Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom

Simon Barnes in New Statesman:

LionLudwig Wittgenstein once observed, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” But Ludo, mind if I ask how much time you’ve actually spent with lions? Thought not. Because that’s rubbish, at least in the sense that humans and lions couldn’t possibly have common ground for a conversation. Wittgenstein can beat me in any logico-philosophical contest of his or anyone else’s choosing, but he hasn’t spent as much time as I have hanging out in the bush with lions. It was a few weeks ago in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. Six lionesses had just slain an antelope and were avidly devouring it. From where I was, a quarter of a mile off, all I could see of this meal was a companionable rosette of tawny fur. Near me, a lone nomad male lion was also watching. He had picked up an injury and had been unable to hunt for a few days. He was very hungry; you could count the ribs. He had no pride of his own; he wasn’t yet big enough, or strong enough, or confident enough to attempt a takeover. He had to kill for himself and he couldn’t. He was watching a vision of everything he wanted in the world: food, the blessed intimacies of pride life and the company of those six sexy lionesses. He wanted more than anything to join them. But something very powerful stopped him from doing so. They wouldn’t have welcomed him. They would have chased him off; it would have ended in violence; it was no good. But he couldn’t stop himself watching. He made a series of retreats, each time stopping and staring back longingly. Eventually, like Andrew Lincoln fighting the pangs of his unrequited love for Keira Knightley in Love Actually, he pulled himself together and forced himself to leave the world of longing and get back to reality. He walked into the river and swam decisively across: enough! Had he stopped to talk about that experience, I would have understood. So would we all. Loneliness, longing, hunger, despair, desire: are these things so remote from our own experience?

…For years, it was accepted that the issue was binary. You could be objective, or you could be sentimental. Scientific orthodoxy stated that animals had no emotions or personalities: even to consider such a matter was a sin. This was not something to be investigated or put to the test. It was an error that could be corrected with a single word: anthropomorphism. Mary Midgley, the ethical philosopher, wrote about mahouts, elephant riders, and how, if they failed to take into account “the basic everyday feelings – about whether their elephant is pleased, annoyed, frightened, excited, tired, sore, suspicious or angry – they would not only be out of business, they would often simply be dead”. Anthropomorphise or die. Anyone who works with horses knows that. Peter Wohlleben had a hit with his book The Hidden Life of Trees. In this, he described the fungal connections between tree and tree, which he interpreted as highways of communication and wittily called “the wood-wide web”. He made trees the sort of living thing that we humans can empathise with, rather than pieces of rural furniture.

More here.