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In the documentary, Peter Singer reveals that nowadays “modern science’s point of view is... that many non-human animals have consciousness.” And Jonathan Balcombe expands on this by noting that human beings’ perception of the animal world also greatly varies from one culture to another. He refers to several Eastern traditions, among them, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, which include animals in the cycles of reincarnation. While they are sacred to these cultures, animals are simply viewed as food in Western culture. To understand how philosophical and scientific thought has evolved in the Western world, let’s go back in time.


Aristotle (384-322 BC) is one of the first to take on a naturalist and unified approach. He felt that all living beings possessed a soul. In his text History of Animals, he actually distinguishes 3 types of souls: “nutritive” for plants, “sensible” for the animal kingdom, and “rational” specifically for humans. Representations have evolved, but it was the 16th and 17th centuries that saw a major turning point. Scientists had increasingly powerful instruments that could allow them to develop their observations of life. There was a slew of discoveries and revolutions, from Copernicus (14731543) to Galileo (1564-1642) to Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes introduced a major concept which would guide thinking for several centuries. Cartesian dualism differentiates between two core substances: the mind and body. The mind, which is indivisible, is the seat of thought, while the body is “governed by the laws of mechanics”. Descartes establishes a clear separation between humans and other animals. Humans are the only ones with a mind, allowing them to access thought and language and they possess a soul and reason, whereas animals don’t: they don’t have thoughts, they have a reflex action, like a sophisticated machine. It is this animal machine that Peter Singer refers to in the documentary. The famous “I think, therefore I am” gives humans a status that's “closer to God than animals”. In his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting one's Reason and of Seeking the Truth, Descartes encourages his contemporaries to develop their scientific knowledge and make themselves “masters and possessors of nature... in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health”.


From that point on, as Sofia StrilRever highlights, this mechanist movement would seep into Western culture. Even if this animal-machine theory was consequently widely criticised, its evolution can be followed through 3 scientific disciplines. Firstly, since the 18th century, several scholars, including Galvani and Bell, have been investigating the cause of this reflex behaviour. They would soon discover the phenomena of electrical brain stimulation. Physiology was born, and it would evolve with countless scientific works (including Ivan Pavlov and his famous conditioned reflex) that would lead to the current world of neuroscience. Secondly, animal behaviour (and its evolution) is studied through the lens of the environment of the animal. The wave of behaviourists interpreted behaviour as, essentially, being conditioned either by reflexes or interactions with one's environment through reward and punishment. This approach would contribute to the emergence and evolution of psychology movements. Thirdly, in line with Darwin (1809-1882) and Buffon (1707-1788), naturalists would benchmark themselves against behaviourists and study the behaviour of animals within their own environments. With pioneers such as Konrad Lorenz, this movement continued to develop in the 20th century and became ethology, the study of the behaviour and habits of animals within their environment. It has now become widespread and Jane Goodall and the great Frans de Waal, who make several appearances throughout the documentary, should get a mention for their remarkable work.

I feel, therefore, am I?

Post-Cartesian constructions have, therefore, been chipped away by all of the other disciplines and their discoveries. Current science shows that what we used to think was specific to humanity can now be highlighted in animal nature (for example, self-awareness, tool production, symbolic thought, communication, mutual aid, societal culture...). In the documentary, Toni Frohoff refers to, for example, complex cultures among cetaceans, with their highly-sophisticated communication methods, emotions and traditions. In fact, in 2012, the Cambridge Declaration (which came after a series of conferences on animal consciousness) concluded that animals other than humans have a consciousness akin to those of human animals. Animals have now joined the ranks of sentient beings, meaning they are sensitive, intelligent and conscious living beings.


And yet, Corine Pelluchon still uses the present tense to categorise “the culture of death” we have with animals. She encourages us to deeply rethink our relationship with others for a “new humanism”. This reawakening is also addressed in the documentary by Matthieu Ricard who quotes Lamartine: “We don't have two hearts, one for animals and one for humans. We either have a heart or we don’t.” Jonathan Balcombe also reminds us that we share three of the same fundamental interests with other animals: we’re all looking to minimise pain, maximise pleasure and avoid death. Today, these several realisations force us to face the very essence of our human ethics. Who should the beneficiaries of our morals be? To determine them, four positions consider these different stages of the living world: Anthropocentrism, still deeply embedded in our Western cultures, which only takes humans into account; pathocentrism, which extends its circle to animals that are able to feel pain, zoocentrism, which includes the animal world; biocentrism (or ecocentrism), finally, takes the entirety of the Earth system into account...


As well as the legal side which is explored further in Topic 8, Corine Pelluchon brings us back to the question: Does “experiencing in the first person” make a difference? This seemingly simple question provokes a deep paradox: this sentience, the capacity to subjectively experience things, to feel pain, emotions and be aware of them... is the very concept that was used in the 17th century to distinguish a human’s capacity from that of an animal’s. Perhaps, in the end, we are neither the same nor different... both a very special being capable of performing impressive feats, and yet just a simple animal like the others?  

• Cartesian approach
• Animal machine theory
• Evolution of thought and science
• Anthropocentrism and other points of view
• Shared fundamental interests
• Human ethics
• Sentient beings



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Réseau IDée : There are no lack of words to describe our overwhelming power. There’s us and then there’s everyone else. We wholeheartedly throw ourselves into anthropocentrism. It's reassuring. But the cracks are starting to appear...



Un Tanguy chez les hyènes / François Verheggen

This book takes us away from our anthropocentric vision. With thirty ethological stories packed with anecdotes, it explores animal behaviour and points out its close ties with human behaviour... In the end, are we really that different? 


Disobey for the sake of animals / « Les désobéissants » collection

The exploitation of animals has not always been as harsh as it is today, even though everything points to the fact that they are essential to the balance of ecosystems and sentient beings. This 62-page booklet provides data to improve understanding, arguments to discuss, and practical advice to oppose these ideas. 


You Shall Know Them / Vercors

This novel plunges us into the search for the missing link. Extraordinary satire at the crossroads of humanity and justice which raises the serious question around what we “human beings” have become: are we just unnatural animals?



Depending on your interests and level of commitment, many organisations are looking for volunteers, campaigners and activists. Here are some of them :

‣ French League for the Protection of Birds


‣ Gaia Association

‣ L214

‣ Wolf Eyes

‣ Végétik

‣ Friends of Bonobos (ABC) 

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