INTERVIEW

Strategies of life

"Animality haunts the human, and defining humans independently of the animal does not make much sense," writes Dominique Lestel. This ‘field' philosopher, who does not hesitate in observing primates in their natural environment and advising his doctoral students to do the same, is a senior lecturer at the ENS (Ecole normale supérieure) in Paris and director of the eco-ethology and cognitive ethology team at the Natural History Museum.

Dominique Lestel: “Humans have not emerged from the state of nature but has explored an extreme niche of that nature.” © Gamma/Frédéric Souloy
Dominique Lestel: “Humans have not emerged from the state of nature but has explored an extreme niche of that nature.” © Gamma/Frédéric Souloy
Wattana is able to tie and untie very complex knots. She seems to like doing it and nobody ever really taught her. She probably imitated what she saw her keepers doing. Two films on this subject were made in 2008 by Florence Gaillard & Chris Herzfeld: Funktionslust. Les noeuds de Wattana, orang-utan, Paris and Knotting Apes. The Case of Wattana, the orang-utan, Paris. © Chris Herzfeld, Wattana, Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes (MNHN, Paris)
Wattana is able to tie and untie very complex knots. She seems to like doing it and nobody ever really taught her. She probably imitated what she saw her keepers doing. Two films on this subject were made in 2008 by Florence Gaillard & Chris Herzfeld: Funktionslust. Les noeuds de Wattana, orang-utan, Paris and Knotting Apes. The Case of Wattana, the orang-utan, Paris. © Chris Herzfeld, Wattana, Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes (MNHN, Paris)

You have written a book entitled The animal origins of culture - and not "Animal culture" or "Animal cultures". Is it not rather iconoclastic to award ‘animality' a prerogative that many continue to regard as reserved for the human species?

Writing a book on animal culture would have meant that I was taking the human as the point of departure for understanding it. Speaking of the animal origins of culture indicates, on the contrary, that culture really does come from the animal and is not specific to the human but is rather a ‘strategy' that living creatures adopt to be able to develop. This apparent paradox calls into question our own identity, in particular through the relationships we can establish with the animal and the way we conceive of them.

Globally, two conceptions have co-existed since antiquity. One considers humans to be essentially different to the animal, while the other, established scientifically by Darwin, who considered humans as having descended from the animal, argues that what distinguishes humans from other species is simply a question of degree. As our knowledge of palaeontology and genetics progresses, this continuity between human and animal is becoming increasingly evident. With the development of the cognitive sciences, humans are no longer seen as being of a different nature but rather as equipped with a more complex body that, for example, gives him an ability to communicate more symbolically and with a propensity to retain traces of themselves.

During the late Palaeolithic period, Homo sapiens took an unprecedented direction, the notable feature of which was the invention of a particular culture. Does this attitude mark a break with nature and with ‘animality'? To me, culture seems to be a phenomenon particular to life that Homo sapiens pushed much further than other species; but which is also to do with the freedom certain animals gradually acquire over their organic constitution and the constraints of their environment. Even if they have a particular status, human cultures should not be credited with exceptional status from an evolutionist perspective. Humans have not emerged from the state of nature but have explored an extreme niche of that nature.

Animal and human cultures are separated by undeniable differences but they are comparable to what distinguishes a society of ants from a society of chimpanzees.

Today there are many books, debates and exhibitions on the subject of animals. Why this fascination?

It is a subject that calls into question our own identity. An identity that is conceived largely through the characterisation of the animal as an otherness with which humans develop sometimes very intense and sometimes very complex relationships. To define ourselves, humans need other points of reference in the living world, in particular animals with which we have always co-existed. Anyone who has lived with parrots or crows will tell you that it involves engaging in a continuous and very elaborate process of negotiation. Anthro - pologist Marcel Mauss already wrote that humans domesticated the dog but that the cat domesticated humanity.

Animal is not the machine to which Descartes reduced it - humans with a soul and thought, and animals with an exclusively phys- ical function that reduces them to automatons. The notion that animal is a machine makes no sense at all. Animals are a generator of meaning and remind us of what is common between us, of a dimension that humans conceal from themselves - especially the western intellectual - by neglecting their bodies and magnifying their minds and rationality, for example.

The domesticated animal - which goes beyond the notion of a pet - helps humans to conceive of their own place in the living world.It is also notable that when animals of different species live together - dog and sheep, dog and cat - it is through the intermediary of humans.

You are also interested in what you refer to as "singular animals".

We have been programmed to think of animality in terms of groups - zebras, magpies, bonobos, etc. But some animals cannot be reduced to the common competences of their species. One such example is Wattana, currently in the Netherlands and formerly at the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. This female orang-utan is able to tie and untie even complex knots. She simply likes doing it. Nobody really taught her how to do it and no other orang-utan does it. Certain individual animals have capacities - or rather ‘capabilities'(1) - that fellow members of their species do not possess. This means there is scope for cognitive innovation within a same species. It is interesting to ask the question as to whether these animals can benefit from this capacity to acquire behaviour, strategies or relationships with their environment that are different to those of others. One could imagine that these individuals play a major role in the group or species dynamic.

Wattana is in a zoo. The male who shared her cage showed a passing interest in knots, failed to have any success with them, got angry and started hitting her. Animals act or they do not act. They do not attempt the impossible...

Nobody taught Wattana to tie knots. But some researchers learned to ‘talk' to monkeys. What conclusions can we draw from this?

Beginning in the 1960s, experimental psychologists wanted to teach the great apes a symbolic language, as we know they are anatomically incapable of speech. So the choice was either for the sign language as used by the hearing and speech impaired or a symbolic language created for research needs. Warshoe, for example, a young chimpanzee, was taught over 130 signs by the American scientists Allen and Beatrix Gardner.

But there is also the question of what the primate actually does with this language. In fact it uses it principally as a tool with which to modify behaviour, whether of its fellow animals or humans. There are some intriguing aspects. For example, the chimpanzee always ‘speaks' in the present.

So you are saying that these chimpanzees do not relate stories with this language of which they have acquired a rudimentary command...

Even chimpanzees - yes them again, although they are not alone - are incapable of telling a ‘story' in the third person in which the subject of the story and the narrator are not the same. A primate that pretends to be an individual other than itself, to delude a third party, enters into a narrative structure, but the hero of the story is always the narrator. Nonhuman animals are also unable to tell stories that evoke impossible or imaginary elements.

I believe that these very particular stories of the human species have played a fundamental role in the unique structure of their society. The big difference between human societies and other societies is certainly not culture, as is often said, but the diversity of human cultures compared to other animal cultures.

Is the raising of all these new questions leading to a rethinking of ethology?

The question of animal cultures, and of associations between humans and animals, does indeed cause us to reconsider the meaning we give to ethology. When studying chimpanzees is it possible to ignore the relationship that is established between their culture and human culture? Do we not need to rethink ethology by extending it to the plant and the artefact? And why not open up ethology to animal culture? All these questions remain open. As a general rule, the dominant paradigm in ethology today, which is both realist (there is a reality that is independent of the observer) and Cartesian (the animal is a machine), is unsatisfactory. There is at least one other alternative, a constructivist alternative that considers the animal as a subject that interprets its senses and that creates its environment as much as it adapts to it.

Interview by Christine Rugemer

  1. Capability is a competence, also a cultural one, whereas capacity is to do with the cognitive field.
  2. Some works by Dominique Lestel: Les origines animales de la culture, Flammarion, 2001 - L'animal singulier, Seuil, 2004 - Les amis de mes amis, Seuil, 2007.

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