Category Archives: A to Z of anthrozoology

C is for culture (warning: grossly simplified content)

There are tons of C’s I could have gone with: consciousness, continuity, Colonel Sanders, creativity (in animals), Crufts. This is the beginners’ section, so we begin with the obvious.

Culture is a huge deal in anthrozoology. Your first question is: is there a sharp divide between nature and culture? Some guys looked into “primitive” societies and said yes, culture begins when persons have a model in their mind of how things should be, and they act accordingly. A big example is the incest rule. Should you, as a human, choose to avoid incest, you’re cultured. You’ve transcended nature. The structuralist thinkers like CLS take this further. Because everyone in the family, or tribe, is following this rule, there’s a predictable symmetry to where everyone sleeps, which trickles into how they prepare food, tell stories, what they believe, and how they relate to animals.

Of course, in the real world people don’t always follow the structure. And these days argue that culture is a pointless ideal that doesn’t work off paper and can’t be separated from nature. What we have is the nature inside, our brains, genes and experiences, which make all of us perceive things differently. How we trade these beliefs and habits changes all the time.

What about animals? Can they have culture? To fit into a cultural norm, you have to have self awareness, an awareness of what others are doing, and an awareness of what will happen if you do or don’t conform. There’s plenty of evidence for intentionality and planning in apes for example, but what about other animals? How about the cultures we form with our pets, for example? Cats and dogs in a household may be good pals, suggesting they have overcome some sort of “natural” animosity.

Taking lessons from cultural theorists at present – who argue that the minds of individuals are way too ephemeral to be lumped into cultures – should we be bothering to look for culture in animals?


B is for biophilia

Biophilia is an idea that the classic Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson wrote about in the 80s. He described biophilia as our instinctive affinity for “nature”; a panhuman, subconscious yearning to return to our roots. I try to be careful using the word nature, because of course we are, in fact, of nature, and being unseparated from it makes it impossible to bend towards it.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

So like modernist poetry snapped out of traditional rules for verse, there’s a sort of self governing system suggested in the biophilia hypothesis: that things disturbed try to go back to their natural state. Ecostruck theories in the 70s about self governing “vegetative” communities didn’t really work in practice, though – systems didn’t return to their “balanced” states. There wasn’t a “balance” to begin with. And commune projects in the California deserts were failing badly at the same time – because a few individuals wrested power over the group. People inevitably get pissed off with each other. We need space, not systems. Please watch this.

Someone I read recently, and I’m unfortunately damned if I can remember who, wrote that we’re eventually more entropomorphic than anthropomorphic – our nature is to scatter, “to move through the environment like animals in the jungle..[Wolfgang Haug]. We animals are not like crystals that organise themselves perfectly every time. Living things are complex and chaotic, mutable not immutable.

Biophilia is also an interactive multimedia project by Bjork. It’s an app built out of a 10-track album, with video and stuff that you can recreate. This made me think about biophilia vs technophilia, and whether interacting with our computers all the time will eventually remove us from “nature” entirely. What do you think? You getting enough lols in your room, or do you want to go jungle?

This is excellent: Biophilia &Technophilia: Examining the Nature/Culture Split in Design Theory

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A is for animism

Animism is a belief system (ontology) based on the completely outlandish notion that human animals and nonhuman animals have shared ancestry.

Outlandish huh. OK. In another way, animism is believing that your grandmother was a bear. Or that all bears are your grandparents.

Some people believe that all things, even rocks, rivers and clouds, have a spirit. They believe that humans are not the only people. Anything can be a person if it has a self or soul.

I have been trained as a scientist, and while I am not a great scientist, my training, and my postdomestic way of being means I am unable to fathom certain ways of thinking. Even as a child I would never have imagined that my gran could be a bear. I have also never had semiconscious conversations with animals. People in pre-domestic societies claim this happens all the time.


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