ideology of mental supremacy [animal vs. human labor]

Bruce Buchan bruceb at
Sun Feb 18 21:23:28 MST 1996

Owing to the recent techno-hassles (and the loss of messages, etc.), I am
re-posting this message.  Sorry if it has already got through - in which
case, consign it to the dustbin of history!


How would you answer the questions you ask?  

The search for THE CRITERION which separates us from other animals is
somewhat like the search fro foundations in modern political theory.  Many
people assume or contend that there are such foundations (reason, truth,
community, the self...), but whenever an attempt is made to lay out such
foundations, they dissolve into sand.  Similalrly the search for THE
CRITERION distinguishing us from the beasts  (whether it be speech, abstract
thought, artistic imagination, tool-making, building, even orgasmic sex) has
always ended in futility.  

This futility has not resulted from the fact that we are in fact identical
to other beasts (which we clearly are not), but from the way in which the
search has been conducted.  It seems to me that the search has been premised
upon one salient assumption, i.e. that humans are not only distinguishable
from other beasts, but that they are SUPERIOR in feeling, intelligence,
character, etc.  The need to buttress that superiority with 'scientific'
rigour has lead us into spuriously suposing that one activity or capacity
reflective of this 'superiority' is sufficient to establish our difference
from the rest of the evolutionary scale.

Having said this, I would also want to argue that humans clearly are
distinct from other creatures, but that the distinction is not singular but
in fact multiple distinctions abound.  But such distinctions give us no
grounds for claiming superiority.  Clealrly no other animals have created
the sort of communities, societies, and cities that we humans have; our
capacity for tool-making, tool-use, speech and abstract thought does seem to
be quite different to that of other animals; and as far as we know, we tend
to have a stronger sense of history.  Now the fact that seagulls communicate
verbally, or that chimpanzees make and use tools, or that dolphins are
capable of abstract thought does not cancel out the fact that our capacities
in this regard are different from theirs.

What intersts me most about this line of argument though, is not the
abstract philosophising, but the concrete problem of ethics, specifically,
how should we treat other animals?  Should we in fact embrace vegetarianism
or veganism, either for its own sake, and/or as part of a conscious strategy
of social change?  I believe that we should, but that is a contention which
regularly sparks considerable controversy (particulalrly from fellow
socialists, anarchsists, Marxists, etc.).


>Lisa replies: 
>Barkley, [and all] do you think it matters _what_ the criteria are? 
>I mean, do you have another candidate in mind that you _do_ uphold?
>Or, do you go more radical, to ask why it matters?  Do you think it
>matters?  What is at stake?  What is the point of always looking for
>something **unique** to humans?
>Don't just give us a newsflash, follow through!  I want more, I'm
>into this thread. 
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