- Mead, Joint Attention, and the Human Difference
The struggle between the parties bent on inflating humanity's self-conception and those bent on deflating it continues. Mind, consciousness, soul, reason, free will, language, culture, tool-use—all have been invoked as the unique character of the human, some deriving from Judeo-Christian religion, others from classical philosophy and modern anthropology. Opponents, sometimes motivated by ethical concerns about the treatment of animals, and buoyed by scientific advances in animal and especially primate studies, have either deconstructed these traits or ascribed them to nonhumans. Seeking to block human exploitation of nonhuman species, they argue that humans are not "exceptional" and possess no "cognitive module" separating human cognition from that of our closest nonhuman relatives (Booth; Fouts and McKenna; McKenna; Fesmire). The attempt to draw such a distinction is seen as the remnant of a Victorian mentality, its species-ism continuous with human social domination.1 In the opposite corner, any discussion of human animality or Darwinism is taken to be threatening.
This is an example of a subtle, complex problem made more intractable by moral and political inflammation. Certainly our conception of nonhumans has implications for how we treat them, just as all our notions of political rights of and ethical obligations to humans rest on some distinction of humans from nonhumans. And concern for the value and ethical treatment of other animals, in reaction against their conception as value-neutral resources for our use, is certainly legitimate. But surely we can justify ethical treatment of nonhumans without accepting anthropomorphism on practical, ethical grounds; presumably we can treat a being decently without insisting on its likeness to ourselves.2
For a blanket denial of human distinctiveness is troubling. What would it mean practically for humans to treat other species "equally" or with "equal [End Page 1] respect"?3 Would it be any more possible than for a deer to treat an owl, not to mention a wolf, with equal respect? Is it right, morally or ecologically, to try to extend the bubble of domestic civic morality that our species has uniquely constructed (and, of course, continually violated) to wild nature? Are we to prevent, not just human, but nonhuman predation? If we are responsible to stop human adults from killing human children, should we stop Languor males from killing Languor infants fathered by other males? Conversely, ought we treat fellow humans the way other species treat their conspecifics, adopting Languor practices, or like chimpanzees occasionally engaging in cannibalism? Isn't the demand that humans extend a moral respect to other species a demand that we adopt an attitude more or less unique among animals?4
The human side of this discussion brings another set of concerns usually ignored by those concerned about animal treatment: human psychopathology. Some accounts of human distinctiveness concern attributes that can be turned off by brain damage or fail to arise in abnormal development. Neuropathology and developmental psychology are important sources of information about the human difference, for they show what it concretely means for characteristic human functions to be absent. To deny cognitive, linguistic, and emotional "exceptionalism" would be to deny that, if a human child functions at the level of, say, a nonhuman primate, anything important is wrong or missing. But physicians and loved ones seem quite clear that something is missing, and mourn its absence. Are they wrong?
If ideological conflict recedes enough for us to credit the evidence of both science and our senses, there is a clear answer to the question, Are we continuous or discontinuous with nonhuman species? That answer is yes. We are like and unlike, or "continuous and distinct" (McKenna 37). We are one species of animal among millions. This is not a revelation: Aristotle knew twenty-three hundred years ago that we are animals by definition. Since Darwin we have known we are a species of primate and share traits with primate ancestors as well as other animal lineages. If one accepts naturalism, then it is a category mistake to treat "human" versus "animal," or the related "culture" versus "nature," as concepts of equal level. In the logical sense, they are related as species to genus.