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Sightings: Rational Animals

How often do you think of “our” religious outlook concerning animals/the living creatures God created? – Ninure da Hippie

Sightings 1/12/2012

Rational Animals
— Kristel Clayville

Definitions of what it means to be human have been sought out for centuries in many academic disciplines. Theology and philosophy have been at the forefront of this humanistic inquiry, but since Darwin’s writing, biology and psychology have posited their own definitions. More importantly, biology and psychology have been used as an interpretive lens on the earlier theological and philosophical definitions of what it means to be human. In the public sphere, the theological and philosophical definitions have taken a back seat to the biological and psychological definitions. While this shift may seem inconsequential, it has a profound effect on the public’s views of morality. Rather than morality having a theological or philosophical center or origin, it is now largely represented in media as the natural outgrowth of human evolution from animals, which situates animals and animal studies as the new center for biological and psychological definitions of humanity. Interestingly, despite the culture wars over the place of evolutionary theory in public life, new and popularly accepted definitions of human and animal relations imply an acceptance of the basic assumptions of evolutionary theory.

Consider several recent books, movies, and news articles about the inner lives of animals that have flooded the market in the past three to four years. Books on bird intelligence, getting into the mind of your dog, cross species friendships, human terrorizing of elephants through environmental destruction, and animal social organization and its implied morality have found homes on bookstore shelves. On the film front, documentaries like Project Nim, which follows the efforts of a Columbia University psychology professor to teach language to a chimp (Nim Chimpsky) have debuted at art house theaters, while big budget films like the Disney film Earth have offered audiences a window into the epic journeys of animal “families.” Human curiosity about animals is pretty normal. Who doesn’t want to know more about how ravens recognize faces and teach their young to do the same? Isn’t it horrifying and illuminating that elephants grieve the loss of a loved one—or that they even have loved ones? Does Nim Chimpsky actually learn to communicate with humans or does he only mimic and placate them? Do social animals abide by a set of morals?

Closer attention to these mass media representations of animals reveals three basic trends in our contemporary relationship with animals and how we think about morality through animals: 1) We are interested in their experience of their world, and study of their experiences shows that animals have much in common with us; 2) We can learn about ourselves and our relationships with other humans by studying animals; and 3) Animals can teach us how to be moral.

The first trend—drawing similarities between human and animal experience—seems sentimental, aimed to circumvent rather than recruit our higher faculties of judgment. Moreover, the books and movies mentioned above draw mainly on narrative conventions to tell us a story about animal intelligence, and in fact these narratives could simply represent what their authors wish were the case—that humans and animals have similar experiences of the world. By extension, the similarities between our experiences of the world and those of animals lay the groundwork for an expansive notion of our duties to animals. None of the narrative expressions of our similarities go so far as to articulate an ethical project, but the implication is that similarities of experience warrant an equality of treatment in the ethical realm. In short: animals are just like us, so let’s treat them better.

While rampant anthropomorphizing may inform the above narratives and their potential ethical projects, the second trend is highly rational and human-centered. An article that represents this trend appeared recently on the University of Chicago homepage, and it reports the conclusions of a study on rat behavior conducted by psychologists and psychiatrists at the University of Chicago. Previous studies on rats had noted that they could sense the emotional distress of other species. Building on these earlier findings, the study investigates whether rats could sense and understand the distress of their fellow rats, and to see what if anything the rats would try to do to alleviate the distress. Pairs of rats were put in cages for two weeks, after which one rat of each pair was freed. A large percentage of the freed rats worked tirelessly to liberate their cagemates. When confronted with the choice between eating chocolate—a favorite food of rats—and freeing their fellow rat, a large percentage of them chose to free their cagemate, then share the chocolate with the newly liberated rat. This study is fascinating for the information it offers about rat intelligence, emotion, and empathy, but the conclusions in the news article were not about the rats themselves. Instead, the conclusions posited that these findings could be used to increase empathy in humans.

Counter to the ethical position that humans are naturally selfish, this study of rats concludes that humans, like other social animals, find helping others to be its own reward. While the impetus of the rat study is to gain knowledge about rat behavior, the conclusions of the article on the study suggest that rat behavior is not an amoral category for the scientists conducting the study. In fact, rat behavior is synonymous with social animal behavior, and the rationale for studying social animal behavior is to study and possibly augment human behavior.

This humanistic, yet scientific enterprise posits psychological similarities between humans and animals on the order of the narratives in the books and movies above. In contrast, the similarities between humans and rats become part of a potential ethical project that is concerned with how humans interact with each other. There were no conclusions offered in the study itself concerning how the inner lives of rats might change the human relationship to rats and other social animals.

A third trend in the study of animals and morality stands in stark distinction to the narratives of animal intelligence and the study of empathy in rats; this group of books posits that animals are moral and that we can learn how to be moral from them. We aren’t learning about animals, and we aren’t learning about ourselves through animals, but in fact we are being taught by animals. The book Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom presents the reader with photos of strange animal pairs, often predator-prey pairs, along with a narrative of how they became friends and some indication of the depth of their friendship. Here animals function symbolically to ratify human feelings of being innately at odds with others, while also leading us out of our intractable differences. In fact, like these animals who have befriended their natural predators, we too can overcome our differences with one another and live in harmony.

So what can we make of these three trends in the study of animals and morality? All of these trends are represented in academic studies of animals, but these books, movies, and news articles are written for and marketed to the general public, suggesting that some of the assumptions of the academic scholarship have permeated contemporary culture. Most important among these assumptions is a version of evolutionary theory that posits a biological relationship between humans and other animals, and this biological relationship influences the psychological elements of our lives. While this is not a particularly radical statement, its acceptance motivates the creation and consumption of the books, movies, and articles mentioned above. Additionally, this modest acceptance of evolutionary theory by the public shows the extent to which the Judeo-Christian position of “subdue and dominate” has been subverted, at least intellectually, when thinking about animals and our relationships to and with them. Or to put my conclusion in moral terms, the ground of our duties to animals has shifted in the public realm from a theological and philosophical context to a biological and psychological context.


Earth. Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, Dirs. Disneynature, 2007.

Holland, Jennifer S., Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom. Workman Publishing Company, 2011.

Horowitz, Alexandra, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Scribner, 2009.

Maia Szalavitz, “Rats Show Empathy and Free Their Trapped Companions,” Time Magazine, December 8, 2011.

Petersen, Dale, The Moral Lives of Animals. Bloomsbury Press, 2011.

Project Nim. James Marsh, Dir. Red Box Films, 2011.

Kristel Clayville is a PhD candidate in Religious Ethics in the Divinity School and a Martin Marty Dissertation Fellow for 2011-2012. Her dissertation is entitled Responsible Hermeneutics: The Interpretation of Religious Texts in the Environmental Ethics of Hans Jonas and Holmes Rolston III.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.

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