What Might Happen If We Thought of Other Animals as People?

The Aybi (Buluwai), Garbil (Yidiny), or White Ibis (English) © Colin Bushell Photography.

(In memory of Lilly)

The common condition of humans and animals is not animality but humanity.

– Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

The part of the city I live in is frequented by Ibis birds. They are large, mainly white, with a long, curved beak that enables them to dig deep into the softer earth to find food. They look like they might not be able to fly, but they do, and you can often see small flocks of them above, in the sky, pushing themselves through the air. When I observe them, I think: these are the Ibis People, they have their habits and ways and their own lives. I think of them as people because I am now convinced that all living things, however they do it, perceive their world subjectively, as the human, as a person.

The first time this idea – the origin of which I will go into below – struck me with a kind of palpable, tingling force was when I watched, Lilly, our kelpie/border collie cross. She, too, watched things. She snapped her teeth at flies. She checked where I was. She waited. She came up to me and requested a game or a walk. There is no way, I thought, that she considered herself as ‘a dog.’ There was no way, I thought, that she felt that I was a category of animal far above her, and that her lot was simply to adjust to us – even though that was what she actually had to do – just like I have to adjust myself to the requirements of the economy and society. She didn’t look out at the world as ‘a dog’ – she viewed things as the human she was.

Dogs, for example, are selves because they think.

– Eduardo Kohn

The word human comes from the Latin ‘Homo sapiens’ and means ‘wise or knowing man.’ So, our genus is ‘man’, and the particular species we apparently constitute is the ‘wise man’ species. Of course, such a categorisation of ‘anatomically modern man’ is loaded with pejorative meaning, not least in the promotion of the ‘male.’ But the term Homo sapiens tells us much more about how humans are viewed in ‘modern’ society. The term sets us above all the ‘unwise,’ or ‘unknowing,’ animals, and in the past – and not only the past – the term set ‘us’ above all the ‘unwise’ or ‘unknowing’ other humans that existed around the world: those that could then – and even today – be justifiably treated as livestock, and those that are – even today – considered ‘primitive’ or ‘savage.’ Steven Pinker – possibly the greatest intellectual of our time – would perhaps not even let the poor fully into the modern category of Homo sapiens… he argues that “the lower classes” are still not fully availed of civilization because their neighborhoods “form pockets of anarchy in the socioeconomic landscape,” and this is a result of their being “deprived of consistent law enforcement” (Steven Pinker page 681). As with the racist image of the Enlightened European in comparison to those from dark and terrifying continents, the poor in our midst form part of the horde of unwise and unknowing that plague polite society. But let’s leave Steven Pinker and his friends to their sociobiological Harvard highlife and get back to my thesis.

I have come to develop the habit of viewing other animals as humans, or persons, through my readings of the anthropologies of Paul Nadasdy, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Kohn, Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Particularly through the book, ‘Cannibal Metaphysics,’ by Viveiros de Castro and the notion of Amerindian Perspectivism. Below I present a series of short texts to indicate how I came to my crazy notions.

Lévi-Strauss, describing a myth of the ‘Thompson River Indians’, the Nlaka’pamux:

Before sending the hero back to his own people, the Goats promise him that he will become a great hunter, capable of crossing the sheerest of cliffs, on the condition that he scrupulously observe certain rules:

“When you kill goats, treat their bodies respectfully, for they are people. Do not shoot the female goats, for they are your wives and will bear your children. Do not kill kids, for they may be your offspring. Only shoot your brothers-in-law, the male goats. Do not be sorry when you kill them, for they do not die but return home. The flesh and skin (the goat part) remain in your possession; but their real selves (the human part) lives just as before, when it was covered with goat’s flesh and skin.”

(from: ‘The Mythology of the Thompson Indians,’ James A. Teit, 1912, in Lévi-Strauss)

Paul Nadasdy on Kluane First Nation hunting:

A number of authors (e.g., Brightman 1993; Nelson 1983, Tanner 1979) have written extensively on the ritual obligations towards animals that structure relations between human and non-human persons in the Subartic. Adrian Tanner has argued that among the Mistassini Cree, hunting rituals presuppose the real-life existence of animals as they appear in the Cree myth (long-time-ago stories); that is, as persons with whom humans can enter into reciprocal social relations. There is some variation in the nature of these obligations and responsibilities among the different Subarctic hunting peoples of North America, but there are striking similarities across the continent (and indeed throughout the circumpolar world). Hunting peoples across the North believe that human beings incur ritual obligations towards animal people as a direct result of their need to kill and eat them.

This is further explained by Agnes Johnson of the Kluane First Nation. Nadasdy writes:

It’s like at potlatch [gift-giving],” she said. If someone gives you a gift at potlatch, you must not refuse it, nor do you give it back, complain about it, or find fault with it in any way. It is disrespectful to imply or even think that there is some reason that the giver should not have given it to you (e.g., because it is too expensive and they cannot afford to do so). You just accept the gift and be thankful. To do otherwise – even in your thoughts – shows a lack of respect for the giver. “It is the same with animals,” she said. They come to you as a gift… “you never know if you are going to get another such gift, so you must be especially thankful and respectful.” [Furthermore,] to think about the animals’ suffering, she said, is to find fault with the gift… and risk giving offence… She told me also that feelings of pride [in hunting] were equally inappropriate… since [one’s hunting skills, though important, are] not in the end what [causes] the animal to be caught.

