Humans and the animals without history

I do an exercise on the first day of class where I ask my students: In what ways are humans like animals? I collect the responses: we talk about food and sex – these are particularly interesting topics because they illustrate the breadth of anthropology and all the different methods we can use.

Then I ask in what ways are humans unique from animals? I collect the responses: we talk about language and culture, which always have this symbolic element too. Therefore, humans are like animals in many ways but unlike other animals in our capacity for a sophisticated, symbolic culture.

A little too nice and tidy, I know. But one of the reasons why this and other bits of structured improv are so much fun is because it gets students talking. You never know what they’re going to say and, on occasion, one will say something provocative. Or brilliant, or they’ll get it all wrong but in a way that is fascinating. Or their questions make you ask questions.

So I was doing this routine last week and I asked the question: How are humans different from other animals? And one of my students says, “Humans have history.”

And I’m thinking, Europe and the People Without History. Humans and the animals without history?

As animals we share an evolutionary history – but only humans know that. Animals, I suppose “know” this in a ecological sense. But human beings can turn evolutionary history into narrative history.

Okay, so as humans we have a narrative history. Why would it matter that we have more than an autobiographical memory, but can share knowledge about past events and even tell tales about things that happened before our life times?

And this pun from the Eric Wolfe book was making me think: maybe there’s a relationship between those tales about things that happened before our life times and the way culture acts a mediator structuring the way humans interact with the natural environment. Or exploit the environment?

Unless… Could it be that animals do have a narrative history? We could look at this phenomenologically. Is there something uniquely human in the way we perceive the passing of time?

Would it come back to complex social relationships and kin groups? That being able to navigate a social past of debts and gifts, rights and obligations helped our ancestors secure the necessities of life and prosper.

This is just rambling. I know. But the evolutionary study of the origin of cooperation has done some real fascinating work on social behavior. Could we follow this line of thinking for other topics like the origin of the past?

Humans Have History and animals don’t. Try it! It’s fun!

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

25 thoughts on “Humans and the animals without history

  1. In what ways are humans like animals?

    In what ways are lemons like citrus fruits?

    Chimpanzees also ‘have history’, in that they use tools, including rudimentary language, dependent on the prior tools and language of their antecedents. They also have some sense of social structure in the form of descent (but not alliance). There doesn’t seem to be anything special about the human perception of time – it seems pretty likely that animals experience time in the same way.

    It seems to me that the ability to process recursion is at the heart of any proposed differences between humans and other animals. Humans not only make tools – plenty of animals do that – but they make tools to make tools, and can conceivably make tools to make tools to make tools to make tools, ad infinitum. Chimps can’t do that. This applies to almost everything else as well, even language (which famously depends on recursion) and narrative, which you may not think of as a recursive procedure, but which is in fact a perfect example. Michael Corballis argues in his book, The Recursive Mind, that recursion is the most important cognitive innovation of Homo sapiens sapiens, and I have to say that I’m convinced.

  2. Like you, Matt, I always found humans and animals are great way to introduce first year students to anthropology, especially in small interactive groups. The topics were instantly accessible to them: hunting, sacrifice, pets, zoos, vegetarianism. And the exchanges were hot! Vegetarian vicar’s daughters from Hampshire challenged macho badger hunters from Belfast.

    I have come to believe that we waste two much time on the divisions that separate humanity — race, class, nationality, religion, language, sexuality, geography. But there are three that strike me as being durably important — gender, adults and children, humans and animals.

    Do animals have history is a good question. Thanks.

  3. Very cool. I often ask students a similar question, having them produce lists contrasting the differences between humans and other animals. We typically go through all the usual answers, language, tool use, art, religion, etc. And I tell the students, “you guys just reproduced 200 years of philosophy in 10 minutes…”

    I think the usual “best” answer we go with is, “humans are the only animal that asks how it is different from other animals.”

  4. A friend shared this Ortega y Gasset quote on my Facebook page, “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is—history. Expressed differently: what nature is to things, history, res gestae, is to man.”
    –from the essay Man has no nature

  5. nice start – but wouldn’t it be appropriate then to also move on and interrogate the essentialism involved in exceptionalist constructions of “human”? anthropology is pretty familiar with the pitfalls of essentialism, after all.

  6. There’s no necessary essentialism here – we don’t need to say, ‘all humans have this trait, and if you don’t have it, you’re not human’.

