An increasingly blurred borderline

The spirit of Mimi and the python – Painting on eucalyptus bark by Peter Nambarlambarl – Australia, mid 20th century. Musée des Confluences, Lyon (FR). © Patrick
The spirit of Mimi and the python – Painting on eucalyptus bark by Peter Nambarlambarl – Australia, mid 20th century. Musée des Confluences, Lyon (FR). © Patrick

In a posthumous book(1), philosopher Jacques Derrida recounts a personal experience. Being naked, he suddenly catches sight of his cat staring at him. He feels very ill at ease, both ashamed of his nudity and ashamed of this sense of shame. "Ashamed of what, and naked to whom? Why do I allow myself be overcome with shame? And why this shame that blushes at being ashamed? In front of the cat which is looking at me naked, should I be unashamed like an animal that has no longer any sense of its nudity? Or on the contrary, should I be ashamed like a man who has retained a sense of nudity? What does this make me? Who am I? Whom can I ask, if not someone else? The cat, perhaps?"

These questions may seem strange. They clearly reflect, however, the questions on the status of the self and the other which, from time immemorial and in every situation, have traversed the interpenetration of what is called humanity and ‘animality', culture and nature, reason and instinct.

What is the current situation here in the Western world? Several recent European scientific projects have, it seems, seriously dented traditional ideas of ‘human specificity'. Palaeontologists and ethologists now refer to human primates and non-human primates. People are now daring to pronounce the words ‘intelligence', ‘language', ‘self-awareness', ‘socialisation', ‘individuality', ‘suffering' and ‘rights' in relation to animals. Geneticists find themselves confronted with DNA codes that are so indistinctive, despite being from animals that look so dissimilar, that it becomes difficult to deny the commonality of living animals. Perhaps we are beginning to understand - or admit - that humans and animals have for a long time shared a common destiny and that we are no more than a piece of that primitive life in which we are also mirrored.

But what is this primitive life becoming? Looking on the larger scale of the world, which it is becoming impossible to ignore - the situation is hardly cause for rejoicing. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), which keeps the world register of the state of health of animals and plants based on data supplied by thousands of scientists and conservationists the world over, is producing more and more admonitory reports every year. In 2007 the organisation listed 41 415 species, 16 306 of which are threatened with extinction (compared with 16 118 one year before). The total number of extinct species reached the figure of 795 and another 65 exist only in captivity. One mammal in four, one bird in eight, onethird of all amphibians and 70 % of all plants in the IUCN's ‘red list' of most fragile beings are endangered.

The one species which is not in the process of disappearing is humans. The global population has risen from about 1.65 billion in 1900 to 6.3 billion today, and the United Nations expects this figure to reach 9 billion in 50 years. Is this something to rejoice?

Christine Rugemer

  1. Jacques Derrida, L'animal que donc je suis, Galilée, Paris, 2006