Are They Human?
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the period when the conceptual framework of the “state of nature” reshaped moral, legal and political philosophy —European forests, new technologies for extracting carbon traces from arctic ice reveal, were taken down at the fastest rate to date. The great forests largely turned into cropland and fuel prior to wood’s replacement with coal as Europe’s main source of energy, and the colonial economy’s appetite for ships finished off the rest, with merchant ships and gun boats requiring between 4–6,000 mature oaks—several hectares of forest—each.
While some pockets of woodland did survive, primarily in the less densely populated terrain of the Alps, the Pyrenees, parts of the Balkans, and other areas of southeastern Europe, the line separating field from forest was shifting at an unprecedented speed, retreating north well past the Baltics to southern Scandinavia, Scotland and northern Siberia, and south into the northern Balkans. Abraham Bosse’s etching for the 1651 frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathandepicts the figure of the sovereign rising over deforested hills. This is not a coincidence: in the European imagination of the time, the forest line still marked the limit of sovereignty, the areas of productive economy and thus also the threshold of the law. Sovereignty could only rise over cultivated nature—that is, over a destroyed ecosystem. By the end of the eighteenth century, the forest line has ebbed miles north of Edinburgh. With the exception of David Hume, who was settled there, European philosophers using the concept of the “state of nature” to describe an era prior to law and the social contract experienced nothing more than tamed local woodlands, stranded within an ocean of fields.
The hypothetical forest of the “state of nature” was a vast pre-judicial zone, the mythic limit to culture and law. The outlaw and the werewolf, and later the indigenous residents, were humanlike creatures that could be killed without the slaying being considered a murder. With the conversion of European forests into fields, cities, and ships, other forests were discovered beyond the oceans Europeans crossed by floating on their own decimated ones. Those that most captured the European imaginary of the state of nature were found along the equatorial belt in the tropics: Central Africa, South East Asia and Central America. Today we know, from such works as that of Paulo Tavares’ and others, that these forests, in contrast to their Western perception at the time, were environments cultivated by human civilizations and imbued with their own conceptions of politics and law.
Accounts of these impenetrable forests reached seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe by colonial travelers, settlers, traders, and cartographers who had penetrated their dense biomass, unbearable heat and disease. This second encounter with the forest provoked European philosophers to think about the origins of society, savagery and human nature. From the perspective of these early moderns, the “state of nature” was now no longer separated from civilization in time—that is, a condition prior to the foundation of society and legal order—but rather coincided with it in space. Existing beyond this shifting boundary was an extra-territorial space, conceived under the imperial and racist framework of terra nullius which ignored the social structures and forms of ownership of indigenous people and regarded them as “part of the natural environment.”
Of the most challenging things Europeans recorded beyond the receding thresholds of the forests were great apes. Perceived as “intermediate animals,” these creatures embodied the ethical uncertainty that plagued the imperial process of colonization. From then on, as Donna Haraway explained in her groundbreaking Primate Vision, apes inhabited the blurry and murky border both between animals and humans and nature and culture. During early Enlightenment three limit conditions were thus brought into relation with each other: the threshold of the forest—a shifting environmental condition together with its unique climate; the threshold of the law—the political limit of territory and sovereignty; and the threshold of the human—a blurry limit to the human species. Each of the three of these then became, and continue to be, entangled frontiers; shifts made in one challenge all others.
Apes were first described as strange animals, monsters or satyrs, which were, following medieval iconography, a reflection of man’s drives, lust and sins. Gradually, however, their difference from monkeys started to be appreciated. Apes, like humans, have no tails, and questions regarding their potential humanity started to emerge. Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert and Helen Tiffin’s masterful Cultural History of the Orangutan is full of accounts of confused first encounters between Europeans and tropical apes. The first European description of an orangutan (which in its original Malay means “man of the forest”) was recorded by Nicolaes Tulp, a Dutch physician and eventual four-term mayor of Amsterdam, in 1641, and accompanied by an etching of a friendly and embarrassed looking female orangutan. The drawing emphasized her more human features, such as her smile and modest posture in covering her sexual organs with the palms of her hands. Along similarly blurry lines, Jacobus Bontius suggested that the “ourang outangs” were the result of intercourse between humans and beasts. And what the Scottish sea captain Alexander Hamilton actually saw when he described an orangutan that “blows his Nose, and throws away the Snot with his Fingers, can kindle a Fire, and blow it with his Mouth. And I saw one broyl a Fish to eat with his boyled Rice,” is ultimately unclear. Some travelers thought orang-utans to be one of the strangest and most exotic forest people of Southeast Asia. Others thought, that despite all these points of resemblance, just like other animals, orangutans were essentially different from humans in that they lacked a soul.
