An interview with author, philosopher and artist Eva Meijer, BY SANNE BLOEMINK
People usually think that parrots can only repeat words – that they can literally only ‘parrot’ others – but research shows that their cognitive skills and learning capabilities are much more advanced than we think. We had always assumed that human language was unique and more sophisticated than any type of animal language. For a long time, the only way we studied animal communication was by looking at how well they mastered human language. What you see now, over the last 15 years, is that more and more research is being done on specific languages of animals. The results show that they actually do achieve complex communication with each other, and that human language is not as unique as we thought. There are other ways to communicate than using human words.
Prairie dogs are among my favourite examples. They live underground in long networks of corridors. The sounds they make are small squeaks, similar to a guinea pig. Researchers analysed their squeaks and discovered that prairie dogs communicate in detail. When a human enters their habitat, the prairie dogs can describe how big he is, what kind of hair he has, what clothes he is wearing, whether he is carrying a weapon. They can also create new words, for example for an ‘oval unknown predator’. Prairie dogs have a truly complex language.
Elephants also talk about all kinds of things. They can express family relationships; not only do they say something like ‘this is Johanna’, but also ‘this is Johanna, daughter of so and so’. Most likely, they can also talk about elephants who have died; at least we know that they tell each other when another elephant has passed away. Elephants produce very low tones that stretch up to 7 kilometres, which is one of the ways they communicate with each other. Those tones are partly within our register of audible sounds, but there’s also a part that we can’t hear.
Being able to detect animal language is a big problem in general: there are many parts of animal language that we humans simply can’t sense. Bats have the most extensive language save for humans, as far as we know, but their language is very difficult for us to hear, because it consists of small clicks and echoes. Researchers recently started analysing these echoes and discovered that bats give each other names – and that they love to gossip. Researchers use a combination of observation and sound recordings to study bats’ language. At some point, it becomes possible to identify which sound comes from which individual bat. They argue a lot, but they also help each other. For example, vampire bats have to eat at least once every 24 hours, or they’ll die. These bats drink small amounts blood from cows and horses, etc.; if one of them hasn’t eaten yet at night, then others will share a bit of their food with that one bat. They’re also quite kind.
Montaigne already wrote that we humans have achieved fairly good communication with animals. That’s also reciprocal. We understand them, and they understand us. But scepticism has become dominant in Western thinking. We can understand a lot about animals by watching and listening carefully, but there is still a whole world left to discover. In our culture, we have drawn a sharp distinction between ourselves and other animals, but now we are trying to bridge this gap. Animal research could be one of the ways to achieve that goal. Some animal research is awful and invasive, but there are also researchers who look at animals with the utmost respect. They can translate this research for humans. And yes, technology can help with that. For example, quite a lot of progress has been made on researching bat echolocation, as well as large marine animals.
Physicality as a way of connecting to animals
Quite a few philosophers have noted that we’re not only ‘heads on sticks’ (an expression used by Donna Haraway), but that we are also always bodies in the world, just like animals. They also have bodies, they are mortal, and they have emotions. However, we also experience the world within a certain social and political context, which influences our thinking a lot. As Westerners, we like to think that if we just reason things out, we will reach a certain truth or conclusion that will be generally valid. In actual fact, we’re always bound to our own perspective on the world, which is shaped by how we were raised, what we’ve experienced. I think it’s very important, when contemplating a group other than your own – e.g. animals – to understand that you don’t see the complete picture. We’re all part of a bigger picture, and other animals bring their own world and reality and viewpoint with them. It’s very enriching to get to know this world.
The lives of humans and animals are interwoven. For example, there is a bird that mimics the sound of a chainsaw almost perfectly. Or in Moscow, some street dogs take the underground trains; that’s just one example of animals using a human invention to improve their own lives. Imitation is often considered an inferior way of dealing with each other, even though we frequently use the same tactic ourselves. We learn through imitation. When we hang out with certain people, we’ll start to mimic them a bit. When somebody in the street smiles at you, you’ll usually smile back.
Worms or whales: circles of empathy
As humans, we have grown accustomed to viewing ourselves as completely separate from the rest of the world, and assuming that humans are the default against which we measure the rest. Feminism also gave us this insight: for a long time, we have used men as the standard and women as the deviation. Women had to show how much they were like men in order to be taken seriously in the social and political discourse.
Anthropocentrism is when humans take our species as the gold standard. It’s the idea that Homo sapiens is not only fundamentally different, but also that human experience is the frame of reference for all rational thought. Many people assume that the easiest approach to understanding animals is to take that ideology as a starting point, and then try to include animals in this ‘rational’ category, step by step. If we consider important because they possess a specific quality, then we try to show that certain animals have the same quality. Other animals can feel, think, learn, communicate, etc.; they have memories from the past, they can use tools, know what time it is. Dogs, for example, can smell time! For a long time, it was a mystery how dogs could know that it’s 15:45 and their human will come home in ten minutes. It turns out that every moment of the day has a certain smell, so dogs can actually smell what time it is.
