The snake on the cave wall

04 February 2021

Nowadays, differences in beliefs about human uniqueness can lead to fierce divisions between people. But for the rest of life on our planet, the result is the same. Other species are of only limited worth. They exist below some vital threshold of meaning. Meanwhile, according to the most widespread views, we are special beings with souls or minds that give us a shot at immortality. Much of this turns on the idea of being a person. Qualifying is often down to assumptions about stronger or weaker forms of experience. We tell ourselves it is the prized capacities of our personhood that ultimately convince, and therefore only we have true value. Only our lives and deaths have significance. Other animals can be killed and die without dignity. They concern us only up to a point.

Regardless of whether such a view is justifiable, it’s wide-spread among those who wish to use other animals in ways that distress or destroy them. Meanwhile, we spend thousands on the wellbeing of our companion animals, give them names, mark their birthdays, mourn their deaths. The golden retriever that sleeps at the foot of someone’s bed is no more intelligent or special than the pig they may have eaten earlier that day.  But the retriever is in partnership with a human. What the dog and the pig have in common is that their worth has been arbitrarily given on the basis of the relationship a human wants with them. The dog and the man are friends, and so   the dog is given identity and a mind, of sorts. The pig, just as sentient and sensitive a creature, can be rendered unconscious, hung from an overhead rail and slit behind their jowl to sever both jugular and carotid. Much of this comes down to judgements about the kind of minds and experiences other animals have.

We know this. Popcorn movies about complex encounters with intelligent alien species entertain precisely because we can imagine these creatures as persons, even though they aren’t human. In these fantasy worlds, we glimpse our judgements of another’s humanlike mental attributes. In recognising other persons in this way, we seem to rely on a complex interplay of biological processes. Unsurprisingly, this is subject to powerful bias.

We call the ability to observe our own behaviour and create mental representations of it in working memory ‘monitoring’. It allows us to adjust our behaviour in response to our thoughts and memories. In simple terms, we summon an image of ourselves to give us greater flexibility in how we interact with one another. But psychologists Michael Corballis and Thomas Suddendorf have noted that human memory is unreliable. It doesn’t look like it evolved only as a means of recording the past. Inspired by the theories of neuroscientist Daniel Schacter, Corballis and Suddendorf suggest instead that ‘its function is to build up a personal narrative, which may provide the basis for the concept of self’.

This concept of self is perpetuated by an inner voice and  by the conversations we can hold with others about who we are. Put another way, we support the idea of ourselves through narrative. Meanwhile, Schacter and his colleague Brendan Gaesser show that mental imagery is critical not just to remembering the past and thinking about the future, but also to moral choice. Images merge, mapping the self across  time and place. As an example, when presenting participants with   a situation depicting another person’s plight, the ability to imagine helping them or to recall a related past event of helping others increased the intention to come to the person’s aid.

But, in order to imagine helping someone, we need a window into another’s mind or experiences. Sometimes called mentalising and sometimes called theory of mind, the experiments of Uta Frith and Christopher Frith have established how people think about the minds beyond their own. Someone as young as eighteen months might have some idea that other people have mental states. But by the age of five or six, children are explicit in their attribution of minds and persons to other beings. Certain areas of the brain are consistently activated: the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporal poles and  the posterior superior temporal sulcus. According  to  Frith and Frith, these parts of  the brain may have different roles    in the whole complex process of how we come to see and judge another thinking individual. The superior temporal sulcus, an area that some believe interprets visual social information too, may be where the detection of agency takes place in the brain.

This research got kick-started when American psychologist David Premack and his colleague Guy Woodruff published a paper called ‘Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?’ Premack was curious about whether other primates make assumptions about states of mind in the way that is intensely important to humans. Since this paper, Frith and Frith and others have isolated the medial prefrontal cortex as ‘concerned with the representation of the mental states of the self and others decoupled from reality’. Mentalising isn’t just a matter of coming to know your own thoughts, feelings and beliefs; it is also about making successful guesses about the states of others.