Though scientists now differentiate between four genera of great apes or hominids, in the eighteenth century the lines of differentiation were erratic. On the one hand, all of the more hairy, human-like creatures were referred to as “orangutans” regardless of whether they originated in Africa or Southeast Asia, and on the other, their relation to humans—this time being prior to the theory of evolution—was uncertain. Apes inhabited the thickness of the line between nature and culture, yet less often closer to human than beast than vice versa.
All that argued for the orangutan’s humanity had to concede that at the very least, compared to the human, the orangutan was imperfect. In the words of American primatologist Robert Yerkes, by being “almost human,” apes were perceived to be less than human. There were, of course, other groups considered by Europeans to be imperfectly human as well, like indigenous people and slaves. The interplay of the ape’s human proximity and imperfectness extenuated the philosophical, scientific and juridical problems of the time. Could apes be “perfected”? Taken out of the forest, could they be made to work in fields and cities, even introduced into civilized life? Could they become the subject of laws and rights?
These questions started a debate that ebbed and flowed over the next 300 years. Contemporary attempts by animal rights activists to extend a form of human-like rights to apes—some of which have been spectacularly successful—are argued on the basis of similarity between the species; on apes’ anatomical, genetic and mental proximity to humans. In recent years, primatologists have successfully mapped traits and proven characteristics as complex as mental and emotional consciousness, self-awareness, compassion, causal and logical reasoning—previously thought to be uniquely human—as existing in these “almost human” creatures. Such similarity has allowed activists to use the vocabulary originally conceived to refer to violence inflicted by humans to humans, such as genocide, incarceration, concentration camps and torture, to describe the human treatment of animals. Within the animal rights debate apes were not the only target of activists, yet they functioned as emissaries in crossing the nature/culture divide; once awarded to apes—based on their proximity to humans— rights could be extended to mammals and other sentient beings—based on their proximity to apes.
Climate Change as Human Change
Even the most militant of today’s environmentalists and climate activists tend to hold a form of perception that has already been largely discarded in other contexts such as human rights and anti-war activism: climate change is regarded as the “collateral damage” of history, such as the unintended by-product of industrialization. Seen from the point of view of eighteenth century colonial history, however, climate change is an intentional project: colonial administrators did not only seek to take control, tame and mast the physical reality of newly discovered lands, but to engineer and change the environments, including their cyclical climate patterns. The aim was to, on the one hand, increase precipitation and cool environments in places too hot and dry such as the American west, Australia, and later, after WWI, in “the Orient,” and on the other, to reduce humidity in inhospitable tropical environments. The term “climate change” was born not with the recent discovery of the devastating effects of global warming but in the late eighteenth century as a potentially positive, and thus potentially positive, consequence to the human husbandry of nature. David Hume, Hugh Williamson, Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster all held differing views about the human capacity—and the relative advantages—to effecting climate patterns across the expanding colonial frontier. While there were various techniques for affecting climate change such as draining of swamps, digging canals and constructing towns and cities, trees, practices of a- and de- forestation were most common. The American meteorologist James Espy, nicknamed the “Storm King,” for instance, believed that burning forests would create artificial clouds and irrigate deserts. Planting along desert thresholds, such as the twentieth century Zionist campaign to “make the desert bloom,” was conversely believed to reduce temperature and increase humidity. Despite the fact that an understanding of climate at the scale of the planet did not yet exist, small-scale changes were thought to be capable of causing not just local but long term change in climate cycle patterns. Once climate change was understood as a potential outcome of human action, the climate—like eventually the planet itself—came to be approached from a managerial, technocratic, and profit-oriented perspective as a design object; as a form of government over nature and man.
