be careful at the same time to not deny or ignore the discontinuities between human patterns and potentials and those of other organisms. Humans are enormously prolific niche constructors and are currently undertaking global modification of ecologies. Phylogenetically we are in the ape clade, but practically we are not just another ape. Humans shape, modify and impact ecosystems on a greater and more variable level than almost any other organism. Our brains are very similar to other apes and to cetaceans; but our minds, societies, and active manipulation of the planet are different in important ways (not better or worse, but different in implementation, scope and impact).

    This reality carries a specific moral and ethical obligation…we are the major niche constructors on the planet and thus we do manage ecologies (as part of our current patterns and our evolutionary past). Because of our specific adaptive toolkit we alter ecologies and manipulate systems such that multiple other organisms are affected by and participant in anthropogenic processes. It is our obligation then to use a trans-species approach both to recognize and respect the equal evolutionary status of all other life and to attempt to create strategies that demonstrate the role of this value, incorporating it in our actions and perspectives. It is a fact that we are part of a multiplicity of life forms currently inhabiting the planet, many who share our daily lives and all of whom deserve our respect. But our attempts to manage the world in as sustainable a manner as possible require both that we adopt the trans-species approach noted in Marino’s essay and that we recognize and incorporate the histories and impacts of our specific evolutionary trajectories, noting that they reflect specific types of discontinuities with other organisms.

  • Leigh Atchison

    This article brings up a very good issue about the relationship between humans and animals and the similarities between the two. I have mixed emotions about Marino’s argument, however, and agree on some points while disagreeing on others. There is a great rift between humans and other animals and how we treat each other. Over the years humans have always put themselves above other animals due to our belief that we are superior. It hasn’t been till recently that we have begun fighting for other animals’ rights and trying to extend moral status to them based on our knowledge that humans are not so different than these other animals. I agree with the idea that we shouldn’t treat animals as if they have no moral status and require no consideration. Their well-being is important to humans and it is wrong to cause them unjust harm. The idea of a trans-species perspective is an interesting topic, but I do not fully agree with its implications.

    It is true that non-human animals contain many of the characteristics that humans do that entitle them to some form of moral consideration, but I believe there are still differences between the two that give humans a moral superiority above non-human animals. It is more than just our fear of accepting that we are animals and are capable of death that has always led us to believe that we are above other animals. As humans we maintain characteristics, such as the ability to express long-term categorical goals and desires as well as the ability to create multi-year memories, that non-human animals do not possess — making them unequal to humans. I do believe that other animals have a very similar neurological make-up to that of human beings, especially apes, but our cognitive abilities are ultimately at a higher level at this present time.

  • Erin Reisfeld

    I find Marino’s stance on animals and their rights and place in the world very interesting. While I personally have not really given much thought to this particular view, her stance on the trans-species perspective really made me question the way I view animals and their place in the world. I have always thought that it was natural for us as humans to do what we want with the animals in the world and treat animals as inferior. Granted, I did not believe we should unjustly go around torturing animals and killing them for fun, but I saw no problem with our having animals as pets and purposefully putting them on a lesser level than ourselves. The reason I like this perspective is that I do not believe it does away with human superiority. I feel that it is more of a statement of how we as humans are similar to animals and cannot separate ourselves from them on the basis of our cognitive abilities. At the same time, it allows for the possibility that there may still be some definitive thing that separates us from animals and puts us on a more superior level.

    While I do agree with what Marino has to say, I still have trouble seeing how any other animal could be considered to be on our own level. When we look at the world, humans are everywhere. And while yes, we are the ones who constantly put ourselves above other animals, if other animals are at the same level that we are cognitively, then I would have assumed that the human race would have been contested at some point in time by some other animal. However this is not the case. In our world, humans are the ones that have been able to develop languages, build buildings, and develop cities, while having a dynamic that is way beyond anything an animal can or does have. Yes some animals have skills that we don’t, but then again so do some humans. I think that it is really hard to deny human superiority even if we accept the trans-species perspective.

  • It’s probably reasonable to assume that the extent of our need to place ourselves “above” the other animals is in inverse proportion to our level of comfort with our true place in the natural order.

    My own introduction to this notion was through Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death,” which Hal Herzog mentions in his own comment, and which argues that the greater our preoccupation with our own mortality, the greater the need to immortalize ourselves by claiming some kind of higher, “spiritual”, and therefore immortal, nature.

    Thus we not only place ourselves at the top of the Scala Naturae; we prefer to think of ourselves as being above it altogether.

    Wilhelm Reich wrote about this in the early 1930s in “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” as the age of the new dictatorships was gathering steam across Europe:

    “No matter whether the Fascist puts it in terms of the racially pure ubermensch, the Communist in terms of proletarian class consciousness, the Christian in terms of the spiritual-moral nature of man, or the liberal in terms of the higher human values, all these ideologies have one and the same basis: ‘I am not an animal.’”

