Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Animals Who Aren't Human: ‘Nonhuman’ or ‘Other’

Are humans animals? Is the term nonhuman problematic? How should the phrase other animals be used? Continue reading to learn what this hominid thinks.

You and I are animals. We are also vertebrates, mammals, and primates. These facts are often masked by our language. In common usage ‘animals’ only refers to animals who aren't human [0]. So if you were asked to name a favorite animal, ‘humans’ would be considered a very strange, perhaps nonsensical, response.

Language indicating that humans are animals isn't just taxonomically accurate. It also challenges an aspect of speciesism: people not admitting they are animals or not feeling comfortable with the fact. These learned behaviors have a rational basis. Denying kinship with an oppressed group makes it easier to rationalize their plight.


This problem of humans being excluded from the term animals has existed for centuries. Obsolete solutions include ‘sub-human animals’ and ‘lower animals’:

I believe I have something else in common with sub-humans — my hyper-sensitivity. I am convinced that animals are more sensitive than humans, and that the reason people do not know this is simply because they are not sensitive enough to feel that it is so. — Margaret Thorne in 1974 [1]

[A] belief that in years to come there will be a recognition of the brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and sub-human, which will transform a state of semi-savagery as we have it, into one of civilization, when there will be no barbarity such as warfare, or the robbery of the poor by the rich, or the ill-usage of the lower animals by mankind. — Henry Salt in 1939 [2]

Ernst Haeckel's (1834-1919) Tree of Life [3]
Both terms identify humans as animals but describe animals who aren't human as ‘sub’ and ‘lower’. This arbitrarily creates a hierarchy of value or importance. Not surprisingly, humans get the top spot. The good news is that modern ‘animal advocates’ don't label animals who aren't human in these ways. So how do they address the issue?

Most, despite knowing that humans are animals, always speak and write of humans and animals as two unrelated categories. In other words, their ‘animals’ means animals who aren't human. A small percentage of advocates use ‘nonhuman animals’ or ‘other animals’ — by far the most popular alternatives — intermittently with the conventional ‘animals’. Why not consistently? Some argue that accurate language can be clumsy, confusing, or annoying. I'm sympathetic to these concerns but rarely swayed by them [4]. Like very few advocates, I almost never use ‘animals’ to mean animals who aren't human.

Rather than discuss the importance of alternative language, the remainder of this essay evaluates the meaning and suitability of the terms currently in use. I argue that ‘nonhuman animals’ always and unmistakably refers to animals who aren't human. ‘Other animals’ only refers to animals who aren't human in some situations. It has a wide range of possible meanings, so the phrase should be used with care. This essay was sparked by reading a statement by David Nibert, professor at Wittenberg University [5]:

Activists and scholars challenging racism have called into question the term "nonwhite," as implicit in its use is the acceptance of "white" as the norm. I am uncomfortable using the term "nonhuman animal" for similar reasons. The expression "other animals" is an explicit recognition of the fact that humans also are animals and an attempt to unmask anthropocentric views that allow for the creation of so much social distance from those who are oppressed.

The Term Nonhuman Animals
‘Nonhuman animals’ is just a short way of saying animals who aren't human. Likewise, ‘nonwhite people’ means people who aren't white. If someone is referencing people or animals in general who aren't white or human, I'm comfortable with both terms. They allow us to quickly communicate exactly who we are talking about. Terms like nonblack people and nondolphin animals can be used in equivalent ways.

Can ‘nonwhite’ and ‘nonhuman’ suggest that white and human are "the norm"? Yes, but only in certain cases. For example, describing a squirrel and a black person in their respective biographies only as nonhuman and nonwhite. This would erase part of their identity by reducing them to their relationship with a dominant category or group. We can avoid this problem by mentioning specific species or race whenever doing so is relevant and possible. Because animals who aren't human currently have the status of property, and there are far more animal species than human races, ‘nonhuman’ is called for more often than ‘nonwhite’. Regardless, both terms have acceptable uses.

Flexible Meaning of ‘Other Animals’
Interpreted using standard definitions of its component words, ‘nonhuman animals’ has a fixed meaning: animals who aren't human. However, the phrase formed by combining ‘other’ and ‘animals’ has a flexible meaning. In other words, its meaning is determined by the context of the statement.

Wrenches are much better than other tools.
‘Other tools’ = tools that aren't wrenches

In the expression ‘humans and other animals’, the latter phrase does mean animals who aren't human. Likewise, if someone said ‘raccoons, opossums, and other animals’ the latter phrase would mean animals who aren't raccoon or opossum [6].

Many wrenches get nervous near other tools.
‘Other tools’ = all tools, wrenches and not

Consider the sentence ‘Nathan enjoys learning about other animals’. Because Nathan is a human animal this ‘other animals’ must include all animals, those who are human and those who aren't. I probably want to hear about people's hobbies as much as read about how manatees communicate. Another example in this vein: ‘Humans have eaten other animals throughout history’. This refers to cannibalism as much as the more popular carnivorous activities. By substituting the term nonhuman animals, these sentences would be about animals who aren't human, rather than all animals [7].

Imposing a Fixed Meaning
A small number of advocates ascribe the fixed meaning of ‘nonhuman animals’ to the phrase other animals. For instance, Nibert will use the expression "an other animal" and begin a paragraph with "other animals were" [8]. His 2002 book "Animal Rights / Human Rights" contains a note about this language [9]:

I largely refrain from using the terms people, nonhuman, and animals, choosing instead to use humans and other animals. This wording emphasizes human commonality with other inhabitants of the planet, rather than fostering a perception of separateness and "otherness" that helps rationalize disregard and mistreatment of other animals. The frequent use in this book of the broad and oversimplified category title of ‘other animals’ for the many and varied groups on the Earth is troubling for me, but I have not yet found a more respectful way to proceed.

