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The History of Human-Animal Relations (August 2017): The Animal Turn

By J. Wendel Cox

The Animal Turn

Without delving too deeply into its origins, a broad reading of the animal turn suggests a conjunction of developments in several areas of inquiry, including the historical study of the natural world; moral philosophy and its connection with animal advocacy; and the scientific exploration of animal behavior and cognition. Several works from these areas have been common reference points for later scholars and representative of early thought on human-animal relations. At the same time, recent decades have seen a dramatically enlarged scope of historical studies, not only regarding subject matter but also methods and borrowings from other disciplines. The examination of the disenfranchised and marginalized is assuredly part predicate of the interest in animals. It is no surprise, then, that much of the history of human-animal relations explores the intersectional, or the conjunction of distinct but interwoven ascriptions. Race and class, and gender and sexuality, have been joined with animals, precisely because evocations of animality are such powerful means to exclude, exalt, subordinate, dismiss, control, or dispose of.

In history, the work of the British historian Keith Thomas is familiar to most scholars working on human-animal relations. Thomas’s 1983 work Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 is not exclusively concerned with animals, but they feature prominently in the author’s analysis. Specifically, Thomas argues that a profoundly anthropocentric perspective gave way to both sentimental and spiritual kinship with animals and the natural world and the early modern scientific inquiry that challenged the centrality of humanity in the cosmos. Thomas’s examination of historically and culturally contingent attitudes toward animals and the inextricability of perceptions of the natural world and the sense of humanity and the human itself have proved strong themes for subsequent inquiry.

One significant strand in the animal turn has been a transformation in the study of ethology, or animal behavior, commencing not only with a renewed interest in the area but also an awareness of the field’s historical development. An excellent brief history of this change appears in the first chapter of Ádám Miklósi’s Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. As Miklósi notes, dogs once were largely excluded from ethology. Though they were deemed lacking in animal nature as a result of their domestication and intimate association with humans, interest today in dogs is resurgent largely for this reason. The literature on the history, nature, and evolution of dogs grows so fast it is almost impossible to keep pace with it; two sophisticated and accessible treatments grounded in contemporary research appear in journalist John Homans’s What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend, and What is a Dog? by husband and wife behavioral ecologists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. The similarities–and differences–in the respective titles is revealing. The former is a rich synthesis of scholarship and personal experiences, intent on explaining how dogs became part of human lives and people part of dog lives. The latter is a stunning reassessment of domestication as self-domestication by dogs to better scavenge the castoffs of human societies. The Coppingers extensively studied dogs in the field living as the vast majority of all dogs on Earth do today: without owners, not as pets. Jakob von Uexküll’s A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning, reprinted as part of the University of Minnesota Press’s “Posthumanities” series, presents the views and ideas of a founder of ethology and the study of cognition afresh.

Literary studies of animals have a long standing, not the least of all because of the ubiquity and prominence of animals in literary and folkloric traditions. Most everyone is familiar with the anthropomorphizing of animals in comic strips, cartoons, and film and television. Animals abound in literature, from the fables credited to Aesop to the animal romances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries featuring figures like Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, Black Beauty), Buck (Jack London, Call of the Wild), or even Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Animals have long served as metaphors, subjects, and characters in literature, but a move to examine the foundations, power, and meaning of our recurrent creation of literary animals is relatively new. A widely influential theoretical work in literary and historical studies is Donna J. Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s,” which first appeared in English as a journal article in 1985, entitled “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The definitive version of this essay and others appears in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Profoundly influential across literature, feminist studies, and history, Haraway’s questioning of categorization and the power of metaphor in science and human consciousness challenged generations of scholars to examine these themes in human-animal relations. Haraway has also been an active participant in dog agility training, an experience that influenced her charming and valuable work When Species Meet.

In parallel to these developments in historical, scientific, and literary scholarship has been interest in the amelioration of animal suffering and cruelty, and even a vision of animal liberation. The philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has appeared in several editions since its publication in 1975. Singer’s use of the phrase “animal liberation” first appeared in his 1973 New York Review of Books review of the essay collection Animals, Men and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans, edited by Stanley Godlovitch, Rosalind Godlovitch, and John Harris, an underappreciated document of twentieth-century animal activism. Taking up the perspective first offered by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century, Singer ascribes moral standing to animals based on the capacity to suffer rather than to think, and he argues that to discount animal suffering is an act of speciesism or discrimination based on species, which privileges humanity. Future editions of Animal Liberation will continue to introduce a work known to most students of the study of human-animal relations and provide a context for the work’s evolving significance. At this writing, the most recent edition is Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (2009). Less well known but also important is a 1976 essay collection edited by Singer and his fellow philosopher, Tom Regan, entitled Animal Rights and Human Obligations.

Works Cited