No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Humans are primates. First scandalously suggested – or, at least, first credited as being suggested – by Charles Darwin, this taxonomical classification has since been confirmed by genetic DNA testing. Humans are very much primates, with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees, our closest relatives, as being ‘wellover 99%’ (Waldau 2007, 105; original emphasis removed). Humans are closer to chimps, genetically, than African elephants are to Asian elephants (ibid.).

This fact has caused ideological problems for much of the Western world. The Christian Bible has long advocated man’s dominion over animals – not over other animals, but over animals, period. There is a deep-seated belief in the idea that human are somehow intrinsically separate from, and “above”, the animal world (not to mention the worlds of plants and fungi). This view remains common today, with many Western and Westernized peoples ‘count[ing] themselves a significant cut above animals’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347); viewing humanity as inherently ‘set apart from the rest of nature’ (Waldau 2007, 107). Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as animals, and, later, following Darwin, the taxonomical restructuring of humans as primates, has challenged this deeply held conviction of the Western world’s. And think about it: We classified ourselves as primates. Classification is a human concept, bounded by human-created terms and ideologies. Even the scientific concepts of genetics and DNA are arguably bound to specifically human understandings and framings of these concepts.

So why, then, do so many people still reject the idea that we are “like primates”, or that primates are “like us”? Much of it is tied to the perceived “nature/culture” divide and the socially-held idea that ‘in virtue of culture, humans transcend nature’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347). Yet modern academic critiques (both positive and negative) of the so-titled “Anthropocene” recognise this divide as ‘an untenable approach’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Rather, our (human) place in the world and our relationship with “nature”, is ‘an important arena for [ongoing] anthropological analysis’ (Fuentes 2012, 141). This includes, undoubtedly, our ideological relationship with ourselves as primates, as well as our ideological and physical relationships with other non-human primates. The emergence of ethnoprimatology in the anthropological field is evidence of this growing interest in the link(s) between humans and primates. Fuentes writes that an ‘ethnoprimatological [sic] orientation accepts humans as primates and sees value in including other primates as co-participants in shaping social and ecological space’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Here, ethnoprimatology draws heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene.

Certainly, the insisted separation between humans and primates is revealed to be a distinctly ­Western phenomenon. In many places, humans live in close co-habitation alongside other non-human primates, such as in South- and Southeast Asia, as well as in parts of Africa. Diogo (2018) argues that the negative view of primates is a uniquely European phenomenon, as many other people(s) who interact frequently with primates tend to have a much closer and even reverent relationship with them. He cites Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting Babi, the baboon God, as well as Balinese temples filled with real and sculpted long-tailed monkeys. Waldau (2007), too, references the words of gorilla scientist Dian Fossey’s guide Manuel, who, when encountering free-ranging gorillas in Rwanda, exclaimed ‘Kweli ndugu yanga’, a Swahili phrase meaning ‘Truly my kin’ (Waldau 2007, 104). This reveals intrinsic differences between Western and non-Western views regarding other non-human primates, and our relationship with them.

Of course, this culturally perceived kinship between Swahili peoples and gorillas in no way justifies or legitimises the colonial and very racialized history of Europeans referring to Black African humans as apes. Inspired by Linnaeus’s proposed sub-species (see my companion post here), the early days of physical anthropology were rife with apparently “scientific” comparisons between the physiology of Black African humans and great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Black Africans (and their kin across the colonies) were routinely referred to as “less evolved” or “less advanced” than their white European counterparts; further down on the evolutionary ladder and more akin to the apes than to “civilised” humans. (Of course, the idea that evolution is a “ladder” at all is a complete fallacy, but that’s an argument for another day). As such, colonial regimes of slavery, segregation, and apartheid could be legitimised through “scientific” terms. Yet once again, we see Diogo’s (2018) claim that this negative view of primates is a distinctly European perspective. Being likened to primates is, in itself, arguably not a “negative” thing – since humans are primates, and there may be much to admire in the lifestyles of primates across the globe. Only in the Christian European view were primates viewed as below humans, and therefore to be like primates was also to be below (other) humans. Modern anthropological and ethnoprimatological analyses critique these understandings, both historical and ongoing, and question, quite literally, what it means “to be human” – and to be primates.