    For instance, as I said, I think the capacity for recursive thought is the primary factor in differentiating humans from other animals, and that this capacity likely goes back to the earliest human populations. But if someone lacks the capacity, or deliberately spurns it in several areas (as do the Piraha, according to the linguists and ethnographers who have worked with them), then that doesn’t make them non-human. Likewise, Matt isn’t necessarily suggesting that people who don’t make stories aren’t humans (again, the Piraha appear to fit into this category).

    It is possible to outline some generic differences without endorsing the idea that all examples of the genre must possess these traits (which is what essentialism is).

    Also, I find the quote Matt posted entirely unsatisfactory. It is not true that people are only beholden to ‘history’ and have no phylogenetic traits. This has, of course, been debunked so many times it is barely worth going into, but…

  7. still, the category of “human” tends to be defined through some magical trait that supposedly differentiates “human” from all other living beings – tool use, awareness of death, symbolization, language, complex tool use, self-awareness, bla bla, you name it. one trait or the other, which effectively becomes some sort of “essence” of the human.

    then along comes a New Caledonian crow constructing meta-tools, say, or a mourning elephant, and the search is on for yet another version of “how are we different from everyone else” (and who are we to say that other living beings don’t reflect on how they are different from humans?)

    thought it might be a nice opportunity to relativize this particular meta-construct of “human”, as constructed through exception – that is a historical formation, after all, with its own genealogies. post-Adamic, one might say…

    one doesn’t necessarily need to think human as “distinct from all other living beings” in order to think it, right? shame if the discipline were to fall back on lazy inherited assumptions here.

  8. I think it is worth point out the stakes of *why* exceptionalism definitions of the human, and human as not animal/like other animals, matters, especially given that Matt teaches in a sociology and **criminal justice** department. (Am I really the only one noticing this? If so, kinda interesting… )

    Given how much racially-biased criminal ‘justice’ outcomes are dependent on criminalization (and especially wrongful criminalization and false conviction) of some human beings via dehumanization and/as animalization, and especially of those designated as Black/Negro as ‘more ape-like’ (i.e. more like chimps and gorillas than other human beings; see Jennifer Eberhardt’s work on ‘death worthiness’, and continued associations between black people and apes, for example), it is worth thinking about why some forms of ‘exceptionalism’ may be worth recuperating if only so as not to keep reproducing implicit biases and practices which target some human beings as less-than-human and as more like other animals. In other words: perhaps it IS worth thinking of all human beings as not like other animals, in some exceptional way(s), so as to clarify the dangers of implicit bias (in law enforcement; or even in relation to who is authorized to speak, including for themselves anthropologically: )/2012/03/04/a-plea-for-anthropology/.

  9. Hugo,

    Yes, it’s certainly true that most of these discussions are about creating a metaphysical line between humans and animals, and it’s pretty clear that some people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that humans are animals in a very meaningful sense. But pointing out the differences between humans and other animals is a worthwhile exercise, in that humans clearly have the faculties and capacities that they do as a result of their phylogenetic inheritance, and it would be difficult to comprehend any part of the world if all differences were eroded.

    DIscuss White Privilege,

    You seem to be saying that humans should be seen as different to other animals for moral reasons. I don’t think anyone is going to argue against that. Morality isn’t, and shouldn’t be, based on metaphysics, but on what we think is right, and I’m quite happy with the idea that killing a human is different to killing a deer even if this isn’t supported ontologically.

    Of course, there are moral implications of ‘human exceptionalism’. That’s the whole point of the idea. That’s why the Catholic Church explicitly states that there was a moment of ‘ensoulment’ that metaphysically separates humans from other animals. The aim is to prop up some moral sentiment. But I don’t think it’s necessary to believe in an absolute difference between animals and humans to act properly and morally. And we could in any case choose to take it a different way. Humans are indubitably animals. Instead of taking this to mean that some humans shouldn’t be treated morally, perhaps it should be seen as a reason to treat animals humanely.

  10. Al, I do not disagree with your proposition that all animals should be treated humanely; in fact, I completely concur. I am simply pointing out that–especially given the realities of how implicit bias ends up playing out and constricting (if not entirely foreclosing) life choices and life chances–we need to think seriously about how and where we draw human/other-animal distinctions, because we are already and constantly dealing with a social reality in which some human beings are constantly seen and treated (however unconsciously or dysconsciously) as not-quite-human and more-like-other animals. So where and how we draw human/other-animal distinctions directly affects this dehumanization of some of us.

