Ecological catastrophes: apparently it’s partly Descartes’s fault

It has been bothering me for a very long time, a certain set of beliefs about the world and how to best understand it, a set of beliefs that are typically connected with concepts like “science” and “being rational;” and one of those is the (assumed) inferiority of animals coupled with the belief that they don’t think or feel like we humans do. That, because they don’t (or “can’t”) think or feel like we do, they are necessarily inferior to us, therefore it doesn’t matter if they are mistreated – abused, driven from their homes, etc. – in our activities, because our human needs trump all the needs of every other living thing, because we are the superior species, because only we really think and feel. Science and reason tell us so! (And then, for bonus terrible behavior, we can equate certain other human beings to animals to justify our horrific treatment of those humans, because after all, they’re not really people, right? And only “people” deserve to be treated with respect.)

I’ve assumed people more well-read or scholarly than I am have actually done the research to sort out where this pernicious and disgusting idea comes from, and happily, without too much effort, I found part of the explanation here, in Eileen Crist’s “Ecocide and the Extinction of Animal Minds,” from Ignoring Nature No More, The Case for Compassionate Conservation, ed. Marc Bekoff, 2013 (published before the widespread news of the 52% decline in wildlife populations over the last 40 years) .

Conventional worries about the present ecological predicament deplore the loss of nature’s services, the depletion of natural resources, or the forfeiting of ecotourist revenues in the wake of human-caused environmental catastrophes. These concerns, however, merely echo the same human-centered mindset that has driven the destruction of the biosphere in the first place. In fact, the turning of Nature into a human asset-domain defines the core catastrophe: by allowing ourselves to be seduced by the instrumental framing of the world as a resource domain, we have sponsored the demolition of animals and their homes (see Foreman 2011). We are not in danger of losing, to cite a platitude, “natural capital” for present and future generations, but on the contrary, having conceptually and physically constituted the world as natural capital, we have nearly lost a living, numinous world.

It’s a really fantastic essay and I highly recommend it in its entirety. She lays out how Descartes (among others) is to blame for promoting the idea that animals are basically just objects (and objectification being part of how the dominant culture justifies exploiting the rest of world):

. . . Descartes renovated the metaphysics of the great chain of being in a way that further depressed the inferior lot of animals it had propounded. The great chain displayed the qualities of plenitude, continuity, and hierarchy, but Descartes chose to magnify the hierarchical aspect of Creation that served to glorify the human. The polarity between spirit and matter (across which the plenum of Creation yawned in continuous gradation) was transmuted by Descartes into the dualistic saltus of soul (or mind) and body–the eternal versus the perishing. This dualism was mapped specifically onto the human and animal worlds, and it diverged significantly from the preceding spirit-matter polarity in offering a discontinuous worldview in lieu of a graded scheme. Descarte’s dualism exalted man for owning a “rational soul,” which while well integrated into the human perishable body was also separate from it and immortal. Animals, on the other side of the divide, possessed a “corporeal soul,” which was not a soul in any theological sense but a dimension of physiology that animated movement and organic function. Animals, on Descarte’s innovations, became qualitatively distinct from humans, in being, like plants and other lower organisms, merely transient mortal entities. On the other hand, the possession of an everlasting soul situated the human in the ontological company of angels. In a nutshell, Descartes rehashed but significantly reified the view that “man is godlike, animals thinglike” (Coetzee 1999, 23).

He went on to claim humans were special because we possess “reason,” and that because animals don’t seem to have language, they “do not act ‘through understanding but only from disposition of their organs,” and thus ‘beasts do not have less reason than men, but no reason at all’ (Descartes 1989a 140).” He went on to say that, therefore, without having thought, they couldn’t understand perceptions and sensations AS perceptions:

“Pain,” Descartes professed, “exists only in the understanding.” There are, he added, external movements which accompany this feeling in us; in animals it is these movements alone which occur, and not the pain in the strict sense” (Descartes 1991, 148).

