One of my colleagues recently took a sabbatical year and worked with another university’s anthropology department. This week she gave us a fascinating seminar about how anthropologists view human-animal relations and how different it is from the ethologist’s view.
I can only simplify what my colleague had already simplified for me (if you’re all interested we can harass her to write a guest blog post for us), but anthropologists don’t seek to understand and quantify their subjects like we do. Instead its more about a holistic documentation that incorporates the feelings and inherent biases of the observer. This is because the observer is coming in with their own culture and can never fully escape all those biases.
To me it seems as though anthropology does a lot of case studies, and as an ethologist I’ve been trained to look down on case studies. I’m not entirely au fait with everything that anthropology does (I worry about the inevitable changing of anything you observe so intimately) but I really like that they take the time to look at cases, and that they acknowledge how our own culture biases us.
But I do take issue with one thing in particular. They talk about their subjects as the ‘Other’. I don’t fully understand this concept from the brief seminar I got this week, but to the best of my understanding they are very concerned about their subjects being objectified. Therefore when they study animals they are reluctant to do anything that would objectify them, e.g. keeping them as a pet. The equivalence given was that you wouldn’t keep a woman or a tribesperson as a pet, so you can’t study an animal, ethically speaking, in that context.
I think this is forgetting just how ‘other’ the nature of animals can be. For example my colleague at the seminar quoted a paper by Smuts (2001 – and incidentally, what a wonderful name). In the paper, Smuts investigates human-animal relationships. She details a revelation that occurred when the baboons she studied started to treat her like a baboon.
As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signalled a profound change from being treated as an object that elicited a unilateral response (avoidance), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate. Over time they treated me more and more as a social being like themselves, subject to the demands and rewards of relationship. This meant that I sometimes had to be willing to give more weight to their demands (e.g., a signal to ‘get lost!’) than to my desire to collect data. But it also meant that I was increasingly often welcomed into their midst, not as a barely-tolerated intruder but as a casual acquaintance or even, on occasion, a familiar friend. Being treated like a fellow baboon proved immensely useful to my research…
To me this final sentence is a fundamental misunderstanding. We do not know that the baboons treated her like a baboon. I think they recognised her as an ‘other’, an ‘agent’ in anthropological speak (which, in fairness to Smuts, she does say in her lead in). They communicated with her in the only way they could and she responded as a human, therefore they knew she could understand some form of their communication. That doesn’t mean they recognised her as baboon, with all the inherent baboon culture. (I guess this then raises the question anthropologically speaking as to whether baboons tell science fiction stories of other species that have hugely different cultures – without the concept of another culture, can you truly have a culture of your own? I wonder).
We see this every day with pets – I’ve spoken before about how a special language can evolve between two members of a completely different species. Dogs, my favourite example for this kind of stuff, have so clearly adapted to us that they’ve survived across different human cultures, and yet they have their own dog language that they use within their species. When they don’t know this language they have huge problems interacting with their fellow dogs. When they don’t know the human language they have huge problems interacting with us. But do dogs understand the difference between dogs and humans, or do they just accept that humans are entities that are capable of interacting with them. (Possibly they accept that humans are entities that they can love, be loved by, etc., if dogs have a concept of love – I leave that for you to judge for now).
With that critique aside it is a very interesting paper.
Why do I go into all of this? Well there’s another interesting example of strange animal behaviour on the internet today. An Indian elephant was on a rampage, destroying houses as elephants are wont to do. At one house its wreckage disturbed a baby’s cot and the baby began to cry. The elephant stopped and picked rubble off the cot until the baby was freed.
Does the elephant recognise that the crying infant is an ‘other’? Does the elephant recognise that it has done something which has caused pain? (I’ve often wondered if cats recognise they hurt people when they scratch – or if it’s simply our emotional reaction they’re responding to). That’s quite a cognitive leap. We drill into children that our actions can hurt others and yet we’re forever hurting peoples’ feelings inadvertently.
Or has the elephant been distracted by an unusual noise and investigated (thus freeing the baby) until its curiosity was satisfied? With its energies so directed the rampage stopped.
I don’t know because I cannot understand elephants. To me, the best way of getting to know elephants is to observe their behaviour, to objectify them, and to gather data on them (how often to elephants respond to infant cries, do elephants respond to any cries, etc.)
But I do like talking about the other possibilities.