    It would be nice to just say we should behave morally, but when does it ever work out this way? Especially in court rooms, police interactions, hiring decisions? It’s just not how the reality of implicit bias works, especially given how deeply historically sedimented discourses if racial hierarchy rooted in the ‘animality’ (of some of us) are.

    Also not lost on me that Matt teaches at Old Dominion. *Dominion* over who and what, right? Especially given its location below the Mason-Dixon Line. This is the stuff I notice and always find ‘hilarious’, in an intellectually perverse way. So the question of ‘dominion’ relates back to your comments on how we should treat other animals, and Hugo’s comments on the ‘pre-Adamic’ genealogy of certain exclusion discourses of the human v. the animal.

  11. Correction: meant to write it relates back to Hugo’s comment on ‘post-Adamic’ genealogy. Got distracted by thinking about how this genealogy also has racial entailments both because of dominion and the story of Cain to which it leads.

  12. I should hope it is obvious that I am not insulting Matt. Just pointing out the coincidences and how ‘funny’ it is that this discussion is in relation to a post from an anthropologist teaching in a criminal justice program at OD.

  13. The real irony is that for our school mascot we are “The Monarchs” when the Virginia state motto is Sic Semper Tyrannis.

  14. Just to clarify, again: the things I found ‘funny’ and ‘hilarious’ about the post and comments in the context of criminal justice and dominion were in no way a personal comment on you, Matt. Just thought that these facts made the post and comments on it even more thought-provoking.

  15. Heh. Complex and volatile territory this is.

    Al, my argument isn’t with difference, not at all – my truck is with the term “animal”, as an impoverished folk ontology that groups all forms of nonhuman life under one heading, then assigns them all some sort of imagined commonality based on lack, then defines “human” as the positive converse of that lack.

    This isn’t a very productive construct: it’s aprioristic, fairly baseless, and it obscures a lot of really interesting things. Personally, say, I’m pretty happy with the idea that dolphins might have a holographic language, or that birds might hold funerals for their dead.

    To me at least it looks like the age-old “human” / “animal” couplet is becoming an increasingly coarse tool for thinking about the world, and about the beings that inhabit it.

    In the light of this, it might not be a bad idea for us – as anthropologists, ostensibly in the business of studying anthropos – to take this construct as an anthropological object, and to properly question the deep-seated binaries that continue to structure our own thinking (and practice). And, perhaps, to come up with other ways of thinking these matters.

    ‘sall I’m saying 🙂

  16. DWP: My own 2p would be that the “animalization” of humans entails a double impoverishment or objectification – immediately and most obviously, of the human victim, but less proximately also of the supposed “animal” that sustains the metaphor. Neither party is well served by having the term applied to them.

    I’m quite influenced by Carol Adams on this, The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990).

  17. Hugo, agreed on your point of the double impoverishment. Thanks for the clarification and the reference. Much appreciated.

  18. The classification of Animalia isn’t folk ontology/taxonomy, but a standard scientific taxon with real validity and a reasonably clear origin in the Cambrian. Humans are clearly included within this kingdom. Of course folk taxonomy is incorrect in positing that humans are different from animals absolutely, and clearly the idea of a human/animal opposition is incorrect.

    It’s still pretty reasonable to differentiate humans from other animals based on common traits, or to talk about humans in terms of the traits they possess. This doesn’t imply either essentialism or an absolute difference from other animals.

    Humans have two eyes; saying this does not mean that one-eyed people are no longer humans (and this is also a trait shared by most animals, going right back to the Cambrian). Humans have two legs; again, saying this does not mean that amputees are no longer humans. Humans have the capacity to process multiple orders of recursion; saying this does not mean that other animals are totally incapable of recursive procedures (although the evidence is reasonably clear that most of them are incapable of anything beyond two orders, and only a tiny minority, mostly corvids, are capable of even that), nor that non-recursively-thinking humans are no longer humans.

    Of course the category of ‘human’ is arbitrary – it’s a biological classification, not a metaphysical one. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t shared features among most humans, and it is certainly meaningful to talk about the differences between humans and other animals. And this is definitely a good starting point for anthropological inquiry as well. The folk category may not be real or all that useful, but, carefully navigated, the differences between Homo sapiens sapiens and, say, Australopithecus afarensis are a worthwhile topic.

