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University of Basel

Research in the Spirit of Sustainability (01/2015)

Understanding animals from their appearance

Interview: Urs Hafner

As a philosopher focusing on animals, Markus Wild often meets with a positive response outside the university. He believes that philosophy helps people to gain a better understanding of animals – and that we see evidence of this across the world.

“However, there is no single quality, such as rationality, that separates human beings decisively from animals.“ Markus Wild
“However, there is no single quality, such as rationality, that separates human beings decisively from animals.“ Markus Wild © Illustration: Basile Bornand

URS HAFNER: Professor Wild, for biologists man is just one kind of animal among many, while sociologists perceive a number of differences between humans and animals – language, the state or the law, for example. What do you say as a philosopher?

MARKUS WILD: I share biology’s view on this. Like all other animals, man can be explained in evolutionary terms. Again like them, he has developed particular characteristics that he alone possesses. However, thanks to his use of complex communication, his social skills and his ability fundamentally to reshape his environment, he has developed a high-level feedback structure that allows him to change himself in important ways. That sets him apart and explains how he has attained his special position. However, there is no single quality, such as rationality, that separates human beings decisively from animals.

HAFNER: So you see man as an animal, rather than the pinnacle of creation. Is that a break with philosophical tradition?

WILD: No. Spinoza, David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche all stressed that too much was made of the differences between humans and animals. Spinoza says that within nature man does not constitute an independent state within a state. For Nietzsche, all living things are clusters of organized drives. What sets man apart is his unique ability to prioritize one drive – in the scientist’s case, for example, curiosity and what Nietzsche called the will to truth – over all the others.

HAFNER: It is not only philosophy that is eroding the differences between humans and animals. Vegans and supporters of animal rights call for animals to be given moral and legal equality. Until recently we wanted to wipe out wolves and bears, but now they enjoy state protection. Is the west on the verge of a paradigm shift?

WILD: It is difficult to look into the future, but I think so. We see these kinds of processes at work across the globe. In several countries, great apes have been accorded rights of personhood. A court in Argentina ruled that keeping an orangutan in a zoo amounted to imprisonment. Support for animal ethics is taking a political turn. We can see that happening in Switzerland, too. Vegetarians and vegans may account for only about 5% of the population, but they constitute a powerful intellectual movement. All these processes are a success for philosophy as I practice it. I can think of no 20th century philosophical current, apart from Marxism, that has had such a profound impact on society. I see that when I take part in discussions with high school students – they are fully engaged with these philosophical questions.

HAFNER: People talk about animal ethics while tucking into an Aberdeen Angus steak. Animal rights have never been so intensively debated, yet more animals are being killed than ever before. Is our heightened concern for animals a form of compensatory behavior?

WILD: You need to distinguish between animal welfare and animal rights. Animal welfare can improve the conditions in which chickens are kept, for example, which is welcome. But animal welfare has also helped to stabilize the current system – it has not led to any fundamental change in behavior. Animal rights, by contrast, asks the question whether we should keep chickens or kill pigs at all in order to eat them. I see animal ethics not as a fig leaf but as a reaction to how we treat animals.

HAFNER: The biologist and philosopher Adolf Portmann, who worked at Basel University around the middle of the last century, is now a forgotten figure. Is he important in your work?

WILD: Very much so! Portmann tried to combine science and philosophy in a novel way. Unfortunately, his approach was not taken up much outside anthroposophy, which isn’t of much relevance to me, and anthropology. Traditionally, biology focuses on either individual or species survival, but he took a broader view. He was interested in what he called animals’ self-expression. He noticed that sea snails, for example, exhibit a rich variety of colors, even though they serve no evolutionary function in relation to other members of the same species or to their predators. In the darkness of the ocean, their colors cannot even be seen. From this, Portmann concluded that animals’ appearance constitutes an add-on, as it were, that is just as fundamental as individual survival – and that science must take into account.

HAFNER: What conclusion should we draw from the existence of this add-on?

WILD: That if we want to understand animals, we should not focus exclusively on individual and species survival. If we pay attention to the appearance and shape of animals, we may arrive at theories about their development that have not occurred to us previously. As long as science disregards this add-on, it cannot understand the whole animal. The approach can be extended to questions like animals’ sensitivity to pain – Portmann talked about their inner life. Many neurobiologists say that pain is subjective, we cannot get a handle on it scientifically and there is nothing we can say about it. With Portmann, we can respond by saying that neurobiology’s view of animals will remain limited if it fails to understand their inner life. Animals have complex forms of inner life. Recent studies indicate that the great apes express intentions when communicating. My team and I are working with behavioral scientists to look at how we might develop a concept of intentional communication by non-human beings.

HAFNER: So science could benefit from Portmann’s work?

WILD: It’s possible, yes. Portmann also presents a challenge to my approach, philosophical naturalism, as he calls into question whether living things can be explained in purely evolutionary terms. That is why I think it is important to make his works available in a digital multi-media edition. Portmann worked with pictures and did radio interviews. Incidentally, I would also like to edit the philosophical works of Ignaz Paul Vitalis Troxler, the first person to hold a chair of philosophy at Basel, who is regarded as the father of the Swiss federal constitution. Mind you, he was dismissed after only a year on suspicion of sympathies with the secessionists of Basel-Land. Portmann and Troxler represent a submerged tradition of philosophy in Basel. I would like to change that.

Markus Wild is professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Basel. His field includes animal philosophy – questions such as whether animals can think and how they feel pain. His Introduction to Animal Philosophy (published by Junius Press) is now in its third edition. Wild is a member of the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology.

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