Mary Jane Johnson:

When you go out and get an animal, you don’t just do it for the hell of it. You don’t just do it to play with… You don’t go out there and just go, “Well I’m going to go out there and shoot this or shoot that because I want the gall bladder, because I want the horns.” You go out there because you have to. You need the food.

(Interview with Mary Jane Johnson, Kluane First Nation, 1996, in Nadasdy)

Viveiros de Castro – reversely echoing Pinker above – indicates that our ‘modern’ (lack of) regard for animals is part of the colonizing project:

The burden of man is to be the universal animal, he for whom there exists a universe, while nonhumans, as we know (but how the devil do we know it?), are just ‘poor in the world’ (not even a lark…[sees the essence of the world]). As for non-Occidental humans, something quietly leads us to suspect that where the world is concerned, they end up reduced to its smallest part. We and we alone, the Europeans (I include myself among them out of courtesy), would be the realized humans, or, if you prefer, the grandiosely unrealized: the millionaires, accumulators, and configurers of worlds. Western metaphysics is truly the fons et origio of every colonialism.

Peter Skafish, in his introduction to Cannibal Metaphysics explains what is termed ‘Amerindian Perspectivism’:

The basic idea [is] that Amazonian and other Amerindian peoples (from the chuar and the Runa all the way up to the Kwakiutl) who live in intense proximity and interrelatedness with other animal and plant species, see these nonhumans not as other species belonging to nature but as PERSONS, human persons in fact, who are distinct from ‘human’ humans not from lacking consciousness, language, culture – these they have abundantly – but because their bodies are different, endow them with a specific subjective-‘cultural’ perspective. In effect, nonhumans regard themselves as humans, and view both ‘human’ humans and other nonhumans as animals, either predator or prey, since predation is the basic mode of relation. Thus the idea that culture is universal to human beings and distinguishes them from the rest of nature falls apart…

What this means, then, is that Lilly, from her subjectively human perspective, viewed me as an animal, not human like her, while I, because I had stumbled across the Amerindian concept/philosophy of ‘perspectivism’ could recognise that she saw the world as a human and therefore I can see her as a human. This perspectivism sees all beings as having a subjectivity, as seeing themselves as the true humans, as having ‘a soul,’ and it allows one to know that within the many and varied ‘envelopes’ of outer skin lies a human ‘soul.’

But these are complex notions that may not translate well into written language, let alone written English, and so we must make an effort here to relax our hard-and-fast, so-called logic and let images and dreams into our minds. Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman:

In the beginning of time, there was no game in the forest. Only the yarori ancestors, who were human beings with animal names, existed. But the forest, which was still very young, and they became other. These animal ancestors began to paint themselves with annatto dye and gradually changed into game. Since then we, humans who came into being after they did, eat them. Yet at first we were all part of the same people. The tapirs, the peccaries, and the macaws that we hunt in the forest were once also humans. This is why we are still the same kind as those to whom we give the name of game. The spider monkeys that we call paxo are humans like us. They are spider monkey humans […] but we arrow them and smoke them when we gather game for our reahu feasts. Despite this, in their eyes we are still their fellow creatures. Though we are humans, they give us the same name they give themselves. This is why I think our inner part is identical to that of game and that we only attribute to ourselves the name of human beings by pretending to be so. Animals consider us their fellow creatures who live in houses while they are people of the forest. This is why they say, “humans are the game that live in houses.”

I will eat wild caught animals, ones that are caught by friends of mine and are presented as a gift, I will also eat my own wild caught animals – though I live in the city now and I have little interest in going out to end the life of something. I will kill flies that invade my personal space, but I know the fly is a person, one of the Fly People. I think respectful Indigenous hunting should continue. I won’t eat animals that have been killed for money. Of course, our money economy makes our survival dependent on money, but we can draw some lines in the sand. I am now genuinely horrified by industrialized animal agriculture and the harvesting of milk. The other day we were in our car at an intersection on a blissful summer’s day when a large truck passed in front of us fully laden with young cattle, their glistening noses pressed up against the gaps in the container frame…

References and further reading:

Kohn, E. 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kopenawa, D. and Albert, B. 2013, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Nicholas Elliot and Alison Dundy (trans.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lévi-Strauss, C. 1996, The Story of Lynx, Catherine Tihanyi (trans.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Nadasdy, P. 2003, Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver.

Pinker, S. 2012, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, Penguin Books, New York.

Viveiros de Castro, E. 2014, Cannibal Metaphysics, Peter Skafish (ed. and trans.), Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis.


Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: contrahistorical@gmail.com