May 21, 2005

Animals do not equal robots.

Though I just started it last week, I have only 13 days of summer school left. It's nothing difficult at all thus far, save for the challenge of sitting in one spot for upwards of a span of two hours before venturing off to another class to sit for two hours ... again. This has struck me as quite a superb method of picking up quick credits, and I wish I had thought to do it last summer. I dropped my online course, community psychology, as soon as I read the syllabus's description of the required projects. It would have had me doing community service, interviewing members of the community, and actually conversing with people on a local level! **Feels faint** Well, it may have done me some good, but I didn't feel like going through the hassle coming fresh off the spring semester griddle. Instead, I enrolled in physical anthropology, which I did not care for at first, but seems to be increasingly interesting. The teacher is a bit of a weirdo, but then again... weird is often good. Maybe I'm just not accustomed to having teachers that kick off every lecture with various primate calls. At least its fitting, since the course is all about human evolution from primates. The more I study primates, in fact, the more fond of them I am becoming. Initially, I had a sort of neutral opinion about them, respecting them as I respect all animals, but not caring for them in particular. After observing their behaviours through educational media, however, it's donned on me how fascinating these creatures are, and how amazing it is what they are capable of. They have culture. They use tools. They organise elaborate communities. They convey emotion and all sorts of human-like behaviours. And yet, they are so wonderfully wild and admirably innocent in comparison to the world's most evolved species. Ring-tailed lemurs are just plain terrific.

I am also reminded of how much I always feel like an orangutan in a jungle full of chimpanzees. Chimps are noisy, gregarious and social creatures who love to stick their noses in the business of others, while orangutans are quiet, reclusive, and private, usually preferring to hide up in the treetops by themselves and observe the action below them rather than get involved. Enough said, really. I respect orangutans greatly, and I wouldn't mind being one.

As much knowledge as I am gaining from this course, it's also testing my patience and temper. To cite a specific example, the girl sitting next to me on Friday constantly snapping and chewing her gum through the entire duration of class was almost enough to make me flip out. Some things just bother me in the worst sort of way. I would have moved had there been one vacant seat in the entire classroom. I had to step out once to keep from strangling her. Pesky, pesky, pesky wolf. It gets far worse, though. A couple students in my class hold a firm belief regarding all animalkind that I strongly disagree with. They insist, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that animal behaviour is entirely pre-programmed- they cannot think, reason, or feel emotion, and they act entirely on instinct. They are incapable of feeling pain the way humans feel it, and their reactions to the environment are entirely the result of their instrinsic wiring.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. I have gotten myself into many arguments in the past versus these fools who subscribe to such thinking, and most of them refused to admit to seeing things any differently in the end. First of all, it is important to recognise and address the human error of anthropomorphising animals to the degree of exaggeration. That is, people too often confer human traits onto animals ... and plants and other objects, for that matter. "Anthropomorphic" is a great word to use, for it is long, precise, and sends many into a spiralling vortex of utter confusion. It's an effective tool for separating those who know what they're talking about from those who don't. A talking sandwich is anthropomorphic. So is a toilet with eyes and a mouth, telling you to purchase the latest greatest bowl cleaning product. The problem with anthropomorphism is that it often skews reality adversely, particularly concerning animals. Kids raised exclusively on Disney films would be led to believe that bears and chipmunks spend most of their time singing and dancing in the woods and solving crimes. Truthfully, most animals are usually entirely uninterested in human affairs. They probably don't feel the wide range of emotions that humans feel. They probably don't bother to plan out their day, plot revenge, or play tricks on their fellow friends. Or maybe they do. Who are we to know? To over-anthropomorphise animals is ignorant, sure. If your dog is hanging his head and looking up at you it isn't wise to assume that he is overcome with extreme guilt and would do anything for your affection. To assume that animals are incapable of feeling, however, is even dumber. Humans have no way of knowing what animals are thinking or feeling, or if they are thinking and feeling; they can only postulate. Furthermore, I have observed animals portraying quite a few emotions. Is this because I cognitively anthropomorphised them too much? Possibly, but I doubt it. When a golden retriever we had for several years passed away, our other dog began behaving very strangely. She would curl up on the porch even though she knew she previously wasn't allowed there and would never dare set paw upon it, and whimper incessantly. She also refused to eat much at all for a few days, as she remained curled up just above the exact spot that her canine friend had expired. Is it wrong to assume she might have been a little heavy-hearted and in a state of mourning? Or was it all just "pre-programmed" behaviour, completely built into her from the beginning? Canine companion perished. Must now whimper continuously and hang around porch. Must cease routine eating habits. Must behave in such a fashion that would humanistically be construed as sad.

...I think not. Animals are not robots, so some people should stop essentially insisting that they are wired like robots. Numerous studies have shown that primates exhibit many emotions, not to mention the capacity for conscious decision-making. Such data aren't hard to find. Isn't the sight of a young chimpanzee mourning the death of a family member self-evident enough? Instead of making such rash assumptions about animals in order to attempt to justify your "superiority" or your tendency to eat them up all the time, spend some time actually observing them and use your head. It's easy to anthropormorphise animals too much, as people by nature tend to apply their human biases to everything, but it's also far too easy to regard them as being much more simple-minded than they really are.

Anthropormorphism in the artistic sense, however, is lovely. I adore art featuring animal-human hybrids, amalgamated in their physical, psychological, and physiological traits. I have always found it greatly intriguing. Of course, one should not lose sight of the fact that humans are animals, as much as creationists et al would love to believe otherwise. How egocentric it is to think that humans were created separately and that animals were "designed" for their use. Oh dear, doesn't that sound suspiciously contrived and fabricated for obvious reasons.

Unfortunately, on Tuesday, our class is going to the local zoo. I have never been to the Panaewa Zoo, and have never had the slightest desire to go. I know I am not going to like what I see. I'm not sure how I am going to react, or if I will be able to keep myself together long enough to get out of there and release it all when I get home. A primate behind bars is difficult enough to see on film, but to actually be close enough to touch a similar creature in such a predicament . . . Fuck. This is going to hurt, but I care about my course mark. I felt more and more like going into a fit of rage the longer my lecturer discussed all the senseless experiments that have routinely been done on captive primates. Research for the betterment of mankind? Hardly. One example would be the experiment which involved injecting a high level of saccharin into the cheeks of an anesthetised chimp to observe the results. Of course, they injected more saccharin than any human would ever consume in a day. The animal suffered greatly for a conclusion that meant absolutely nothing and in no way benefitted the scientific community's knowledge pool. Tragically, the same thing happens constantly. While many primates are anesthetised preceding an operation, they often regain consciousness before the procedure is over. This is because a professional anesthesiologist would be "too expensive," and so the anesthesia is administered by amateurs in insufficient quantities. Imagine the sort of pain and suffering that a chimp experiences when it comes to, not even stitched up yet. Being confined in small cages is bad enough. I can respect physical anthropologists like Jane Goodall, who observe primates in their natural habitats and do not advocate actually harming the animals for purposes of research.

Still, vivisection is prevalent, done largely for the purpose of searching for cures and treatments to known diseases and medical conditions, no matter how much suffering is involved on behalf of the animals. I am still seeking a cure for humanity.

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