Animals, Species Identity, and Personality

Captioned cat photos, stuffed animals, cartoons, and shamanism are just a few examples of the ways that human beings personify animals. They’ve been doing it for a long time — perhaps for as long as there have been human beings at all. And when we personify animals, we suppose that it is their species that gives them some, but not all, of their personalities. Our dog Donner is always hungry, always loyal — our cat Caitlyn is always aloof and sly. Yet Donner is unusually quiet for a dog, and Caitlyn is unusually playful with water for a cat.

Navajo Kachina Dancer Dolls - Bear - from http://greywolftradingpost.com/kachinas.htm

Navajo Kachina Dancer Dolls – Bear – from http://greywolftradingpost.com/kachinas.htm

In this way, we include the species identity of Donner and Caitlyn, within our conception of their personal identity. Now imagine the way that we humans would look to a dog or cat.* Wouldn’t they include our species identity within their conception of our (individual) personal identities? From this perspective, wouldn’t they sometimes laugh at how “typically human” certain human behaviors really are? Wouldn’t they recognize (for instance) a proud investment banker and a humble small-town farmer — whom we might think of as having very different personalities — as different, yes, but also both typically human in many ways? We might even imagine these animals laughing at the way that, even when human beings do something unusual for the human species as a whole (say, tightrope walking, scuba diving, or airplane flying), the humans involved use their human bodies to do it. From this perspective, the image of a human being scuba diving or airplane flying is actually a little ridiculous. Perhaps an ironic approach to our species-typical characteristics — the inevitably “human, all too human” remainder that accompanies all of our extraordinary conduct — is just what the doctor ordered, at the onset of what some have described as a “posthumanist” age.** Another conclusion one might draw from this thought experiment is that the notion of “human nature” may have an inning even after certain classical humanist, anthropocentric, and “essentializing” tendencies have been overcome. *This assumes that we can “look like” something to them — that is, that humans share some cognitive competence and phenomenological experience of the “looking like” sort with dogs and cats. I think the assumption is eminently reasonable, though it is of course controversial. Readers who object to the assumption can follow the argument by considering what human beings would look like to a non-human species to which things could “look like” something. **See, for instance, Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Polity Press, 2013).

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