It’s surely the business of biologists or zoologists to tell us about what non-human animals are like. There is even a field of animal psychology, though it’s not one I am terribly familiar with. But for some reason, others will talk about animals too, people whose actual speciality is in some very human area, like thinking, culture or language; philosophers, anthropologists, linguists. (At least I am hesitant to include psychologists. It may even be they don’t have such a habit.)
What these non-zoologists are doing in speaking of animals (at least when they’re doing what I’m thinking of right now and not something else — always be careful with your generalisations) is comparing animals and humans. A human being does this, an animal in contrast is somehow different. Humans have a sense of the future and things not immediately present to them, animals have only what is immediately there just then. Human beings have a sense of the consequences of their actions and can thus be moral, animals act on impulse. Humans have reason, animals have instincts. And so on.
Some of these claims may even be more or less true, even if we consider humans against every other species of animals, including the most intelligent ones. But that’s not really the point here. The point is that the claims are made not primarily through any kind of knowledge about other species. They are made on the basis of ideas about what humans are like. The “animal” is simply not whatever it is that humans are thought of as being at that time. It has nothing to do with other species of animals in themselves; it has everything to do with their being the Other.
A division of all animals into humans and nonhumans is in most ways completely ridiculous. It’s as bad as the division of all animals into vertebrates and invertebrates, the latter “group” including everything that doesn’t belong to one group that, while very visible on the shallow surface level (especially for us since we belong to it), only encompasses a tiny minority of all species. There is an immense variety of different species of animals, even not counting insects which comprise a huge majority (something like over 90%) of all species, and most are very, very different from each other. So why speak of all other species as one group and just us as another? For whatever reason, I like to put this in terms of ants and chimpanzees. The difference between ants and chimpanzees is enormous, whereas the difference between us and ants is barely any bigger than that, and the difference between us and chimpanzees, while significant — mainly because we have culture — , is minuscule compared to that between them and ants. Obviously there is a very, very long sliding scale in terms of how much different species of animals resemble us. Or rather several scales, since we can talk of resemblance in terms of different features.
What this means is that the “animal” so often contrasted with us is just a construction into which everything that we are not is dumped. But we shouldn’t claim to speak of something when we are not really speaking of it. If it’s necessary, at least we should be aware of and admit what we’re really talking about. This doesn’t only occur in academic circles, of course, and it may be a natural way of thinking to the point of being hardwired into our genes in the sense that we have separate innate cognitive categories for dealing with different kinds of objects, and humans and animals are among the types of objects. (A claim in these lines is made in Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, but I haven’t got access to the book just now to check the details.) But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s cognitively ignorant, not saying what you think you’re saying. Such talk may hurt the perceived moral status of non-human animals, too.
There’s another potential problem as well. Take the statement that humans act on reason and animals on instinct. That is a very naïve view of what humans do. We too can often act the way “the animal” does. In fact, it seems completely impossible to act rationally unless you acknowledge the fact that not all your impulses are rational in the first place. You can’t catch yourself acting irrationally if you don’t think you ever could. This is just one example of how traits that may be typical to humans but are not automatic may be made to look like they are universally automatic for humans by dumping their opposites on “the animal” only.
And don’t even get me started on when the dichotomy is applied the opposite way, where humans are considered inherently inferior to other species…
Naturally, this ties closely with the idea of humans having that one special feature that sets us apart. I should get around to writing about that too.