    Reich posed the question: “What interest has man in constantly proclaiming loudly — be it in science, in religion, in art or in other forms of expression — that he is man and not an animal? … How is it possible, we must ask, that man, consistently, saws off the biological limb on which he has grown and to which he belongs? How is it possible that he fails to see the devastations that result from this biological denial, the biopathies, the sadisms and wars? How can he fail to see that the existing human misery cannot possibly be done away with until man … give[s] up the irrational denial of his true nature.”

    Prof. Marino is right in saying that “a change in perspective is critically needed because our current model of nature is not working.” In fact, the current model is leading us into very dangerous territory. It is no longer simply a matter of ethics and morality. Nature does not tend to look kindly upon species that cannot live in balance with their environment.

  • Jeremy Basista

    Dr. Marino presents a thought-provoking and very interesting argument in her article discussing the relationship between humans and animals. However, I cannot find myself to agree with her stance. I feel we should stay with the trans-species perspective rather than the scala naturae view of nature. The scala naturae perspective offers a good argument to the traditional stance and although I agree with some aspects of Dr. Marino I do not agree with the main argument that humans and animals should be regarded as equals. I feel humans are on a higher scale than other organisms because of our evolution.

    On the other hand, we did evolve from apes as history and science have proven and we still show some animal-like tendencies today. For example, we constantly fight each other over dominance and focus on reproducing. In Dr. Marino’s example stating that humans and dolphins differ in features but not nature, I do not see enough evidence of the similarities between dolphins and humans to support such a claim. I can understand the claim of dolphins being able to communicate or learn, in which case they may be similar to us; but I do not believe they can express categorical desires of long-term goals or teach, which are unique qualities to being classified as human.

    In addition, I do not think we deny our animal origin; we just subconsciously show it with primitive actions and constant fighting. However, there is no doubt that we have come much farther than any other species and because of such we should be regarded as higher beings. We have been able to grow and develop exponentially through thousands of years whereas many other species are in the same positions they were just as long ago. We certainly do not deny death though. Death is something every human being knows and learns. It cannot be avoided and we are inclined to be scared of it but certainly cannot deny it.

  • Lori Marino

    I wish to thank all the commentators for their interest, thoughts and insights.

    I want to clarify one point that has been brought up by a couple of commentators about the obvious fact that humans appear to be the most technologically sophisticated species on the planet and also one of the most populous. However, my point is that those facts do not form the basis for superiority. They simply are characteristics of our species (and those that have not always been advantageous I might add). So the point I’m making is not to draw up a list of match-ups between species. Neither am I claiming that there is equivalence in all characteristics across species. But my point is that a trans-species perspective calls for a stance towards other animals that recognizes their comparable — not equivalent — experience.

    Hal Herzog asks the next question: What guidance does a trans-species perspective offer in terms of navigating the moral and ethical decisions we make about other animals? I don’t pretend to have a ready answer but I do know that this is the next great challenge for our species. Certainly we have been able to draw up moral and ethical guidelines for how we treat other humans. Those are not always adhered to nor are they always black and white. But we make the effort and that usually results in fairness for most people. I argue for the same in our relations with other animals. Not all of life is lived in a lifeboat where either a human infant or a dog must be thrown overboad. In between that scenario and the standards by which we treat other animals is a vast domain of objectification, exploitation and abuse that could be remedied while we think about the more difficult issues on the edge.

    I would be happy to continue the discussion on Facebook.

    Best, Lori Marino

  • Meagan Slater

    While my reply is a bit late, I would like to take a moment and commend Marino on her fabulous choice of topic for the forum. Although the issue of animal ethics is brought up all the time through various activists, I cannot say that I have ever heard someone mention the theory of trans-species. This perspective that perhaps animals and humans have more in common than we give credit to is one that greatly interests me. As mentioned in a previous response, I don’t think that I have ever sat down and given a second thought to human superiority; However, this post has caused me to do just that.

    Marino brings up several points that show the readers some of the similarities between the species. If we are using animal models for human research purposes, then there must be a much larger amount of similarities between different animals than first imagined. Since most of my experience is with poultry, the first example that comes to mind is ovarian cancer research. We currently use chickens as the animal model because they have larger follicles and ovulate every day, which allows for a more thorough study in a smaller frame of time. These chickens have a very different reproductive cycle than humans, but the ovarian follicles are the same, as is the process involved in the development of cancer. If we use these chickens as a model to help humans, why can we not take the knowledge of something we know about human beings and in turn help not just chickens, but many other species of animals. It seems reasonable that we do this not only ethically but also scientifically. Any way we can better another species of animal can only better our own. If we discover effective and cheap chemotherapy in chickens, we may easily discover a faster method of recovery for humans.

    There are many other factors one could take into consideration when discussing trans-species perspectives, but if you take into consideration Marino’s last post, we know that she is not trying to compare and contrast species or say that one is better than another. All Marino wants is for people to realize that not only can animals help us to better understand human beings, but humans can help be a part of further understanding animals.

  • This conversation, while ending here, continues on Facebook. Join us there by logging on to your Facebook account and proceeding to our group: On the Human.