And if you believe that someone can’t really feel pain, no matter what you do, then it doesn’t matter what you do to them, does it? They can’t be upset by losing habitat, or family members to our encroachment or mistreatment of their home areas or more direct interactions. (Crist focuses more on how this conceptualizing of animals is related to the human goal of describing all of Nature as “resources” to be used however we want, as well as how using this as a baseline belief about animals has prevented true comprehension of them.)

I’ve tried talking about some of these things with a very science-focused friend of mine, me ranting about how aggravated I am by yet-another article about yet-another scientific study that “proved” that golly-gee, this animal can like, solve puzzles and stuff! Wow! They’re like, actually smart and stuff! Now science says it’s true, so I guess those of us who’ve just observed them in not-scientifically-controlled settings can believe our lying eyes. He always says how they have to do it that way, because allowing for alternatives is basically frowned on by the system that is Proper Science. Apparently this is also in part thanks to Descartes, who by now I’d really like to time-travel to so I could punch him in the nose. (And I can be sure he would truly feel the pain of it!)

By developing the idea that animal behavior can be understood strictly in terms of “corporeal processes,” Descartes created a discursive placeholder for the development of concepts and theories of animal behavior that could actively eschew or tactfully avoid mind, while appearing to account for the production of behavior without residue. Behaviorism, which emerged over 250 years after Descartes’s death (and which is still an influential school of thought), is comprehensively Cartesian–an operationalization of Descartes’s premises and ideas and a disciplinary purveyor (openly or implicitly) of the animal-automaton image. Donald Griffin (2001) aptly described the majority of animal behavior scientists of the twentieth century as “inclusive behaviorists,” because even those not working under its auspices acquiesced to the strictures of behaviorism in avoiding reference to mental attributes and conceding the view that mind is interior and invisible. Tellingly, the ways in which allusion to animal minds was frowned upon in the past century’s behavioral sciences echoed Descartes’s superciliousness: it was deemed an immature, sentimental, or merely folk inclination to see mind in animals–but serious, educated grown-ups should know better and cultivate a healthy dose of skepticism.

I know the full history of why these notions are so deeply embedded in the dominant culture are more complex than “it’s Descartes’s fault,” but this is clearly a piece of the problem.


In my more spirit-focused reading, I’ve seen various people discussing the importance of treating spirits like people, treating them with respect, instead of like inherent nuisances or tools or objects to be used; I am sure the mindset in which non-deity spirits are to be summoned and trapped, or otherwise treated as “inferiors,” is another outcome of this same set of cultural beliefs that humans are superior to all others.


About Fjothr Lokakvan

More or less Northern Tradition polytheist.
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3 Responses to Ecological catastrophes: apparently it’s partly Descartes’s fault

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  2. Faemon says:

    Excellent post! Although I’ve yet to read Crist’s essay linked, so I might (I hope not) just be repeating when I point out that as science advanced, we became classified as animals with a better understanding of dominance (if it’s numbers or adaptability, insects have got us beat) and how a niche in a ecosystem applies to us (survival of the fittest as in does the peg fit in that hole), especially “correcting” (that is, reaping consequences) for behaviour that isn’t sustainable. Hopefully we even have an understanding as to the perceptual bias towards objectifying the world around us, and perhaps why that tendency is or was necessary to survival, if we couldn’t keep getting distracted by the subjective experience of other people or living things, or ponder in depth and detail the wonder of inanimate objects and phenomena–but to extremely objectify all the time just isn’t the way of it, and it’s good to be aware of the philosophical roots of that. Didn’t this one person say something like Descartes’ philosophy only showed that Descartes probably never had a pet?

    • Crist doesn’t get into how the conception of humans -as- animals changed over time. I’m not so sure most of us do understand the perceptual biases towards objectifying the world, or that there even ARE biases, it’s just so engrained in so much of the dominant culture.

      Heh. Even if part of Descartes’ inability to understand animals was based in never really knowing one, thousands of people who have close experience with them have nonetheless helped propagate the concept. And anyway – I think it’s just too challenging for most people to consider animals as /people/, or as not-inferior beings, even if you do believe they feel and think.

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