Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and Center for Ethics, Emory University
“Learn to live like animals again.” —Gay Bradshaw, 2010
What is a trans-species perspective?
The general term trans-species perspective derives from and encompasses Trans-Species Psychology, a new paradigm of science, knowledge, and culture established by psychologist/ecologist Gay Bradshaw. Bradshaw is currently the Executive Director of The Kerulos Center, a non-profit organization that implements trans-species psychology through various programs of service and education. As she defines it:
“Trans re-embeds humans within the larger matrix of the animal kingdom by erasing the ‘and’ between humans and animals that has been used to demarcate and reinforce the false notion that humans are substantively different cognitively and emotionally from other species.” (Animal Visions, September 17, 2010)
Therefore, a trans-species perspective is an all-encompassing stance towards nature that embraces the continuity and comparability of all species’ lives. It shapes the way we view ourselves in relation to other animals and involves changing our current model of those relationships from one of separation and condescension to one of communalism and respect. I argue that a trans-species perspective provides us a way to move forward in a more in a more authentic, productive, and ethical manner with respect to ourselves and the other animals with whom we share the planet. Furthermore, I argue strongly that a change in perspective is critically needed because our current model of nature is not working. Given the mass extinctions, global destruction of habitat, environmental degradation, and continued mass exploitation of other animals, nothing short of a shift in human psychological perspective is needed to turn things around.
TSP is concordant with the evidence
As a scientist and human being it is important to me to take a perspective of nature and our place in it that conforms to reality. Science provides that perspective through empirical knowledge. I argue that for the past two millennia or more we have been in the grip of a model of nature that is artificial and perpetuated by human bias — not generated by data. Despite the overwhelming evidence for continuity and shared capacities across species we continue to carry on as though the world were a very different place — a world where, at best, other animals are a mere rudiment of human existence. This persistent world view harks back to ancient times when it was most well known as the Scala Naturae (“Natural Scale” or “Great Chain of Being”) — a philosophical view of nature attributed to Aristotle from the third century BCE. According to Aristotle, nature could be arranged on a fixed scale of complexity, perfection, and value. The scale moves up from “lower” animals (invertebrates) to “higher” animals (vertebrates), to humans, who occupy a position separate from and above all other life forms. Key to understanding the scala naturae is noting that it is not just an organizational scheme of nature. It is also a scale of worth. What is higher on the scale is viewed as more valuable than what is lower because, according to Aristotle, the “principle of form” is more advanced in higher organisms than in lower ones.
The scala naturae became known as the “phylogenetic” or “phyletic scale” in post-Darwinian times. The phylogenetic scale has a patina of scientific legitimacy because it appears to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms. Yet, like the scala naturae, the phylogenetic scale is a hierarchical scheme that promotes the idea that organisms on a higher level of the scale than others are more “evolutionarily developed” than those on the lower levels.
The human species has spent a lot of effort trying to find the “holy grail” that will confirm a qualitative difference and position of superiority above other animals. Neurobiological studies have failed to turn up a single property of the human brain that is qualitatively different from that of other species (i.e., that is not explainable within the common framework of comparative evolution). Specific focus has been placed on finding the basis for the uniqueness of the human brain among our closest primate relatives, that is, what separates us qualitatively from chimpanzees. But moving beyond the range of primates provides an important perspective on this effort. I have studied cetacean (dolphin, whale and porpoise) and primate brains for the past twenty years and there are compelling differences among them. Primate and cetacean brains are arguably two of the most different, morphologically, among the large mammals. These differences exist in cortical topography and cytoarchitecture and represent different ways of distributing and processing information in the brain. The cetacean brain not only possesses very unusual features but also a uniquely elaborated paralimbic lobe not found in primates. Despite these striking neuroanatomical differences driven by adaptation to different physical environments for tens of millions of years there is striking convergence in psychology across cetaceans and primates — not equivalence — but comparability and shared aspects of mind. To the point, cetacean and primate brains are vastly more different from each other than any two primate brains are. Yet, they are most validly understood as variations on a theme. Therefore, what would be the basis for arguing that there is a “bright line” between human brains and those of other primates? Compared to cetacean brains human and chimpanzee brains, for instance, are almost identical.
Try as we might we have yet to find any fundamental mechanism or principle unique to the human brain. As Robert Sapolsky has pointed out recently in this forum:
The fly brain and the human brain “…have the same electrical properties, many of the same neurotransmitters, the same protein channels that allow ions to flow in and out, as well as a remarkably high number of genes in common. Neurons are the same basic building blocks in both species. “ (Sapolsky, November, 2010)
and this truth was also articulated by another forum-contributor, Frans de Waal:
“If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts [my italics].” (de Waal, October, 2010).
