Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
Loki's Children

Of Humans and other animals

Are you superior to animals? To insects? To viruses? If you consider such questions frivolous, you are in good company - most Western philosophers and religious thinkers have thought so too. Michel de Montaigne thought differently: “When I am playing with my cat,” he asked, “how do I know she is not playing with me?”


Although Montaigne wrote his celebrated Essais in the 1570's and 1580's, his ideas resonate today - and they would resonate with the Jains of India of course, but that's another story. Such ideas astonished those who came after him - Descartes and Pascal, who resented him, and Rousseau and Nietzsche, who admired him. If we can never enter cats' minds, just as they cannot enter ours, then that is not the point. The point is that we come to understand that our own viewpoints are merely human-centered. Que sçais-je? Such humility is not apparent among those inflicting The Dancing Lesson on the cat, captured here by Jan Steen in 1665-68 (detail). It is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

But the Catholic Church was not amused. Montaigne's Essais ended up on the Index of Prohibited Books from 1676 to 1854 because he attributed feelings and intelligence to animals. It was the same with colonialism - Montaigne opposed the conquest of the Americas because of the horrors it inflicted upon the native peoples. Most Western philosophers and religious thinkers got that one wrong too.

So what should we make of experiments like the one in 2011 by Marion Laval-Jeantet, who dosed herself with horse blood plasma as part of a "May the Horse Live in Me" art project? She prepared her body in the months before by injecting herself with small doses of horse immunoglobulins, the glycoproteins that flow through the blood and function as antibodies in immune response. She called this process mithridatization, after Mithridates of Pontus, who is said to have developed an immunity to poisons by gradually ingesting small doses of them. Prior to this, in 2007, she tried to relate to cats - below is "Félinanthropie." Shamanism or pretentiousness? Below photo credit: Wikipedia/Menemihiel.


This seems like a dead end - like "going native" back in the imperial era. Scientific inquiries will be more fruitful if they are along the lines of "elevating" other species to our own level, in the same way Europeans began elevating other human races in the 20th century. For example, this study which suggests honeybees, like many other species, feel emotions like pessimism.

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