By James Gorman, The New York Times, January 2, 2012
Once, animals at the university were the province of science. Rats ran through mazes in the psychology lab, cows mooed in the veterinary barns, the monkeys of neuroscience chattered in their cages. And on the dissecting tables of undergraduates, preserved frogs kept a deathly silence.
On the other side of campus, in the seminar rooms and lecture halls of the liberal arts and social sciences, where monkey chow is never served and all the mazes are made of words, the attention of scholars was firmly fixed on humans.
This spring, freshmen at Harvard can take “Human, Animals and Cyborgs.” Last year Dartmouth offered “Animals and Women in Western Literature: Nags, Bitches and Shrews.” New York University offers “Animals, People and Those in Between.”
The courses are part of the growing, but still undefined, field of animal studies. So far, according to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the field includes “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.” Art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, religion — there are animals in all of them.
The field builds partly on a long history of scientific research that has blurred the once-sharp distinction between humans and other animals. Other species have been shown to have aspects of language, tool use, even the roots of morality. It also grows out of a field called cultural studies, in which the academy has turned its attention over the years to ignored and marginalized humans.
Some scholars now ask: Why stop there? Why honor the uncertain boundary that separates one species from all others? Is it time for a Shakespearean stage direction: Exit the humanities, pursued by a bear? Not quite yet, although some scholars have suggested it is time to move on to the post-humanities.
The Animals and Society Institute, itself only six years old, lists more than 100 courses in American colleges and universities that fit under the broad banner of animal studies. Institutes, book series and conferences have proliferated. Formal academic programs have appeared.
Wesleyan University, together with the Animals and Society Institute, began a summer fellowship program this year. A program at Michigan State allows doctoral and master’s students in different fields to concentrate their work in animal studies. At least two institutions offer undergraduate majors in the field. And just this fall, New York University started an animal studies initiative, allowing undergraduates to minor in the field.
Dale Jamieson, director of that program, said that activity in animal studies had been “somewhat inchoate” up to now, but that he hoped N.Y.U. could help “to make it a more cohesive and rigorous scholarly field.”
Animals have never been ignored by scholars, of course. Thinkers and writers of all ages have grappled with what separates humans from the other animals and how we should treat our distant and not-so-distant cousins. The current burst of interest is new, however, and scholars see several reasons for the growth of the field.
Kari Weil, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan whose book “Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?” will be published in the spring, said that behavioral and environmental science had laid a foundation by giving humans “the sense that we are a species among other species” — that we, like other animals, are “subject to the forces of nature.”
Think of the effect Jane Goodall had when she first showed the world a social and emotional side of chimpanzees that made it almost impossible to keep them on the other side of the divide. Or watch the popular YouTube video of a New Caledonian crow bending a wire into a tool to fish food out of a container, and ask yourself how old a child would have to be to figure out the problem.
The most direct influence may have come from philosophy. Peter Singer’s 1975 book “Animal Liberation” was a landmark in arguing against killing, eating and experimenting on animals. He questioned how humans could exclude animals from moral consideration, how they could justify causing animals pain.
Lori Gruen, head of the philosophy department at Wesleyan and coordinator of the summer fellowship program in animal studies there, said one of the major questions in philosophy was “Who should we direct our moral interest to?” Thirty years ago, she said, animals were at the margins of philosophical discussions of ethics; now “the animal question is right in the center of ethical discussion.”
And of public interest.
Jane Desmond of the University of Illinois, a cultural anthropologist who organized a series of talks there about animals, says that what goes on in the public arena, beyond the university, has had a role in prompting new attention to animals. There are worries about the safety of the food chain, along with popular books about refusing to kill and eat animals.
Animals as food are a major subject of academic interest, Dr. Gruen said, adding, “Given that the way most people interact with animals is when they’re dead and eaten, that becomes a big question.”
The animals humans live with and love are also a major subject.
Another strain of philosophy, exemplified by the French writer Jacques Derrida, has had an equally strong influence. He considered the way we think of animals, and why we distance ourselves from them. His writing is almost impossible to capture in a quotation, since it constantly circles around on itself, building intensity as he toys with the very language he is using to write about what he is trying to understand. His approach has been adapted in a lot of academic work.
In “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” for example, he discusses at length not only what he thinks of his cat, but what his cat thinks of him. In a fairly simple sentence — and thought — for him, he writes about his cat: “An animal looks at me. What should I think of this sentence?”
What animals think — in fact, what animals have to say — is something scholars now take quite seriously, recognizing of course that there are limits to that approach. As Dr. Weil of Wesleyan said, referring to the gulf between animals and previous outsiders (“others”), like women or African-Americans, “Unlike the other others, these others can’t speak back or write back in language that the academy recognizes.”
The academy does, it seems, recognize and understand Derrida and, sometimes, follow in his word tracks. Consider, for instance, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as Extension or Becoming? The Case of Becoming-Plant” in a recent issue of The Journal for Critical Animal Studies. Other writing is quite approachable. The moral arguments about eating animals are clear. And there are studies that any urban dweller could profit from, like “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals.”
The great variety of subjects, methods, interests and assumptions in animal studies does raise questions about how it holds together. Law schools, for instance, routinely have courses in animals and the law. Veterinary schools have courses about the human connection to animals. Some people group courses in how to use animals in therapy as part of animal studies.
None of this variety diminishes the energy or importance of what is going on, but at least some people who work on subjects that would be included under the animal studies rubric, like Dr. Jamieson at N.Y.U. and Dr. Desmond at Illinois, think the scholarly ferment has a way to go before it can clearly see itself as an academic field.
Dr. Desmond says it is “not yet a field.” It is, she says, “an emergent scholarly community.” One thing it does not lack is energy.