We might assume this is only about seeing subjective minds in other humans but we seem to have the ability to stretch it to include any kind of intelligent presence. In this way, another ‘mind’ can include the embodiment of intent in just about anything. Either way, once a personal sense exists, both conscious and unconscious manipulation can create a wider array of behaviours. Memories might be stitched together or distorted to create imagined events of future social interactions. I have often speculated as to whether mental images might be deliberately used to switch on different neurochemical responses. Robert Bednarik has suggested that visual ambiguity, like seeing a snake when it’s only a tree root, could be manipulated intentionally in a self-reflecting animal: ‘The cognition involved is deeply rooted in mental processes found in numerous animal species, such as flight reactions to the silhouette of a bird of prey.’ If so, perhaps we might visualise a human enemy as a threatening animal in order to make use of the physical changes an encounter like this could create. This kind of manipulation could take many forms. Our bodies have a series of hormones like oxytocin that change our minds in bottom-up processes and that our minds can alter in top-down processes. And these hormones have a remarkable impact on how we behave. The work of Carsten De Dreu raises the possibility that neurobiology may have a flipside. In activating systems that help organisms distinguish friend from foe or meal from mate, we reorder our own minds and our willingness to see minds, or the feelings, needs and intentions of others. Shutting down the aspects of our bodies that increase insight is partly accomplished by ‘tightening brain-to-brain synchrony’ among those in the same group. In turn, this increases the production of hormones like oxytocin that play a role in bonding. We think of oxytocin as the ‘love’ hormone. But it has also been found to lessen the impact of automatic responses to signs of distress in those outside the group bond. In other words, oxytocin doesn’t just encourage us to bond; it prompts exclusivity. For De Dreu, seeing into the internal states and wants of others can then become an indirect way of defending against those who are competitors or those we wish to use for our ends. Of course, the same hormones can still be serviced by the body later to allow empathy to flow again beyond the borders of the group. But this isn’t inevitable.

If we can mess with mental images and assumptions about minds to switch on different neurochemical responses and behaviours, then we reach a possible explanation for one of our most universal and unpleasant of habits. One of the horrors we can commit is to dehumanise someone by thinking of them as an animal or as something that has fewer signs of mental or emotional content. For this, we exploit images of other animals, especially those we fear or find disgusting. In Albert Bandura’s work on moral disengagement, he and his colleagues conducted experiments in which participants were asked to deliver shocks to people. Those who had been spoken about as if they were less human got given more shocks.

Kant was one of the first  philosophers to  pay  attention to the idea of dehumanisation. For Kant, it was a matter of seeing someone as a means rather than as an individual of intrinsic worth. Few philosophers since have paid a great deal of notice to this widespread aspect of human behaviour, but philosopher David Livingstone Smith has revived discussion about the phenomenon. In his book Less Than Human, he quotes Morgan Godwyn, an Anglican clergyman who, in the seventeenth century, wrote of African slaves as ‘Creatures Destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts and treated accordingly’. In its most extreme form, this is the kind of brutal dehumanisation that not only reduces empathy but actively motivates violence. Whole groups of people can be stripped of mind in such a way that, when violence beckons, they can be killed. In 1993, a broadcast on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines included the phrase, ‘You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches.’ The Rwandan genocide followed. Twenty years later, Zsolt Bayer said of  the gypsy peoples in Hungary: ‘These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals . . . These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.’

For  Livingstone Smith, the problem originates in the idea of essences, a fundamental, invisible property that is specific  to different kinds of living things. Humans, he believes, intuitively think in essences. In his view, true dehumanisation not only denies humanity but attributes a subhuman essence to another being. This mechanism could involve the replacement of a human essence with that of a potentially dangerous organism like a rat or a virus. This may play out in the body.

