To be human is to be animal

The case for animalism

Are we animals? This question, seemingly simple, delves into our many theories of personal identity. While our daily lives define us as human beings, the theory of "animalism" challenges this perspective. Philosopher Eric Olson argues that our fundamental identity aligns with being biological organisms within the animal kingdom. This puts the existence of a ‘human’ essence in question and has implications for life after death, consciousness transfer, transhumanism and even environmental responsibility.


What are we? Human beings, of course. We’re also parents, friends, readers of online articles, and much more. And we’re animals: biological organisms of the animal kingdom.  That may seem rather obvious. Our planet is home to some eight billion members of the primate species Homo sapiens. And those animals seem to be us. When you see yourself or someone else, you see an animal. Wherever that animal goes, you go, and vice versa.  We don’t appear to be anything other than these animals.

Philosophers call the claim that we’re animals ‘animalism’. You may be surprised to hear that it’s a minority view in contemporary philosophy. And in fact most of us are at least inclined to believe things that are incompatible with it.

Take, for example, the doctrine of life after death. Billions of people believe (or at least profess to believe) that when we die and are cremated, we nevertheless continue existing in a conscious state. We’re resurrected in the next world, or reborn in this one. That’s not consistent with our being animals. When an animal is burnt to ashes, that’s the end of it.  To say that it might continue existing and remain conscious is like saying that a manuscript burnt to ashes might continue existing and remain legible. An animal cannot have life after death. If we have life after death, we cannot be animals.

You may not believe in life after death. But many nonreligious people believe in the possibility of ‘uploading’. Imagine that all the psychological information encoded in your brain is read off by some sort of scan. (This, we may imagine, destroys or erases the brain.) The information is made into a digital file and transferred to a computer. It’s then used to program the computer so as to create a thinking, conscious being there: someone psychologically just like you were when you were scanned, or at least as much like you as a purely digital person could be. Even if this will never be technologically feasible, the thought goes, it could be done, if only we knew how. And maybe this process would not merely create a psychological duplicate of you in the computer, but would transfer you yourself from your animal body to the digital realm.


if you have a property that no animal has, you’re not an animal. The same, in fact, goes for life after death: if it’s even possible for us to have it, then we’re not animals


But whether or not that’s true, it’s not possible to upload an animal into a computer. An animal is a material thing, and you can’t get a material thing into a computer by scanning it, uploading the information thereby gathered, and then programming the computer in the right way. You can no more upload an animal than you could upload a brick or a tree.  (Imagine trying to move a consignment of bricks to Australia by uploading them then inviting your Antipodean counterpart to download them at the building site.) You can’t move a material thing by a mere transfer of information: you have to move some matter.  The animal might be damaged in the scanning process, or even killed, but it stays where it is.

I doubt whether anyone will ever actually be uploaded. But even the possibility of our being uploaded is inconsistent with our being animals. It would mean that you have a property that no animal has: the property of being uploadable, given the right technology, into a computer by a process of scanning, data transfer, and programming. And if you have a property that no animal has, you’re not an animal. The same, in fact, goes for life after death:  if it’s even possible for us to have it, then we’re not animals, as it’s not possible for an animal to have life after death.

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The argument that moves most philosophers to deny that we’re animals does not involve uploading or life after death, but an imaginary medical procedure. Imagine that your brain is transplanted into my head. (My own brain is destroyed to make room for it.) If the operation is successful, the result will be someone with your brain and the rest of me.  And we would expect him to have your beliefs, memories, plans, and personality, for the most part at least, and not mine. Who will he be: you with a new body, or me with a new brain? (Or perhaps neither?) It will seem to him as if he’s you, as he’ll have memories of your past and no memories of mine, and he’ll be surprised when he looks in the mirror and sees my face. Would that appearance be correct?

It’s tempting to answer yes: that you would go with your transplanted brain. The operation cuts away all your parts except your brain, moves you across the room, and then gives you a new skull, torso, and limbs to replace the ones you lost. It’s not strictly a brain transplant, but a ‘body transplant’. 

But what would happen to the animal—the one now sitting there and reading this article?  Would it go with its transplanted brain? Would the operation cut away all the animal’s parts except its brain, move it across the room, and then give it a new set of parts to replace the ones it lost? Would it move an animal from your body to mine? Surely not.  The animal would simply lose an organ: it would stay behind with an empty head. It may even remain alive, though incapable of consciousness. There are two animals in the story, and the operation would move an organ from one of them to the other, exactly as a liver transplant does.

So if you would go with your transplanted brain, the operation would move you from one animal to another. You would leave your animal body behind. But a thing can’t leave itself behind. If you could leave that animal behind, you cannot be that animal. And there’s no other animal you could be:  if you’re any animal at all, you’re the animal that would stay behind in a brain transplant. Animalism implies that you yourself would stay behind, and donate your brain to me.

Again, no one is actually going to have a brain transplant. But if you would go with your brain if it were transplanted, you have a property that no animal has: the capacity to go with your transplanted brain. The animal does not have this capacity, as the operation would only leave it with an empty head. And if you have a property that no animal has, you cannot be an animal. That’s the reasoning that leads most philosophers to reject animalism.



At this point you may wonder why anyone would suppose that we are animals. I said that we appear to be:  when you see yourself, or someone else, you see an animal. We don’t appear to be anything other than the animals we see in the mirror. But of course things are not always as they seem. Is there any better reason to accept animalism?


