One Mother’s Day in elementary school, my family arrived home from church to find that my sister’s parakeet, Duncan, had eaten my parakeet, Blue Jeans, and had discarded the remains of his skeleton in the water dish. Duncan sat there unrepentant, our very own avian harbinger of doom, while my mother gathered Blue Jeans’ carcass and put it in a coffee can. Blue Jeans was buried that afternoon under our rose bush in a harried, child-run ceremony. Duncan ate another bird later that year. She died shortly after, professedly of natural causes. I would suggest she died of self-loathing.
I present to you Duncan, as the counterargument for all that follows.
On Human Nature
AMC’s popular show, The Walking Dead, features a post-apocalyptic world of zombies. The zombies are flesh-eating, horrible creatures—dead, human, detritus feeders especially eager to prey on living, non-zombie humans. The show, developed by Frank Darabont, follows a group of non-zombie protagonists as they seek refuge. It is a survival tale.
The Walking Dead is of sociological interest because it depicts the spontaneous government that arises among the group of protagonists, best described as a Humean, common good constellation of social laws and contingencies that are erected ad hoc among the group as they work together to survive. At times, they become like beasts, acting as both predator and prey in turn. They wield weapons. They share meals together. And as life around them unfolds in destruction, Guillermo declares, “[The world] is the same as it ever was: the weak get taken.”
Perhaps most interesting are the basic assumptions of zombie-ism itself. At the end of season one, the group finds itself at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, with the sole remaining doctor, Edwin Jenner. Dr. Jenner shows the group a video scan of the process of a person being overtaken by the zombie virus: At first, the brain activity arrests, the person dies, and then the base of the brain (site of basic living processes—respiration, circulation, etc.) resurrects. The zombie is born. “The frontal lobe, the neocortex, the human part—that doesn’t come back. The you part,” Jenner explains. “Just a shell driven by mindless instinct.”
Essentially, once your higher-order rational superintendence is gone, you become a zombie, which is not a morally-neutral state. Zombies are aggressive human-eaters because “mindless instinct” is understood to be savage. The assumption here is that human cognition is tiered, not strictly in terms of anatomical positioning, but rather with regard to functional primacy. The outer, cortical layers are those we associate with our humanity, and ethics is a higher-order “cultural overlay,” cloaking deeper, darker impulses. This is called Veneer Theory—the popular hypothesis so dubbed (and dethroned) by Dutch primatologist ethologist Frans de Waal. It is the central notion that animates the Hobbesian state of nature, wherein men live in bellum omnium contra omnes—war of all against all—unless tempered by a social regime that cloaks their instinct (Hobbes, De Cive).
And veneer ethics is not assumed exclusively in zombie shows. It is the governing assumption of most popular media. In Breaking Bad, a devoted family man and high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with lung cancer and cracks. He loses his moral reservations and becomes a crystal methamphetamine dealer to provide for his family. The story is post-ethical; moral calculus becomes an auxiliary task—incidental, not integral to his daily affairs. Likewise, the political drama House of Cards depicts an American government rife with hostility, indecency, and revenge, both revealing and disguising the tumult of key political players’ lives in turn. In this show, the American government—transcribed by its founders in the words of John Locke—startles by being more Hobbesian in praxis, at least just beneath the surface.
Ironically, while screenwriters are preoccupied with the savage human animal stifled beneath a veneer, there is a radical inversion occurring in the narrative of our popular media regarding non-human animals—that they are not all that brutish themselves.
On Animal Nature
In recent months, there has been an influx of articles surrounding the topic of animal altruism—death behaviors, ensoulment, and apparent morality—sharing a common thesis that non-human animals are of higher sentience and potential for goodness than we might have imagined. Last year, Catrin Nicol wrote asking New Atlantis readers, “Do Elephants Have Souls?”, a question few ask of humans anymore. In October, Gregory Berns proclaimed that “Dogs are People, too.” In June, The New York Times published Maggie Koerth-Baker’s article, “Want to Understand Morality? Look to the Chimps,” an anecdote-based surveyal of chimpanzee death behavior that projects outward onto animal morality more generally.