Image Source: Business Insider


References:

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Fuentes, A 2012, ‘Proposal 2: Humans as Niche Constructors, As Primates and With Primates: Synergies for Anthropology in the Anthropocene’, Cambridge Anthropology, Vol. 30, Issue 2, pp.141-146

Sheets-Johnstone, M 2010, ‘The Descent of Man, Human Nature and the Nature/Culture Divide’, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.343-360

Waldau, P 2007, ‘Kweli Ndugu Yanga – The Religious Horizons of “Humans are Primates”’, Worldviews, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp.103-123

See More:

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

Part II The Anthropo Scene

(Continuing from Part I The Anthropo Scene)

Spider:

You’ve been very solemn there in the corner, Squid, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the term “Capitalocene” and what it means for the people who write about humans and non humans?

Squid:

First allow me to introduce myself. I am the envoy of Donna Haraway, who is a dear friend of my squid squad. Haraway also agrees with you, Spider, that the term Anthropocene avoids calling out capitalism and also puts too much emphasis on humans (2015, 159). Donna always says that language how we build our world, and unfortunately the name of the Anthropocene puts humans in the middle of it (Haraway et al 2016, 538).

Donna Haraway uses a multitude of terms, including the “Capitalocene”, the “Plantationcene” and the “Chthulucene” (Haraway et al 2016).  The Plantationcene is an effort to acknowledge that the destructive habits of humans do not only date back to the onset of industrial capitalism. They actually began with the earlier colonialist history that fed into capitalism, where slave labour was used to exploit land for agricultural and mineral purposes. Yet Donna is often criticised for being too political for using the term “Capitalocene” and “Plantationcene”. Humans are strange creatures like this, they try to evade any kind of responsibility, but Haraway actually says that the responsibility of humans is also a “response- ability” (2015, 164).

Humans need to work out how to live with their non-human kin. In fact, in Donna Haraway’s recent book the “Chthulucene manifesto” she has even said that we could even call this present era the “Chthulucene” rather than the “Anthropocene”. This is not actually to honour our leader Cthulhu, but it is to show that humans actually have tentacles (and webs and roots) in the non-human world. When humans study and write about the world, they should make an effort to include the narratives of all entities like us, mushrooms, spiders and squid. I don’t just want to hear the old trees and polar bear narrative. Just look at what is happening with the sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals, maybe a better name for this period is just ‘the trouble’ (Haraway et al 2016, 537).

Haraway says that people are hesitant to act because they haven’t read the newest critique of the system (Terranova 2016). This is one of the problems with academia, it is easy from those academics to say that you don’t know how the world works, because you haven’t read a particular theory and you are just a student, or a taxi driver, or a mushroom, or a spider. The most important thing is that people are recognising that the current system is destructive, even if they don’t have the most fully developed critique of it. What we need to focus on is less on having a perfect vision of what is going on right now and turn towards where we could be going, looking at the possibilities of life on Earth. Science fiction and speculative anthropology are ways of accomplishing this vision, which is why Haraway often works with science fiction writers and anthropologists to create stories for Earthly survival (Terranova 2016).

What I am proposing is a call-to-action for our human kin to respond to this climate emergency and resist individualist or human-centred ways of depicting the world. Otherwise there will be grave and perhaps even chthonic consequences for all of us, a true Cthulu eruption of doomsday proportions! Beware!

Mushroom:

What you are saying seems very morbid, Squid, but I agree with you. Imagining a shared future can be a useful way of acting in the present to avoid the worst of this oncoming storm. My mycelium networks have been retelling a lecture by Bruno Latour, who says that even though the apocalypse is a bit of a literary trope, the only way to move humans to respond to this storm is by telling stories. By the way, where is our friend the ant, who always brings messages of hope from Bruno Latour?

An ANT scurries in, late to the gathering, but carrying a message of hope from Bruno Latour:

So sorry I’m late. It’s so hard to get anywhere on time on the antway, it’s only one lane. I do come bearing a gift for the anthropologists in the room, that is, from my colleague Bruno Latour, who sends his regards.I know you may have your criticisms of the Anthropocene, but really it is an amazing gift. In the age of the Anthropocene, we are acknowledging that humans are quite literally re-shaping the earth (Latour 2014). The links between humans and non-humans are no longer merely the objects of symbolism and myth (Latour 2014). Many hard scientists are realising they too need to ponder the relationship between physical and cultural anthropology, and the blurring of nature and culture (Latour 2014). The Anthropocene has destabilised the hierarchy between hard sciences and social sciences, relieved anthropologists somewhat of having to question: ‘Are we an art or a science?’ and brought a greater appreciation for the multispecies anthropological work anthropologists like Anna Tsing are doing. Isn’t this exciting?!