Some eighteenth century thinkers not only believed in the capacity of man to induce changes in the climate, but also the inverse; in the power of the climate to determine changes in humans and their social and political structures. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in one of his more overtly racist paragraphs (as did many other contemporary writers), while the frequent variation of seasonal weather in more northern latitudes gave the necessity for constant adaptation, and thus more developed societies with a stronger work ethic, the tropical climate, in which he thought seasons were less distinct. encouraged laziness, promiscuity and was degenerative to society. From such a perspective, salvation—of both people and environments—was offered only by the redeeming force of labor. Idle forests had to turn into productive fields in the same way that “primitive peoples trapped in ape-like indolence” would find a route to civilization in the forced labor of slavery. Changes in the climate were believed to lead to changes in the human and vice versa: anthropogenic “climate change” meant environmental “human change.” Where the climate was to change, so was man.
Rousseau and the Orangutan
In a long footnote to his 1754 Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men Jean-Jacques Rousseau unexpectedly turns his attention to the orangutan. His hilarious descriptions of the ape are clearly influenced by travelers’ accounts from late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, in that they “fall upon elephants who come to graze in the places where they live and make them so uncomfortable with punches or blows with sticks that they force them to run away screaming.” While they are evidently cunning, Rousseau’s orangutans also perform all of the other things Europeans attributed to them at the time, including enjoying fire, cooking and burying their dead. Rousseau also mentions that the orangutan erects in the trees “a kind of roof which keeps them covered from the rain.” The perceived sense of discomfort—evidenced by this architecture—reveals a gap, an imperfect connection between the ape and its indigenous environment. Such a gap is typical of humans, but in the perception of the eighteenth century, an animals’ relation to its environment must be immediate and perfect. The orangutans were, for Rousseau, human beings at the beginning of the process of civilization, and while never explicitly interpreted as such, the architecture of the orangutan could be seen as one of the first steps in such a process (or, in fact, the first slip on a slippery slope towards it, considering Rousseau’s well known ambivalence to civilization).
Unlike most of his contemporary writers, Rousseau’s argument for the humanity of the orangutan was not based on physical and behavioral resemblance, and he did not celebrate the orangutan as an archetypical “noble savage,” but rather that the ape shared a certain elasticity with humans; the capacity to learn, improve and perfect one’s self to make a “civil man above his original state.” Yet if the threshold of the human is indeed elastic, it is elastic in all directions: once you can “become human” you could also, depending on conditions, possibility, and of course value system, slide back across the border again and “become animal.” The model Rousseau found for crossing back over the line of the human were several reports of “wild childrens,” abandoned in the forest beyond the outlying villages of Europe who managed to survive by “becoming animals.” Rousseau mentioned a report about one such enfant sauvage found in 1694 in particular: the child “did not give any sign of reason, walked on this hands and legs, had no language, and formed sounds which bore no resemblance to those of a man,” yet was reportedly taught to speak quickly and readied “to (re)enter human society.”
The Dehumanization of Nature
Rousseau wrote at a time when barely half a dozen great apes had been scientifically examined. In 1777, two decades after Rousseau’s Discourse was published, a so called “orangutan war” erupted in the Netherlands. It started when a young ape brought from Borneo died. “War” is perhaps an overstatement, but the incident did involve a sharp exchange between two groups rallying around opposing figures: a taxidermist named Arnout Vosmaer, who had begun to prepare the body of the dead orangutan for display (in an upright position), and anatomist Petrus Camper, who wanted to dissect it for scientific purposes. After Camper’s better connections in the Dutch court were sufficient to get hold of the remains—which were already partly prepared for stuffing—his skeletal analysis identified that, contrary to contemporary pictorial representations, walking upright was anatomically impossible.
