Beauty of the beasts

January 15, 1999

By arguing that researchers should examine the distinctive things animals can do, rather than the extent to which they can mimic humans, Stephen Budiansky touches on what may be a key political issue in the next century ("Cheep imitations of human thought", THES, January 1).

The anthropocentrism he laments dates back at least to Descartes, with his rational system based on the individual thinking human mind. Late medieval pessimism had been characterised by a fear of non-human nature, as essentially hostile to human wellbeing. Enlightenment rationalism sought to overcome this fear, on the ground that the world was designed purely for the benefit of humans, and we had sufficient rational powers to exercise complete control over it. As long as this notion was the driving force behind European and American politics, it was convenient to believe that animals are completely unlike us.

Today the tables are turned. Our attempts to transform nature in our own interests have turned out to be the greatest destroyers of our interests.

We now see the natural environment not as a threat to human wellbeing but as an essential basis for it. We need to rediscover how to value plants and animals.

Seen from this perspective, one approach - the one with which Budiansky disagrees - is to say: "Look. Animals are not all that different from us after all. This one can add up; that one can construct sentences!" It is a basis for arguing that the political agenda should make room for the wellbeing of some animals, too, and is a step in the right direction. But only a small one.

Budiansky's interest in what animals can do that humans cannot illustrates the kind of thinking western society desperately needs if we are to rediscover the complexity and awesome mystery of the living environment, humbly accept we cannot control it and seek again to live in harmony with it.

Jonathan Clatworthy Chaplain, Liverpool University Anglican Chaplaincy.

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