In the twenty-first century our understanding of the nature of biological evolution is elucidated by revolutionary methodologies in genomic research. The present model of biological evolution is that of descent with modification. All modern species — sparrow, human, sponge, etc. — are extant representatives of that process. Therefore, when it comes to the claim that there is a fundamental difference between our species and others (or that humans are uniquely special in some truly objective measurable way), there is no there there. Moreover, the very fact that we stand to benefit so much from scala naturae thinking should give us pause as to its validity. I argue that, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, the scala natura remains the fundamental paradigm of nature and the core validation for the inequalities and abuses imposed on other animals by humans.
One might think that I am setting up a strawman argument and that modern scientific thinking is too sophisticated to adhere to such an outmoded model of nature. But there is evidence all around us that the scala natura remains the dominant paradigm. I will provide evidence within three domains — language and representation, science, and ethics — and contrast the current model with the trans-species paradigm that I argue should replace it.
Language and Representation
Many authors have pointed out that language shapes the power relations in society by creating and perpetuating various attitudes. Nowhere is this more true than in our use of language to maintain scala naturae thinking about other animals. Even in modern science textbooks and peer-reviewed papers we find such phrases as “lower animals” and “higher animals” and other hierarchical representations such as depicting the evolution of life on the planet as a linear progression from “lower to higher” with humans at the pinnacle. I have used many biology textbooks during the course of my academic career and I have found only one that portrayed humans in our proper evolutionary relationship to the other primates, i.e., not as the endpoint of primate evolution but, rather, as another species embedded within the great ape clade. And even if one does not consider humans great apes the fact that almost all pictorial depictions of primate evolution show humans on top or at the end of a progression belies an objective viewpoint. These representations are internalized and propagated throughout society, along with others too numerous to detail here, including the use of the pronoun “it” when referring to another animal. Of considerable concern is the pervasive use of speciesist and scala naturae language in books and other media materials for young children who are being enculturated into a scala naturae model.
A trans-species language would reflect the veridical relationship among species without injecting hierarchical notions of value. The fact that we do not have linguistic terms and concepts that readily articulate our true relationship to other animals is remarkable and concerning. Trans-species language will have to be developed hand-in-hand with the perspective. Scientific, educational, entertainment and news materials will need to reflect a more objective and varied representation of the human species in the context of evolution, explicitly hierarchical and value-laden concepts must be rejected, and other animals ought to be referred to in comparable terms as humans. For instance, at the very least individuals of other species should be referred to as “she” or “he”, when appropriate, rather than “it”. What appears to be a small issue — the use of pronouns — is really a very strong influence on how we view other animals. Generally, we should consider comparable terms for comparable phenomena without the torturous measures we employ to avoid the appearance of anthropomorphism when, in fact, everyone knows that certain behaviors are shared entirely with other species. To take a common example, the ethological term for a certain behavior is “consumatory or gustatory behavior”. We know it as… eating. Revisions of language to accommodate a trans-species perspective would, I argue, facilitate a more authentically comparative view of behavior in humans and other animals than currently exists.
The scala naturae model pervades modern scientific reasoning and methodology. Historically, humans have denied other animals traits such as emotions, complex cognitive abilities, reason, culture, the ability to suffer, and other attributes thought to be uniquely human. Today we pride ourselves on taking a less extreme, more “enlightened”, view than in the past yet we remain reluctant to attribute anything but the most rudimentary versions of human abilities to other animals. Therefore, we are willing to accept the evidence for certain shared capacities, e.g., morality, culture, self awareness, with members of other species but we rarely if ever allow them to possess comparable, let alone more complex or sophisticated, thoughts and feelings. This modern view of other animals as simpler or incomplete versions of humans is hardly more than a small advance over the older extreme view denying any and all complex traits to other animals. As an example, we speak of other primates as having the “beginnings” of morality or culture as if they are partial versions of “full blown” humans. But given that modern primates are not ancestral to us, by what logic or empirical base do we assume that they have the less complex, the less profound, the less intelligent, if you will, versions of such traits?
Furthermore, while we are forced to admit that some other animals possess more sophisticated sensory-perceptual capacities (e.g., olfaction in dogs, audition in cetaceans) we tend to frame these abilities in terms of non-cognitive descriptions, e.g., numbers of sensory receptors or other peripheral mechanisms. Clearly, echolocation — the use of high frequency sound for processing information — by cetaceans is more than a fancy receptor device. It is a highly sophisticated cognitive capacity that humans lack — and all that that implies.
The entire scientific research enterprise using other animals as so-called animal models is based on the scala naturae. We make inferences about human minds from animals yet it is considered anathema to make inferences from humans to other animals. When we do so we deride it as anthropomorphism. The very nature of modern scientific thought and inquiry is based on what Bradshaw calls “unidirectional inference” (from other animals to humans). Implicit in the animal model paradigm is the view that other animals (and their characteristics) represent lesser, simpler or partial versions of humans.