Consider what it would mean if you were not the animal. There would then be two conscious beings thinking your thoughts: you and the animal. If that’s not already absurd, think of how you could ever know which of them was you.


There is. It’s possible for an animal to think and to be conscious. Dogs can recognise their home, feel hungry, and remember (or forget) where they left their favourite ball. And clearly human animals are not psychologically inferior to dogs. They can recognise their home, feel hungry, remember where they left their ball, and much more. The animal you see in the mirror is a thinking, conscious being. And you are a thinking, conscious being.  Doesn’t that suggest that you are that thinking animal? How could you be something other than the animal thinking your thoughts?

Consider what it would mean if you were not the animal. There would then be two conscious beings thinking your thoughts: you and the animal. If that’s not already absurd, think of how you could ever know which of them was you.  You may take yourself to be the non-animal—on the grounds, perhaps, that you would go with your brain if it were ever transplanted and leave the animal behind. But the animal, sharing your brain, would presumably believe for the same reason that it was not an animal. Yet it would be mistaken. And for all you could ever know, you yourself might be the one making this mistake. Even if we were not animals, we could never know it, undermining any reason we may have to suppose that we’re not.

Or maybe the animal would not be thinking your thoughts: you’re the only thinker there, and the animal is no more conscious or intelligent than a stone. That would enable you to know that you’re not the animal. That’s what most opponents of animalism say. But it’s quite a startling claim. The animal has a functioning brain: the same brain that you have.  What could prevent it from using that brain to think just as you do? Opponents of animalism have no satisfying account of why human animals can’t think—or of what sort of non-animals we might be.

It seems more likely that animals can think, and in particular that the human animal now looking at your computer screen is thinking just as you are. And surely you’re not one of two such thinking beings. Given the undeniable fact that you are thinking, it follows that the animal is you. You are an animal.



What if the animalists are right? What would it mean if we really were animals? We’ve seen that it would appear to rule out the possibility of life after death or of uploading ourselves into computers. And it would mean that transplanting your brain into my head would not give you a new body, but would give me a new brain. But is there anything further? Would accepting animalism change our thinking about anything else?

It might. Our being animals would imply that we are reliant on a certain sort of environment—one that’s currently threatened by climate change. The opponents of animalism agree that we require such an environment, because our animal bodies do and we rely on those bodies.  But if we’re not animals ourselves, there remains the faint hope that we might one day overcome this reliance. Perhaps the right technology could enable us to exchange our animal bodies for something inorganic that could function even in the extreme conditions that climatologists are warning us about.  Climate change may finish off the corals, the penguins, and the polar bears, but we might be able to survive it by transforming ourselves into heat- and drought-resistant robots. This thought, however unrealistic, may weaken the resolve to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions.


If my organic parts were cut away and replaced, one by one, with inorganic prostheses, the animal would not gradually become inorganic. It would only become gradually smaller and have more and more gadgets attached to it.


But if we’re animals, there is no such hope. An animal can no more be transformed into a robot than it could be uploaded, resurrected, or reincarnated. Why is that? Even if we’re animals now, couldn’t future technology make us into non-animals?

The thought is that we could replace our parts with inorganic prostheses that do the same thing only better. Even our brains might be replaced—bit by bit, perhaps, to preserve the continuity of our mental lives—with computer chips. This process could eventually make us entirely inorganic. But whatever merits this thought may have, it’s not something that could happen to an animal.

Suppose I had a bullet lodged in my shoulder from my days as a mafia hitman. Would it be a part of the animal sitting here? Would the animal be made partly of flesh and blood and partly of lead? No: the bullet would be inside the animal but not part of it. That’s because it was never involved in the activity that makes up the animal’s life: growth, maintenance, metabolism, and so on. Animals are made up of living tissue and the bullet is not. The animal’s life would go on around the bullet but not within it. Strictly speaking it’s a part of the animal’s surroundings.

Now imagine that my arm is amputated and replaced with an inorganic prosthesis.  Does the prosthesis become a part of the animal? Again, the answer is No. However useful I may find it, it’s not made of living tissue and is never involved in the activity that makes up the life of the animal. It’s not nourished by the animal’s blood supply, or repaired and maintained as bones and muscles are. When my arm is cut off, the animal loses a part and gets smaller. And fitting a prosthetic arm doesn’t make the animal bigger again by giving it a new part. It only changes the animal’s surroundings. A transplanted organic arm could become a part of the animal by being assimilated into the animal’s life-activities—that’s what happens in real-life transplants—but not a prosthesis.

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And the same goes for any other inorganic object attached to or implanted into me:  a stainless-steel hip joint, an artificial heart, an electronic brain implant, or what have you. If my organic parts were cut away and replaced, one by one, with inorganic prostheses, the animal would not gradually become inorganic. It would only become gradually smaller and have more and more gadgets attached to it. Eventually it would become unable to maintain its living functions and would die. The gadgets may continue to function. They may even make up a robot with a mental life like mine and memories of my life. But that machine would not be an animal, or anything that was previously an animal.  It would not have grown from an embryo.  No animal has the capacity to become inorganic: it can only be replaced by something inorganic. We ourselves could have that capacity only if we are not animals.

Animalism implies that our organic nature and our dependence on the environment are unalterable features of us. At most we could replace ourselves with a population of heat-resistant robots. Accepting this might, perhaps, make us just a bit more environmentally responsible.

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