In Koerth-Baker’s article, she explores the question of animal mortality rituals on the locus of a 2010 account from Current Biology of Pansy, an elderly chimpanzee who died in the company of friends. At the outset of Koerth-Baker’s descriptions, we are duty-bound to care, as we read the flowery descriptions of chimps with human names growing old together and holding hands. The zoologists are the most inhuman in Koerth-Baker’s account: “When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing the intimate moments during her last hours.” It seems insensitive, like tactless chaplaincy.
We are in the process of realizing that animals are more capable of moral-like action than we may have previously perceived. So the statements we are making of ourselves in popular media need to be adjusted, because the veneer theory does not accommodate a beast that is not exceptionally beastly. The cortical veneer, in this case, would basically be covering a scaled level of goodness.
As things stand, the combined statements of our media are: 1) Beasts are actually quite noble. 2) Humans are rather savage. But we are covered in a tissue paper layer of human moral cognition that disguises this (until perhaps we become zombies). We are veiled, appetitive terrors.
Is anyone paying attention? Not only have we collapsed the gap between human and animal morality, we have inverted them so that animals are our moral superiors.
Frans de Waal, a contemporary primatologist ethologist, has spent his lifework studying the gap between primates and people, specifically in terms of morality, operationally defined as capacity for empathy. In this gap, you find what it is that distinguishes human nature from non-human animal nature.
The primary innovation of de Waal’s project is his objection to Veneer Theory. Instead of the moral cloak, he offers a view of “nested dolls” of prehuman selves—layers upon layers of increased aptitudes in social-interdependence relationships among organisms. He does so specifically by drawing out the moral-like impulses in animals, primarily of our closest nonhuman relatives, the chimpanzees, to show that our evolutionarily inherited instincts are not as brutish and self-serving as we imagined.
DeWaal’s work is given legs with cognitive modularity theories, which presume that a significant amount of our moral processing takes place in locked-down mental modules (or processing units), reified by our biological inheritance to uphold basic kinship altruism. These are super fast moral shortcuts that happen without reflection. They produce gut-response, impulse reactions. With animals, we can stop there. But human moral cognition extends beyond this. Set apart in a secondary tier of processing, are the rational, utilitarian, Divine command, and revelation-based modes of moral cognition we typically associate with humanness.
For deWaal, the non-human animal pre-moral landscape stops just short of attribution, the ability to fully step outside of oneself and see things from another’s perspective. Humans alone have the highest order of empathic capacity, a robust self- and social-cognizance paired with language and memory, which, combined, enable a true morality. We transcend the pre-moral landscape and can uniquely act in ways that are not dictated under the auspices of adaptive proliferation. We feel accountability toward moral laws we cannot satisfy (a phenomenon John Hare calls the “performance gap”), and we feel compelled to establish our own laws. In The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk remarks,
“Even the simplest human communities cannot endure without some form of laws, consciously held and enforced. Ants and bees may cooperate by instinct; men must have revelation and reason.”
Humans have a desire for external coherence and a more stable sense of identity that elevates accountability and prevents us from being a theatre of passing appetites. We are different, though not in a cloaked way. We depart from non-human nature in a way that is continuous with animal nature—a departure that advances and sophisticates a pre-extant capacity for moral conviction, not in a way that radically dismisses the good of those below, but instead affirms it.
Interestingly, deWaal’s stance better accommodates both the Judeo-Christian notion of creation’s goodness, and modern evolutionary theory. St. Augustine paints an analogous picture of the human as moral actor. In his chain of being, he collapses morality onto ontology and illustrates how virtue affirms being. By living rightly—in obedience to God—we affirm our proper place on the chain of being. Conversely, when we disobey or seek lesser goods than God, we become less of who we were created to be. We “[sink] to the animal” (Augustine, Confessions). Likewise, evolutionary theory is sustained because veneer theory is antiparsimonious (evolutionarily uneconomical). With deWaal’s moral scaling, we no longer have to posit a reason why humans departed from their inherited natures, because their natures are fairly good to begin with.
As things stand, there is a strange disjunction between depictions of animal nature and human nature in contemporary media, though this might change. Perhaps as we grow in our understanding of animal nature, we will learn to refine the questions we ask about ourselves.