There are enough details in the New York Observer report that we can piece together what happened. The scene: the monthly meeting of the New York Skeptics at a Kips Bay restaurant.
Massimo Pigulucci, an academic philosopher, polished the surgical-steel stud in his left lobe. He sipped his Pinot Grigio, cleared his throat, smiled at his dinner companions, and asked, “Is there anything unique about human beings?”
Horrors! A philosophical car accident! Something went catastrophically wrong with Pigulucci’s thought. To prove that his steering off the sanity highway was purposeful, he clarified: “Is there such a thing as some characteristic or characteristics that distinguish human beings from the rest of the living world?”
The paper reports that one Leslie, a psychotherapist, offered, “Whales can communicate 10,000 miles away.” She also claimed that these great fish (Melville said so) have a vocabulary larger than do people. This is almost certainly false, since the number of unique words known to humans numbers in the millions.
And even if whales can use the superior sound-conducting properties of salt water to good effect, 10,000 undersea miles is a drop in the bucket. People can communicate over billions of miles, and over thousands of years of time. Whales have dull conversations and write no books.
A few apes, held in the most rigorous laboratory conditions, can be taught to mimic a handful of signs, and can even use these signs to ask for an extra ration of bananas. But even a Harvard educated monkey would never know that Sparky Anderson was signaling for a suicide squeeze.
Comparing animal to human intelligence is like contrasting the processing power of a Casio LED Watch to that of wiring every computer on Earth together in parallel. There is nothing on this planet that is like us. There is nothing even remotely close to us. Perhaps a member from the almost-human Neandertals—or some other representative from the genus Homo—could have held his own in a chess match with a human, but there aren’t any of them left to check.
There are plenty of reasons to study our relationship to animals—I know a woman who claims that serial murders are drawn disproportionately from chicken farmers—and certainly there are ethical questions to be answered with respect to our treatment of the beasts.
So while it remains interesting to ask why we are different, there is no point to ask if we are different. That we are is so obvious that the explanation of why academics question our uniqueness must be psychological. Perhaps their mothers were too indulgent or they enjoy being thought “deep.” Who knows?
Why? Well, “‘wildness’ is synonymous with uncivilised, unrestrained, barbarous existence.” Are we to conclude that “free-living” animals have civilizations, that they are restrained and non-barbarous—except, of course, when they are mercilessly eating each other?
Also, we mustn’t call animals “critters” and “beasts.” Pets should be called “companion animals”, and their human masters should be known by the difficult-to-pronounce “human carers,” as in, “Hi, I’m Sam. Fido’s human carer. Ignore the leash.”
The Animals and Society Institute, human carers of the Journal of Animal Ethics, is miffed that some think that “crazy academics…are worried that animals will be ‘insulted’ if we call them pets.” Not so. They insist that the language we use to describe our Earth-companions “shapes our treatment of them.”
[I]dioms like “skin a dead cat” contribute to a permissive social attitude towards the abuse of animals. Negative animal idioms normalize or trivialize violence towards animals. When sayings like “flog a dead horse” are used and become a normal part of our vocabulary, we can no longer “see” the implications of human violence against animals. These expressions mask the real violence within them and demonstrate human power over animals.
The dangers of tenure! The signs have long been plain: if they would have been a snake, they would have bitten us. We can’t expect a leopard to change his spots, so we must look forward to more of this kind of shockingly poor reasoning from academics. We can’t just let sleeping dogs lie. We must protest our students! If we don’t do something to curtail these professorial excesses, our goose is cooked.