  19. One of the post-grad students I teach is writing a thesis on pigeons. She told me that one of the questions she’s interested in approaching an answer to is whether pigeons ‘have history.’ We didn’t have time to go into this during class, but I have since been wondering about it myself. Would pigeons excrete their historeographical records on the gargoyles of Notre Dame, peck their way patiently through the multiple folders full of guano?

    Even historians are now letting go of the idea that history is only possible if there is a written record. The deep historian such as Daniel Lord Smail will gladly reach out to the rocks and bones that have until recently been the province of the archaeologist. If these mute leavings can be grist to the human historian’s mill, could the pigeon have the same interest in the doings of her own species that our historians have in ours?

    From what S told me, pigeon history, or collective memory, or whatever it is, is, much as our own has been, highly territorial. There are buildings and squares in Paris that have had their winged communities for a century or more, and there are others that have little attraction. You will, I am sure, be able to think of a handful or so of alternative hypotheses to that of the avian Thucydides, but – as Derrida reminds us – we’re always given to special pleading when it comes to drawing a line between this one favoured animal and all the others.

  20. @Tim

    There has been a bit of work recently on slime mold and memory. It seems that despite lacking a brain the slime mold is a very efficient navigator of complex environments such that they are able to solve difficult mazes without a problem.

    I’m no slime mold expert, but I think the emerging consensus is that slime mold use the slime they leave behind as a form of externalized memory. In this way slime molds make their own history.

  21. I’m no slime mold expert, but I think the emerging consensus is that slime mold use the slime they leave behind as a form of externalized memory.

    In that case, it is clearly possible to develop a computer ‘with history’, because it could be programmed to leave items of some kind behind and use them as inputs for producing further actions. That would render the idea of ‘history’ moot, and we end up back where we started, without any meaningful differentiation of human capabilities for the purpose of academic analysis.

    but – as Derrida reminds us – we’re always given to special pleading when it comes to drawing a line between this one favoured animal and all the others.

    Derrida, of all people? Why not any evolutionary biologist ever?

  22. Because I’m French. We remain impervious to evolutionary biology’s crossing the line into the human sciences, as I was once sternly instructed when I attempted to introduce lupine hierarchies into a discussion of social structure. And after all, my students’ pigeons were also Derrida’s. If our sociologists and anthropologists do embrace the animal, it may well be because of Derrida’s last lectures. Celebrating the slime mould might take us a little longer.

    (My student is a geographer: right now, they’re taking over the social sciences).

  23. @Tim Thank you for dragging this thread back up. I had lost track of it in the Debt donnybrook.

    The interesting point about slime mold is that they lack cognitive capacity. They have no brain, hence no “mind”, and therefore the ability of a slime mold to carry out the kind of cognitive task associated with rats is… a fun mystery, I think.

    For Al’s comparison to be fair to the slime mold his computer would need to be without a cpu or hard drive. Of course, this is absurd. But, it is only absurd because applying the computational metaphor to living things is an absurdity. For example, I took the cpu and hard drive out of my old computer about a year ago and it has not seen fit to go anywhere since, and certainly not back to my desk. Or, maybe this is part of its larger plan to avoid work.

    The more interesting question here is whether the difference between humans and animals is one of degree or one of kind. And we don’t need Derrida or evolutionary psychology to remember what Morgan wrote of the American Beaver (p. 83) “it is, in itself considered, a remarkable feat that he [the beaver] should have voluntarily transferred himself, by means of dams and ponds of his own construction, from a natural to an artificial mode of life.”

    Following Morgan, Beavers not only have a history, but they are also designers. They actively make and remake their given circumstances into more preferred circumstances through their labor. They engage, to abuse Herbert Simon, in the science of the artificial.

  24. For Al’s comparison to be fair to the slime mold his computer would need to be without a cpu or hard drive. Of course, this is absurd.

    If you believe that, then you’re saying that there is nothing within a slime mold that is capable of receiving inputs and interpreting them (ie, it has no CPU or hard drive of its own) – which makes the idea of it using its own trails as external memory mysterious, not just scientifically, but metaphysically. But I assume you have no problem with this, given your second statement:

    But, it is only absurd because applying the computational metaphor to living things is an absurdity. For example, I took the cpu and hard drive out of my old computer about a year ago and it has not seen fit to go anywhere since, and certainly not back to my desk. Or, maybe this is part of its larger plan to avoid work.

    …which is, effectively, a statement of vitalism, another metaphysical absurdity. Not that you chaps will mind metaphysical absurdities, though, with the Derrida stuff. Bad philosophy abounds.

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