Yet beyond posture, the crucial element Camper searched for was the human source of language, which in the eighteenth century was thought to be the voice. Camper dissected, opened up and carefully documented the ape’s throat, and finally proclaimed the orangutan’s larynx—the organ housing the vocal cords essential for sound production and phonation—foreclosed to the possibility of anything resembling human speech. Without a humanlike larynx, he concluded that the orangutan could not become human. The threshold between man and animal, previously blurry and elastic, had thus become fixed in a position it stood for the following centuries. The dehumanization of the ape was one step taken among many during the turn of the nineteenth century away from the anthropocentric perspective of nature.
Camper’s exclusion of the orangutan from humanity took place at an important fold in history: the destruction of the Ancien Regime, a period bracketed by two important markers by which the ideology of humanism was ratified—the American Declaration of Independence and France’s revolutionary assembly’sDeclaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—and the beginning of the geological era of the anthropocene. (The era of human could seemingly only begin once the question of what is a human was decided.) These declarations had an ambivalent relation to the question of who or what is a human. On the one hand, both relied on a conception of humanity that is apparently clear and unchangeable—all men are “born and remain” what they are, their rights “inalienable” and “self evident” rather than, for example, having to evolve into rights (and out of them). Taken by their word, the declarations’ definition of the human seems static and eternal. However as Thomas Keenan, following historian Lynn Hunt, shows, the declarations’ ongoing dissemination and influence was precisely due to the fact that they did not define or fix what they meant by “human.” Yet its meaning in practice tended to exclude foreigners, landless, slaves and women. In these cases the biological threshold of the human obviously did not overlap with the effective threshold of rights or the law, which the ongoing struggle for human rights aims to make overlap.
Equality beyond the perceived biological threshold of the human is however a matter entirely distinct from equality between humans. Moreover, human rights claims are often articulated by reinforcing this very border, by marking the distinction between humans and animals. Many human rights claimants protest that they are human, not animals; that is to say, that they are on the side of the line where rights should be in force, but still treated as if they were on the other, like dogs, insects, apes or sheep. Such a threshold also tends to exist in the eyes of perpetrators of violence, for whom actions are often justified by the “animalization” of the stranger, the enemy, the terrorist, the indigenous or the barbarian. In the nineteenth century, pro-slavery politicians were, according to Cribb, Gilbert and Tiffin, more inclined to accept the possible humanness of the orangutan, for if the ape was part of humanity, humanity could more justifiably be stratified into a hierarchy of races, with white man on top, the orangutan at the bottom, and the pigmy, blacks and other peoples in between. These advocates of slavery also recalled a Javanese belief that the orangutan was able to speak but chose not to do so for fear of being put to work, taken as slave or made to pay taxes. Ape-like characteristics have been applied to indigenous peoples throughout history in order to justify slavery as an act of “civilization” and redemption. Abolitionists thus sought to keep the threshold of humanity tighter, and humanity smaller. Yet if human rights claims demand to be remedied by the “humanization” of people who are already human, what can remedy the violation of non-human rights?
Orangutan Rights (Notes for the Next Chapter)
Given that apes, like orangutans, were considered to be part of a fuzzy definition of humanity until being “expelled” at the end of the eighteenth century, current attempts at granting apes legal personhood and some form of non-human rights do not amount to a simple admission into an expanded humanity, but rather re-admission. Much has changed, however, in the intervening 240 years: the human population has grown sevenfold, undertaken colonialist, imperialist and genocidal projects, and destroyed the Earth’s ecosystem to the extent that it has now critically endangered its own survival. In so doing, humans have almost completely wiped out the ape population and concentrated the remaining survivors in tiny islands of forest. If, as some proponents of rights seem to suggest, the orangutan could want, would it want to join our species? Maybe. Maybe it would have no choice. Yet this reunion could take place along different terms than those of the perpetrators. If survival in the era of global warming indeed requires humans to consider themselves as belonging to one biological species amongst others, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the threshold of the human stands to be crossed in the opposite direction, away from homo sapien in a process of becoming-hominid. We would also, then, have to invert the problem of rights: rather than demand individual human rights for apes, we would rather need to seek something resembling “orangutan rights” for humans.