Finding Imhumanity in the ‘Animal’ Series

Mysterious, fascinating and undeniable: the human is all of these and more. Amanda Rees and Charlotte Sleigh discuss the origins of their new book, Human, and what it means to be human.

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Over the past twenty years or so, interest in human/animal relationships has really rocketed. It’s now the topic of serious scholarly study: historians, linguists, philosophers and geographers have finally joined biologists and psychologists in realising just how good animals are to think with. At the same time, the importance of learning to live well with animals is becoming more significant in public debates, whether these relate to the food on our plates, the shape of our moral community – or indeed, the impact of epidemic disease.

Despite our urbanised society, it’s clear to us now that animals are central to the most pressing problems we have to solve as a society. Reaktion’s ‘Animal’ series has been really important part of this process, vividly illustrating as it does the ways in which different animal species have shaped human societies – and indeed, how animals have shaped our humanity.

But when it came to writing the ‘Human’ book, Charlotte and I had a problem. The basic premise of the series, as established by the wonderful Jonathan Burt, was to take a species, explain how it had been identified and understood by scientists, and then to explore other ways (mythologically, legally, artistically, dramatically, spiritually) in which humans had defined and worked with that animal. But how on earth can you do that with Homo sapiens sapiens?

Defining ‘humanity’ has always been a political and rhetorical act, no matter what evidence (scientific, philosophical, moral) you want to bring to the debate. Remember Plato’s effort? By reduction, he defined a human being as ‘a featherless biped’ – prompting Diogenes to pluck a chicken and present it to the Academy as an example of Platonic humanity. Understandably, the rider ‘with broad flat nails’ was added to the definition… This is a rabbit hole you could fall into forever.

So very early on, we abandoned the idea of trying to define what ‘human’ was in any biological or cultural sense. Instead, in writing the book, we decided to do the opposite, and look instead at what humanity was not.

We identified six different categories – Beast, Hominin, Machine, Woman, God, and Alien – and we’ve shown how each of these has been used – scientifically, philosophically, morally – in order to define and put forward a particular version of humanity that reflects the interests of particular human communities.

In this, we’re very aware that we are two white, cis-female historians of science – and our own biases, conscious or not, are going to be reflected in the examples that we choose and the stories we’re trying to tell. We spent a lot of time debating whether we should, for example, have a specific chapter on race to match the one on sex/gender. We were very uncomfortable with the idea that we could, in any effective way, do justice to the experience of being defined as non-human because of skin colour. But racial politics and racism has been absolutely fundamental to shaping understandings of what counts as human – it’s an essential part of this story.

In the end, we decided that it was more appropriate to try to foreground throughout the book the systemic role played by racism in creating the category of ‘not-human’ – most especially in ‘Alien’ and ‘Hominin’, but as a presence in all six chapters. As such, we hoped to provide further evidence of the way in which ideas about race and racist ideas have shaped intellectual and public life in the West. At any rate, we devoutly hope we haven’t made the problem worse.

When it comes to the book’s ‘take home’ message, we decided that while we couldn’t define ‘human being’, or Homo sapiens sapiens, we could at least suggest a definition of humanity. But it couldn’t be a definitive definition – you know, if you possess ‘x’ (big brain, upright posture, smooth skin) then you’re human and if you don’t, you’re not, and can never be so. We felt that if anything defines humanity, it had to be a capacity, not a characteristic. And what really does distinguish humans from all other animals is our capacity for cooperation. We’re the most social of all the primates, and it’s our ability to work together to manipulate the world that has changed the world in which we live. That’s why we live in the Anthropocene, after all.

So what we came up with was a term that reflected this inherent capacity for community and cooperation.  Consciously riffing on immanance, we’ve called our defining human capacity ‘imhumanity’. By this, we mean the capacity to recognise humanity in other individuals – to confer humanity, personhood, on another being. That’s our conclusion – that you are most fully human when your words and actions reflect your recognition of the humanity of others. Limiting that recognition – whether by sex, race, gender (or species?) – limits your own humanity.

– Amanda Rees

To read more about the remarkable history of humans, order Human from our online shop.

Amanda Rees is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. She is author of The Infanticide Controversy: Primatology and the Art of Field Science (2009) and editor of Presenting Futures Past: Science Fiction and the History of Science (2019).

Charlotte Sleigh is Professor of Science Humanities at the University of Kent. She has published several books on the history, culture and representation of animals including Ant (2003) and Frog (2012) for Reaktion, as well as The Paper Zoo (2016).