Britain may, famously, be a nation of animal lovers, but even so, things seem to be getting out of hand. This summer, national attention was captured by the government’s ultimately successful attempt to euthanize a possibly tubercular camelid and the fuss over Pen Farthing, a former Royal Marine turned charity worker who evacuated 150 stray dogs from Kabul. Little wonder that a recent YouGov poll showed that 40% of the country think humans and animals have the same value. More of the 18–24 cohort hold that position than the traditional view that humans outrank other creatures and 8% claim that animals actually have greater value than humans (fans of polling might, however, argue that 7% of people will generally say anything—a phenomenon known as the Lizardman’s Constant, named after those who admit agreeing with David Icke that the Windsor family are shape-shifting lizards). In this context, it should perhaps not surprise us that under the proposed new law on dognapping, the crime will carry a higher maximum sentence than assault, date rape and keeping quiet about a terrorist plot.
So, why have we traditionally believed that man has greater worth than our animal friends?
For most of western history, the answer has been quite simple. God made man and made animals, and he made them different. In the very first chapter of Genesis, God says that he made man in his own image (Genesis 1:27). None of the other fauna with which he chose to stock the world were based on himself. We are different, and we are better.
Nor is this just a Judeo-Christian approach. The Roman Stoic Epictetus wrote, “God created some beasts to be eaten, some to be used in farming, some to supply us with cheese and so on. Man was brought into the world however, to look upon God and his works.” Humans are a different type of thing from animals because we can do things which they cannot and we are better than them because they were created for our use. There is a hierarchy, and we are at the top of it.
Over the past 150 years, however, each of these arguments has been undermined. Advances in our understanding of the universe have removed God from his role as creator. We no longer think the universe was created at 6pm on 22 October, 4004 BC as Archbishop Ussher did; we think it started with a Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago.
Life is now seen as a spontaneous phenomenon, arising when the right chemicals are present in the right conditions, not the result of a divine masterplan. Animals were not created for a specific purpose, and certainly not for man’s benefit, but evolved to meet a series of environmental challenges and those which remain are the ones which did so most successfully.
While the physical sciences showed that the universe could exist without a creator, Darwin and his descendants set about exploring our relationship with our animal cousins. When Samuel Wilberforce asked T. H. Huxley whether it was on his grandfather or grandmother’s side that he was descended from apes, he put his finger on the essential implication of evolution for humanity. No longer are we separate from animals; we are animals.
We might imagine that a couple of million years between ourselves and our nearest recognisably animal ancestor would be enough to evolve distinctly human characteristics, but the work of Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape has only shown how similar our behaviour is to that of other animals, and how the distinctive characteristics we do have can be explained by the same evolutionary pressures that affect every creature on the planet.
Whereas previous generations, such as the Victorians, went to extraordinary lengths to deny our animal nature, ruling a whole raft of activities and body parts outside the realm of polite conversation, we consistently make the argumentum ab natura, the argument from nature.
Those who oppose same-sex relationships have to account for the fact that they have been observed in over 450 animal species. Around one in 12 rams are thought to be homosexual. Those who harrumph about breastfeeding in public are reminded that it is a bodily function and thus entirely natural. Activities which the Victorians would publicly deny ever happened are explained by appeals to the animal world which the ancients would have seen as irrelevant: that what is natural for animals is natural for humans.
Contrast this attitude with those of ancient Greece. The Greek Cynics abandoned most possessions, lived on the streets and did everything in public. Noting the similarity between this lifestyle and that of stray dogs, the Greeks described them as kunikoi “dog-like” as a term of abuse.
If humans have come to seem more animal, so animals have come to seem more human as characteristics thought to be uniquely ours have been discovered to be rather more widespread. Epictetus thought that Reason was distinctly human: “Two elements are combined in our creation, the body, which we share with beasts; and reason and good judgement which we share with the gods.” He depicts Zeus apologising for only giving us a fragment of the divine logos on the grounds that our fragile bodies could not handle any more. Even that small amount, however, is enough to distinguish us from every other species. By contrast, modern scientists can show countless examples of complex problem-solving behaviours in a range of species from birds to wolves.
Consciousness was once thought to be uniquely human, but is now believed to exist in animals from dolphins to crows. Crows appear to be able to pass the mirror test—an ability human infants do not generally acquire before the age of about two years old.
Language might be uniquely human. What cannot be doubted, however, is that animals can communicate—as anyone with a hungry pet can attest—and they can do so in complex ways, such as the dances bees perform to inform their hive-mates of the location of nectar-bearing flowers.
If the dividing line between us and the animals is less distinct than it once was and we are happy to recognise this under many circumstances, why should we value our fellow humans more highly than animals?
As so often, when philosophy fails to give us the answer we want, we can be influenced by grubbier motives than the search for truth. While tribalism might seem a uniquely human phenomenon, like so many other behaviours, it has its roots in the animal world, where troupes of monkeys wage ceaseless war against enemy groups for control of food and territory. While examples of cross-species co-operation exist, they are rare. Acting in the interests of Team Human is deeply natural.
Tribalism exists in the animal world and so does self-interest. We are all, biology tells us, machines for passing on our genes. However, we are also the most productive animal (even if our energies are not always well channeled). We are the only species that seeks to make the entire world more congenial to us. The problems that face us will be solved by us—not by animals, no matter how intelligent they may appear.