Anything that manipulates oxytocin may tip us into the more relaxed and open state in which we begin to affiliate. But this can also go the other way. We may trick our bodies into doing things that our minds might otherwise encourage us not to do. Writing on left-wing terrorism in Italy, Donatella della Porta provides an account of how those with opposing views were dehumanised, seen as ‘pigs’ and ‘tools of the capitalist system’. In an associated study on the techniques of terrorists, Angel Rabasa and colleagues demonstrate how forms of dehumanisation can provide ‘ways of reducing the psychological cost of participation in terrorist organizations’. The subtleties in the way we look at someone or something else suggest that mental images and the meaning we give to them may be a crucial instrument. At low levels, the people of most societies see those in another group as having fewer signs of human uniqueness than their own group. As a rule, said American sociologist William Graham Sumner in his book Folkways, it is found that native peoples call only themselves ‘men’. Others are something else. The word Deutsch translates as ‘man’. The word for the Maasai people is hadzabi or ‘I’m a person’. The word Inuit roughly means ‘people’.

Inside a coalition, we come to see our worldview as richer in its inherent intelligence. But, following this, we can also see those with other worldviews as having less mind than we possess. In a 2019 study led by neuroscientist Pascal Molenberghs, fMRI scans, which measure brain activity by sensing changes in blood flow, showed compelling differences in how those in one group respond to the words, faces and actions of their own group members versus people from a separate group. In effect, we find it easier to think into the mental states and experiences of those who belong to our group. On the other hand, we think less about the mindset of those on the outside. In a study conducted by psychologist Jonathan Levy on Israeli and Palestinian adolescents growing up in countries with long-standing conflicts, both sides ‘shut down the brain’s automatic response to the pain of those on the other side’.

The experiments of Jacques-Philippe Leyens have revealed how people judge primary emotions like fear and happiness as more primitive and animal-like. In contrast, secondary emotions like guilt and shame are more uniquely human. These secondary emotions are seen as signs of a more complex mind at work. In the experiments, people see more secondary emotions in those who are in their group, whether these emotions are positive or negative. All cultures and ethnicities seem to do this. In America, black and Hispanic people have received a disproportionate amount of dehumanisation in the public discourse. But after Hurricane Katrina, black and Latinx participants in a study attributed fewer negative secondary emotions to white victims of the events. In other words, they assumed that white victims suffered less, regardless of the actual traumas experienced. This, in turn, affected their likelihood to volunteer for or help white victims.

The work of Susan Fiske and Lasana T. Harris has revealed how people use mental shortcuts that influence the extent to which they view someone as human and worthy of respectful engagement. This has been backed up by neurological imaging. In one study, people regarded drug addicts and homeless people as low in measures that Fiske developed as universal signs of humanness. When viewing these people, the medial prefrontal cortex wasn’t activated. This is a key part of the brain involved in social cognition. Simultaneously, regions of the brain associated with disgust – the insula and amygdala – became active while viewing those seen as possessing few or no positive human attributes. In this way, vulnerable people can end up caught in a vicious cycle of being the most in need of assistance and care and yet viewed by others as the least worthy of it.

As a self-reflective primate, we are, in novelist Iain M. Banks’s words, ‘a little bit of the universe, thinking to itself’. That these thoughts are imperfect, sometimes irrational, is not a failure on the part of our logic but a condition of why we have our personal perspective in the first place. Once you have an image of the self that binds into memories of the past and imaginings of the future, minds become things that can be played with. Seeing into, diminishing or denying the experiences of others is a crucial ingredient in our behaviour towards others.

When we consider that our social psychology has primed us to both seek out and deny the minds and feelings of others, we can start to make some sense of why seeing our minds as our souls is more problematic than the original idea of the soul itself. It’s not too much of a reach to imagine that, by inventing myths of human uniqueness, early societies may have unwittingly provided metaphors that underlying selfish aspects of our psychology could draw on. When being human is about having superior qualities of mind, it falls on the exploitative part of us. Uniqueness becomes a form of ammunition. In foregrounding the idea, we may have promoted a powerful weapon for prejudice.

-       Extract taken from How to Be Animal by Melanie Challenger, published by Canongate Books (£18.99).
-       Photo credit: Alice Little