A shift to a trans-species perspective in science would complete the broken circle of logic by requiring that scientific inference be bidirectional. We can learn about other animals from humans. (I am not, of course, proposing we experiment on humans to learn about other animals nor do I advocate the opposite.) I am suggesting a new way of thinking about the relationship between humans and other animals that opens up avenues of inquiry and insight that are currently unnecessarily closed off by a unidirectional paradigm. For example, several recent papers have described the psychopathology exhibited by chimpanzees used in biomedical research with the human-derived concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These studies show that bidirectional inference, that is, applying what we know about humans to members of other species (chimpanzees in this case), can be a highly productive way of gleaning insights into the psychology of both species.
Scala Naturae thinking justifies the long history of objectification, exploitation and abuse that characterizes human-other animal relationships. By definition, an animal model is an animal sufficiently like humans in anatomy, physiology or psychology to be used in research considered too unpleasant, harmful or intrusive for humans. The animal model meets a kind of taxonomic equivalency to humans so as to react to manipulation in a way that resembles the human response. We “determine” through historical consensus that members of other species can be like us in ways that are convenient and yet dissimilar in ways that would be inconvenient if acknowledged otherwise. For instance, rats, dogs and monkeys have been used in studies of depression for decades without an adequate explanation to this day of precisely how they are appropriate subjects for this research without deserving equal ethical concern. All such “explanations” appeal to scala naturae thinking about other animals experiencing lesser suffering than humans, or only partial suffering. This is a convenient assumption but not one based on compelling data.
A trans-species perspective requires us to not only divest ourselves of the ethical double standard of the animal model in science and education, but transform how we deal with other animals in all aspects of living from a model of exclusivity to one of inclusion. This means finding ways to live that allow, to the best of our ability, all to thrive. For example, traditionally, conservation efforts have focused on ways to “manage” populations of other animals who come into conflict with humans because of over-crowding, climate change, etc. These efforts typically include drastic disruptions to the lives of other animals in the form of culling, relocation, fencing, etc. As a result, conservation has not stopped the current landslide of extinctions and, instead, has resulted in individual animals in these populations becoming psychologically disturbed and even less resilient. But relatively little attention is given to the most obvious cause of the current mass extinctions: human behavior. Finding solutions to human overpopulation and consumerism are politically uncomfortable subjects. But a trans-species perspective would not expect other animals to accomodate (often with severe consequences for them) to our excesses without our own species making reasonable adjustments in our own behavior.
Case in point is the plight of African elephants brought to light by Gay Bradshaw in her recent book Elephants on the Edge (2009). In it she details a disturbing phenomenon of documented abnormal behaviors (i.e. poor mothering, hyperaggression, increased conflict with humans, etc.) in elephants. She provides a cogent analysis of the causes of the situation by noting that human activities, including those that are considered “conservation measures” are disrupting the psychological development of the elephants and leading to deregulation of their social behavior. She points out that, as highly intelligent emotional social mammals, elephants are vulnerable to psychological trauma from the loss of family members and violence as we are. The result is an all-too-familiar pattern of individual trauma and breakdown in social relations within elephant groups much in the same way that psychological trauma and disturbance produces dysfunctional human families and groups. This example of bidirectional inference provides a richer and more productive way to understand and empathize with this kind of perplexing behavior in other animals and should guide our response in terms of conservation and human-other animal interactions in general.
Caveats and Conclusions
A trans-species perspective involves a dismissal of our current scala naturae model of nature and a profound change in our view of ourselves and the other animals. I want to caution, however, that this is not tantamount to rejecting the notion that there are discontinuities across species. Discontinuities exist across all species and are a natural part of the biological world. For example, dolphins are capable of echolocation, a highly sophisticated use of sound echoes to form mental representations. Humans do not have this perceptual system, plain and simple. This is a discontinuity. But it does not make humans or dolphins different in nature, only in some features. And it certainly is silent on the issue of who is more valuable as a species.
The scala naturae view of nature might have become an historical oddity, much the same as flat-earth theory and other geo- and anthrocentric schemes had it not so eagerly been passed down by successive generations of scientists, philosophers, and others. This begs the question of why. The answer is complex. At one level it is mightily convenient to internalize a view of humans as superior to other animals because it justifies our exploitation of them. At a deeper level, however, it may be related to the fact that we are afraid to be what we are — animals — because it means that we are subject to the same processes of nature as our animal kin, i.e. mortality. Much of human effort is spent on denying our own nature and, thus, denying death at various levels. The fact that there is a relationship between scala naturae views and other social models that provide a way “out” of a natural death, i.e., religion, is compelling. Whatever the reasons, we need to get over it.
So the reasons for holding onto a scala naturae view of nature are psychologically forceful. Arguably, given that this model has not provided a sustainable way to live on this planet, we may be forced to confront who we are. In doing so, we may ultimately find more life than death.
Bradshaw, G. (2009) Elephants on the Edge. Yale University Press.
de Waal, FBM (2010) Morals without God? On the Human (http://onthehuman.org/2010/10/morals-without-god/)
Sapolsky, R. (2010) This is your brain on metaphors. On the Human (http://onthehuman.org/2010/11/your-brain-on-metaphors/)