Mushroom:

Yes it most certainly is. More enthusiasm for interdisciplinary collaboration is a gift of the Anthropocene. If we compare disciplines to genres, it seems even more obvious (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)! Imagine one discipline is a science fiction novel and the other a mystery novel (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553). There’d be no reason to doubt we could have a science fiction mystery novel, would there be (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)?

ANT:

That’s very true, Mushroom. And this sort of collaboration is already happening at AURA (Aarhus University Research on the Anthropo-cene) (Latour et al. 2018, p. 598), which is a hopeful outcome, one that shows us that there isn’t even ‘interdisciplinarity’ in the same sense any more, because there are no longer two sides. In the Anthropocene there is no longer a physical and a cultural side–and humans are the center for everyone and for no one. (Latour 2014). And Bruno is very excited about the opportunity for collaborative work with geo-scientists because their science ‘is not a science of the globe, it is a highly local, pluralised, multiple kind of science (Latour2014b)’ (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597). The epistemology of the globe is what got us in the mess we are in. This epistemology is why perhaps Platationocene is a more productive term to describe this era (Latour et al. 2018, p. 591). Bruno would agree with Donna that the Plantationocene is both useful for the reasons you have stated, Squid, but also because, and I think Anna would agree, ‘it refers to a certain, historically specific, way of appropriating the land, namely an appropriation of land as if land was not there. Plantationocene is a historical ‘de-soilization’ of the Earth’ (Latour et al. 2018,  pp. 591-592). The modernist and capitalist project is literally founded on the mass extraction of minerals and plants from the Earth and the removal of people from their lands. Metaphorically humans have also been separated from the Earth with the ideology that humans are outside of nature.

Mushroom: By labeling this new age the Platationocene it shifts our awareness to the need for more analytical work in the field that is ‘soil-rich’, and grounded in the arts of noticing (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 598-599)(Tsing 2015, p. 37). This is what anthropologists do best!

ANT:

Yes, exactly, this highly local and pluralised sort of work (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597)! Except now, the field has also changed. We know that any field study (be that anthropological) will be ‘studying devastated sites in crisis’ (Latour 2014). But don’t be confused, this is still a message of hope. Latour believes that it is best to think we are in the apocalypse now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). And yes the apocalypse may be a bit of a literary trope, but rather than being catastrophising, apocalyptic thinking spurs us into action (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 603-604). We are not living in the indifferent time ‘after’ an apocalyptic time, nor are we ignorantly waiting for the apocalypse to happen in the future, but we are in it now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). The arrival of the Anthropocene as the apocalypse destroys modernization’s ideas about linear progress that fuel capitalism. It also reveals the entanglements, as you might say Mushroom, across space and time of different species to each other as they face extinction (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 604-605). And these entanglements include humans, and as Squid says, the Anthropocene raises the question of human moral and political responsibility (Latour 2014). I think the key question here for scientists (anthropologists included!) is ‘how do we redistribute human agency without being humanist, or post-humanist, or anti-humanist’ while simultaneously humans have become the center of all of our research and the question of what it means to be human has become blurry, as it is now recognised that we are morally tied to what used to be called ‘beyond the human’ (Latour 2014). The gift of the Anthropocene (and perhaps it is a difficult pill to swallow), in short, is that how we define: time, space, and otherness (Latour 2014)–all very important concepts to anthropologists–and consequently how we define anthropology as a discipline needs to change and be reworked!


References:

Terranova, F. (Dir.). 2016. Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival. Icarus Films.

Haraway, D. 2015. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165

Haraway D. et al. 2016, ‘Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene. Ethnos’, 81(3): 535–564.

Latour, B. 2014. Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene–a personal view of what is to be studied, Distinguished Lecture for American Association of Anthropologists, Washington, <http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/139-AAA-Washington.pdf>.

Latour, B. et al. 2018. ‘Anthropologists are Talking — About Capitalism, Ecology, and Politics’, Ethnos, 83(3): 587-606.

Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Part I The Anthropo Scene

It’s a chilly winter evening and you find yourself in a dimly lit basement bar. Smoke from cigarettes is wafting around the room, and you can hear people clicking their fingers to the soft beats of jazz music. It’s an Anthropo Scene gathering. Some of the most outspoken anthropologists, Anna Tsing, Jason W Moore, Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour were unable to attend this gathering, but they have sent envoys to carry their messages. These envoys seem to be posing as undercover social scientists, wearing ill-fitting hip couture in an effort to blend in. They mingle in a corner discussing topics ranging from philosophy to geology to anthropology and you sit at a table nearby and listen eagerly…

What is the Anthropocene?

Anonymous blob wearing dark glasses and a beret: Well, from my understanding, it is a term that was first proposed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stroermer to the scientific community in 2000 to describe a new geological epoque for the earth (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 3)(Moore, A. 2015, p. 32). The idea is that we have moved into an era where humans have become the most influential factor in global changes–most notably biodiversity loss, climate change and changes in the earth’s fossil record (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4). It is contested whether this shift began with the Neolithic introduction of farming or much more recently around the time of the Industrial Revolution which caused a massive increase in carbon dioxide levels (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4)(Tsing 2015, p.19). The shift has also been marked by the testing of nuclear bombs in mid-20th century which disseminated radioactive isotopes all over the globe (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4). This era is said to continue today and will continue to shape the earth for an indefinite future…


But tell me, what does that mean for anthropology?

Yes, how did this topic of geological science become so influential to social and political sciences?

Mushroom:
Excuse me let me introduce myself. I was bred from an old and deep mycelium, to bring us the message of the Anthropocene anthropologist Anna Tsing. Simply put, in the Anthropocene ‘progress’ stops making sense (2015 p. 25). This view of the world that has been clouded by dreams of progress, science, and advancement is destabilised (Tsing 2015, pp. 20-21). And with it, the Enlightenment dualism between nature and culture and humans and nature is brought into question. This realisation that, in the Anthropocene, humans cause more disturbance to the earth, and by extension non-human beings, than other geological forces means that the distinction between humans and nature is blurred.

Anthropology as a discipline is more important now than ever. The progress mentality that drove humans to look ahead has failed us, and instead we need to start looking around (Tsing 2015, p. 22). We need to revitalize arts of noticing (Tsing 2015, p. 37), like ethnography and anthropology more generally. Anna wants me to pass on the message about the very useful concept of assemblage (Tsing 2015, p. 22). Keeping in mind the concept of assemblage helps us to ask how varied species, human and non-human, influence each other (Tsing 2015, pp. 22-23). The nature of the field has changed. Despite the looming ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene that refuses to acknowledge our collaborative survival with non-human beings (Tsing 2015, p. 19), the Anthropocene also forces anthropologists to take note of how the focal subjects our study, humans, are entwined in the lifeways outside of ourselves (Tsing 2015, p. 23). It brings anthropologists an appreciation for multi-species and multi-sited ethnographies. Anna also wanted me to read you this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin:

‘I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.’ (Tsing 2015, p. 17)

Perhaps the work of anthropologists in the Anthropocene can be that pig on the tracks, to persuade humanity to stop and look around.


Spider:
Let me cut in here, I’m a spider who crept out of Jason Moore’s book “Capitalism and The Web of Life”. I’m here to talk about how Jason Moore thinks the concept of the “Anthropocene” needs to be reframed (2015). I agree that what we are seeing an unprecedented climate emergency, but the name “Anthropocene” can be used be humans to evade responsibility and create apathy. We have even seen corporations hijack the word “Anthropocene” by using it as a buzz word to suggest human exceptionalism. For example, look at this article in The Economist where the Anthropocene is elevated as giving “humans an unexpected promotion—to the status of geological movers and shakers” (The Economist 2016).  The reason that the planetary life support system is dying is because of capitalism, a political and economic system that values profit and an uneven distribution of resources.

My suggestion is to rename this era the “capitalocene”, but I’m not just arguing “about replacing one word with another” (Moore 2015, 81). We need to reframe the thinking around it as well. Theorists of the Anthropocene are trying to collapse the old dualisms such as nature/culture. Yet placing emphasis on the idea that it is human activity that is destroying an external nature is also dualistic. Humans aren’t an external force that are impacting the natural world, they are inextricably linked together in the earth system, like it’s just one big web. Capitalism as a socio-economic system is also part of this web, and it is the growth of capitalism is what has caused colossal imbalances in the Earth system.  

