Evil and Bad: A Multispecies Perspective Using Critical Anthropomorphism
(photo by David Monniaux)
Our evolution designed humans to make rapid assessments and to fit experiences and objects into categories, such as evil and bad, so they could quickly defend themselves, or move towards that which benefits them. But we have to ask today how helpful is the concept of evil or others being bad. This is because the concept of others being evil or bad can lead to:
Decreased view of others inherent worth and dignity
Increased disconnection to other humans, including ourselves
Increased disconnection to other species, and to life
Incorporating evil into our language and conception leads to distancing ourselves from others and from the reality of life. Instead of curiosity, possibility, and embracing reality, we shift to restrictive relationships where we see others, or even life itself as fundamentally flawed.To say that any part of life is evil, instead of being a network of relationships which form us (literally as the bacteria and viruses in our gut keep us healthy and pieces of DNA of other species make up human DNA) is to cut ourselves from belonging on this planet and diminishing our sense of identity. We are the other, and all that we are, is who they are. Humans exist because of other species. To say that any part of another is evil is to say the same about ourselves, and locks us into self loathing or distrust. We become incapable of feeling welcomed and whole on this planet, and in so doing in our isolation, cannot welcome others into a network of mutuality and belonging.
One way to feel welcomed and whole on this planet, and to welcome others, is to develop our multispecies intelligence. Multispecies intelligence is the ability to understand and use emotional intelligence, communication, and behavior across species lines for the mutual benefit of all. It requires understanding species needs, behavior, motivations, and interconnecting relations with others and their habitat. We do this in part by seeking to know the motivations for their behaviors, such as understanding their subjective experience (emotions and internal processing) and needs. This means employing what is known as critical anthropomorphism: Critical anthropomorphism refers to a perspective in the study of animal behavior that encompasses using the sentience of the observer to generate hypotheses in light of scientific knowledge of the species, its perceptual world, and ecological and evolutionary history.
By engaging in critical anthropomorphism we avoid two errors on either end of the spectrum of multispecies understanding: one is to say that other species are nothing like humans (anthrocentrism), and the other is to say they are exactly like us (uncritical anthropomorphism). Critical anthropomorphism means that we imagine what it is like to be in the shoes, paws, hooves, wings, claws, feet, and skin of another, and then to check ourselves where we might have made either of the two types of errors. We employ all the science that is available to us, study, reflect, discuss, check our assumptions, and then ask: How might my perception of another lead to more harm than good? To grow your multispecies perspective, we suggest this following video practice.
Growing Our Multispecies Intelligence - Video Practice
Use these practices to journal with, think about, or invite others to discuss and practice with you. (Trigger Warning: These videos show animals performing behavior that might be uncomfortable for you to watch.)
1. For each of the following videos, watch them and put yourself in the place of the animals. What are they thinking, feeling, and needing? What motivates them?
2. As you watch, what are you thinking, feeling, and needing? Do these videos make you uncomfortable? Why?
3. What do the narrators' comments reveal about how humans perceive "bad" behavior in other species? In human species?
4. Did any of these behaviors come as a surprise to you?
5. Does watching these videos bring up any requests you might make of yourself or others? Do they suggest possible actions in which you might engage?
Deception: Chimpanzee mother sneaks tools away from son
Kidnapping: Hamadryas baboons kidnaps a puppy from her family
Sexual Coercion/Rape: Fur seals attack king penguins
Torture: Domestic cat playing with mouse
Extra-pair coupling/switching partners/adultery: Male penguin fights to remove intruder that female accepted as new mate
Various videos and commentary (reveals what people can think of "bad behavior)