Kelly Oliver


On her book Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human

Cover Interview of January 19, 2010

In a nutshell

Animal Lessons is about how philosophers throughout Western history have used animals to make the case that humans are special.  Philosophers have argued that humans are so unique that they have transcended their animality and become something entirely other.  In this book, I show how the animals “bite back” and betray the very service into which they have been corralled in the name of humanity.  Our concepts of the human, of kinship, of language, and even of human rights are borne on the backs of animals, whose importance to philosophy goes unacknowledged.  Philosophers unthinkingly use animals to develop their theories of the human subject and human nature.

What philosophers have called “man” learns to be human from those very animals against which he defines himself.  It is not just that the concepts of human and animal are intimately and essentially related in these texts, but also that animals themselves show man how not to be one of them.  It is not just that animals and animality remain excluded from the concepts human and humanity, or that they are the debased others against which what is properly human is defined and maintained, though this is certainly the case.  What is striking in these texts is the ways they rely on examples, illustrations, metaphors, and studies of animals that belie their central theses about the human subject and humanity.  It seems that the more adamantly these authors insist on an absolute distinction between man and animal, the more dependent their arguments on animal pedagogy become. 

In spite of the explicit message of these texts—that humans are radically distinct from animals—animals function to teach man how to be human.  Not surprisingly then, this animal pedagogy goes unacknowledged.  To acknowledge the dependence of man and humanity on animal and animality is to undermine man’s sense of himself as autonomous and self-sovereign, and to deny what he has considered his rightful place as lord over the creatures of the earth.