Anthropocene theorists haven’t quite acknowledged this, although they have tried to overcome dualistic thinking by using new terms such as “assemblages”.  I disagree that these theoretical tools are able to destabilise the capitalistic categorisation of nature as a resource external to humans. Post modernist concepts such as “assemblage” diffuse knowledge and make it harder to locate the power imbalances that are destroying living systems (Moore 2015, 5). If we describe the source of climate destruction as the entire human race, as the name “Anthropocene” suggests, then the corporations and countries who contribute the most to climate destruction are let off the hook. The worst experiences of the climate emergency will be in countries who don’t have the infrastructure to cope with extreme climates, which is unfair because it is the Global West and large corporations who contribute the most carbon emissions. The term “Capitolocene” highlights these contradictions.  

TO BE CONTINUED….. (see Part II: The Anthropo Scene)


References:

Moore, A. 2015. ‘Anthropocene anthropology: reconceptualizing contemporary global change’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 22(1): 27-46.

Moore, J W. 2015. Capitalism in the web of life: ecology and the accumulation of capital. London:Verso Press.

Moore, J W. 2017. The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(3): 594-630.

Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Raffnsøe, S. 2016. Philosophy of the anthropocene : the human turn, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

Given this ‘upside down’ map, consider how the map of the world as we normally see it is ethnocentric. Source
Ethnocentrism – from the Greek ‘ethnos’ and centre

The term was coined in the late 19th Century by the German sociologist Gumplowicz, and soon after popularised by the American sociologist Sumner (Bizumic 2014). Most commonly ethnocentrism is described as a belief that:

  • One’s own ethnic group or culture is at the centre of everything
  • One’s own group is superior to other groups, and all other groups are scaled and rated in reference to it (Etinson 2018, p. 210)

What is often called ethnocentrism’s antithesis, cultural relativism, is meant to overcome ethnocentrism and evolutionist beliefs that there are superior and inferior races and cultures.

Here is a simple explanation of ethnocentrism from Khan Academy, with the example of eating insects.

Everyone is susceptible to ethnocentrism. Like in the video above it can occur in more innocuous ways when we’re like ‘Ewww that’s so weird they do that!,’ but ethnocentrism also occurs in the form of colonialism where people are forced to assimilate into another culture because their culture is deemed morally and otherwise inferior and wrong (Etinson 2018, p. 18).

Another way ethnocentrism is described is not that it is a belief in itself, but that it is a bias that affects the process of forming or maintaining beliefs (Etinson 2018, p.213) . This bias may kick in when:

  • Someone attempts to interpret and evaluate a phenomenon occurring in another culture with limited cultural experience and understanding of that culture
  • Someone projects their cultural experience into a foreign cultural practice blinding them to the underlying values of that practice, which may actually familiar
  • Someone exoticises a foreign culture and over-emphasises differences, sometimes in order to justify colonial domination – two good examples are the early anthropological myth of the ‘noble savage’, and Saïd’s ‘orientalism’
  • Someone dogmatically holds onto a culturally held belief or opinion, for example the role of human activity in causing global warming, despite evidence to the contrary (Etinson 2018, pp. 214-218).

Anthropocentrism - from the Greek 'anthropos' - 'human being' and centre

Gumplowicz compared the term ethnocentrism to geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe, and anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are the most important entity on the earth and in the universe (Etinson 2018).

And while I think ethnocentrism a really important concept to think through in anthropology, if we are to think about the current anthropology we also need to be thinking seriously about anthropocentrism (which I wasn’t introduced to until third year anthro).

But what is anthropology without humans at the centre? … Simply, it exists!

This is what I wish I knew about in first year—the multispecies turn, and more-than-human anthropology. It’s an anthropology that fights against anthropocentrism and the false dichotomy between humans and Nature that follows. Humans and human culture does not exist outside of nature. Humans are entangled is ecological relations with all sorts of non-human beings. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World about the matsutake mushroom is one popular example of an ethnography about these entanglements. In an age that some are calling the Anthropocene we, as anthropologists, need to be more aware than ever of our anthropocentrism!


References:

Bizumic, B 2014, ‘Who Coined the Concept of Ethnocentrism? A Brief Report’, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 3-10.

Etinson, A 2018, ‘Some Myths about Ethnocentrism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 96, no. 2, pp. 209-224.

See also:

Sarah and my post on the ‘Anthropo Scene’ Part I and Part II

Dyan’s post on cultural relativism