The problems with this approach stem from using ‘other animals’ as though it always carries the meaning it has in ‘humans and other animals’ — one of the few constructions where the phrase actually means animals who aren't human. As shown in the previous section, the meaning of ‘other animals’, when based on established definitions, varies considerably in different contexts.

There is ample cause to encounter ‘Nathan enjoys learning about other animals’, or ‘humans have eaten other animals throughout history’ and believe the ‘other animals’ includes humans. But the fixed meaning approach has placed every use of the phrase in doubt. Perhaps Nathan like learning about animals who aren't human, or perhaps he likes learning about all animals. I guess it depends on who wrote the sentence.

The fixed meaning approach requires communicators and audiences to ignore how they naturally use and interpret the word other. They must believe, for instance, that ‘most zoos treat gazelles worse than the other other animals they exploit’ is a legitimate sentence. In the following quote from "Human Rights / Animal Rights", the phrase other animals is intended to mean animals who aren't human. However, when interpreted using standard definitions it means animals who aren't women, which includes men [10]:

[...] countless women were tried for allegedly practicing witchcraft and causing great misfortunes to occur in their communities. Other animals were similarly used, as they, too, could be "possessed by demonic forces."

Notes describing this use of ‘other animals’ wont always be heard, seen, or provided with quoted materials. In any event, basic language conventions — the meaning of ‘other’ and the taxonomically accurate definition of ‘animal’ — are being flouted. This can only muddle communication. Needlessly, if my analysis of ‘nonhuman’ is correct.

Finally, and somewhat ironically, the fixed meaning approach is anthropocentric. It allows sentences like ‘millions of other animals die every day’, which provide no reference point for ‘other animals’. We are expected to assume the phrase in question means animals other than humans. Doesn't this suggest that humans are "the norm" and erase the possibility of ‘other animals’ referring to animals other than alligators, eagles, or shrimps? If so, Nibert's guidance creates the very problem he wants to avoid.

Closing Thoughts and Review
This matter isn't dire, but it flares up on occasion. Concerning priorities, I would rather advocates improperly use ‘animals’ or ‘other animals’ than not promote veganism and the rights of nonhuman animals. However, I believe we can seamlessly embrace an alternative lexicon while spreading a message of non-exploitation.

Humans are animals. Using ‘animals’ to mean animals who aren't human is problematic. Antiquated and speciesist alternatives include ‘sub-human animals’ and ‘lower animals’. Of the contemporary attempts to resolve this issue — ‘nonhuman animals’ and ‘other animals’ — only the former always and unmistakably refers to animals who aren't human. ‘Other animals’ can mean animals who aren't human (‘humans and other animals’), but it can also mean all animals (‘I hate seeing other animals suffer’).

Endnotes
[0] The phrase animals who aren't human is rare. It generates only 29 google search results. A Candid Hominid, the website hosting this essay, accounts for 5 of them. The phrase animals other than humans returns about 646,000 pages. I prefer the way ‘animals who aren't human’ reads and sounds. It uses ‘human’ as an adjective, which is common.

[1] Margaret Thorne. "Veganism Offers Freedom" (1974 essay) printed in "Pioneers of the New Age: Reminiscences of Twelve Early Vegans", edited by Kathleen Jannaway (1974 pamphlet) pages 4-6

[2] Nathan Schneider. "A History of Vegetarianism" (2010 essay) endnote 70

Quote found here: Charles R. Magel. "Restrictionists and Abolitionists" (1987 essay)

[3] Ernst Haeckel. "Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte" (4th edition – 1873 book) page 545. 1st edition: 1868

Image found here: December issue of "New Scientist" (days 23-30 numbers 1696-1697) page 61

[4] Replacing ‘animals’ with two or more words isn't always necessary. Some sentences will naturally apply to all animals. For instance, ‘feeding plants to animals and then eating their flesh is an inefficient way to obtain nutrients’ is true of both cows and humans. There are situations where terms like individuals, beings, and lives can be used as pronouns for ‘nonhuman animals’. For instance, the sentence ‘more nonhuman animals are used for food than all other purposes’ could be followed with ‘less suffering is caused by those forms of exploitation that involve fewer individuals’.

[5] AR Zone. Chat with David Nibert (2011)

I have been critical of Nibert's position, which he took in his 2002 book "Animal Rights / Human Rights", for several years. This is my first effort to address it formally.

[6] If ‘human’ can be an adjective, then ‘raccoon’ can be an adjective.

[7] Additional example: ‘Millions of humans live with other animals’. When my mother lived with her spouse and two children, she lived with three other animals. Her children have left the home, but she still lives with three other animals: her spouse and two cats.

[8] David Nibert. "Animal Rights / Human Rights" (2002 book) pages 153, 26

[9] Ibidem at page XV. emphasis in original

[10] Ibidem at page 153

1 Comments:

Al said...

Personally, I prefer "other-than-human animal." I've seen Tom Regan use this phrase, and it makes sense to me. It's clunky, to be sure, but it means exactly what I want it to mean.

I do think there's something to the assertion that starting a word with "non" makes what follows it seem like the norm, so I try to avoid "nonhuman." I know it's a matter of interpretation though, and that "nonhuman" doesn't, in itself, degrade other-than-human animals. And I recognize that "other-than-human animals" places those animals in an "other" category, and that in itself can lead to negative connotations. But given the choice, I think "other than human" has a more positive ring to it than "not human."

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