The problem with this way of thinking – granting more rights to more animals, and thus expanding empathy to the group that most closely resembles you – means that this group will always have to adapt to the dominant standard. When they deviate from this standard, they are still viewed as the exception, which may lead back to exclusion. We see the same thing happening between groups of people: ‘us/them’ thinking. If you want to escape that framework, then you first have to understand that everybody’s different and that differences are not bad by definition. On this basis, we can look at how we can co-exist differently with others – such as animals, like in my research. My PhD is about the political voice of animals. The idea is not that we humans should grant animals certain rights, although this can sometimes be a good start, but that we must create situations in which they can express themselves in other ways. We can start to interact differently from there.
Human concepts can sometimes offer a good starting point in trying to understand animals better. New ways of viewing animals can become a motivation for humans to change their behaviour. However, empathy is not enough. If we try to accomplish everything through empathy, change will take a long time to happen. Laws and regulations are also needed to steer people in the right direction.
A lot has gone wrong. Perhaps nobody in particular designed the factory farms we see today, nobody thought that this would be a really good way of exploiting living beings, but at the end of the day we do see lots of animals suffering tremendously. That is a very urgent issue that we have to fight by all means available. Change has to start with humans, because we are the ones in charge; we are the dominant species. This doesn’t mean that we are not influenced by non-human animals, because we are, and on a much bigger scale than we dare to acknowledge. Politically speaking, though, we can’t wait for animals to start an uprising, because they are physically not capable of doing so. Humans have developed too many practices and techniques to subdue other animals.
How we interact with animals is very diverse, of course. We interact very differently with worms than with dogs. We don’t live with real predators, but we did domesticate many animals. It seems that humans have also domesticated themselves, by choosing kinder and sweeter companions, by being attracted to a more ‘babyface’ look. Dogs only started to bark when they interacted with humans; they never exhibited that behaviour among themselves. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Cats only meow to each other as kittens; after that, they teach themselves to meow individually according to their relationship with their own human. We have a certain language, a certain gibberish for cats – but it turns out cats also have gibberish that they reserve exclusively for us.
Some species have become domesticated together. A good example is humans and dogs: since we domesticated each other, we understand each other very well. When humans and dogs who know each other very well look at each other, they both produce oxytocin. That is a very different starting point for our actions and for our morality than how we view animals that aren’t part of our community – because e.g. they are a threat to us, or because they don’t want to have anything to do with us. When interacting with animals who live with us, we can contemplate shared forms of political management. Donaldson and Kymlicka wrote a book, Zoopolis, about political relationships with animals. They suggest that domesticated animals should be viewed as citizens in a shared community. Wild animals, on the other hand, should be viewed as a sovereign people. Which animals want to live with us, which animals do we want to live with us, and what is the history? We changed the bodies of domesticated animals, so we have certain obligations towards them. We can’t just decide to let all domesticated animals fend for themselves; that would not be fair.
Establishing a political relationship: what do animals want?
There is a lot we already know, things we can use to shape our co-existence. We have to look at what constitutes this concept of citizenship: what animals can contribute, what we can do for them and how we can live together in other ways.
In animal ethics, researchers spend a lot of time thinking about our relationship in a subject/object relationship. As humans, we are the subjects and animals are objects. Then we, the subjects, make decisions about them, the objects: can we eat them, can we capture them? What is interesting about the political philosophy of animals is that they create their own view on the world, their own history, their own individuality, which cannot be reduced to their membership of a certain species. A dog is not a dog is not a dog; there are all kinds of dogs. From that point, it’s more about how they want to live with us, and how we can shape this co-existence differently.
Then we talk about intersubjectivity, the relationship between subjects. The starting point is that they have something to say. When you start with the assumption that the other has something to say, you will start having very different conversations. If you meet somebody from another culture who only communicates using whistle tones, you might think, ‘that’s crazy’, and walk on, but you can also think, ‘maybe he has experienced something, let’s see if we can have a conversation’. Maybe you only find the whistle beautiful, or maybe you see pain in the eyes of the person who’s whistling. The difference is my attitude towards the other: I view the other as though he has a soul. If you continue to wonder whether the other can think, whether they’re alive, no contact will be possible. However, once you start to assume that the other is alive, has a soul, with his own experience and history, then you can start a conversation and start to get to know the other person, even if they have a completely different language or culture.
The same goes for animals. For a long time, the idea has been that animals have to prove themselves to us to be taken seriously by us, but that is an incredibly strange way to start a conversation. Better to turn it around.