The Obscurantist Turn in Anthropology

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The Obscurantist Turn in Anthropology

Zoomania and Western Animalism

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Published in


2012/3 (No 203 – 204)

Pages 555 – 578


Imagine a traveler arriving in contemporary Europe or North America from another epoch or another planet. She could not fail to be struck, among so many other reasons for amazement, by the paradoxical status (to say the least) that we Westerners assign to animals. While we ruthlessly exploit some on an ever more massive scale—cattle, pigs, and poultry for example—we mollycoddle and indulge our pets almost like our own children. Even more astonishing is that some people find a militant cause in favor of animals that others reserve for their fellow humans. In Paris in the fall of 2010, in parallel to protests against pension reform, demonstrators took to the streets calling for more spacious cages for rabbits. This is what, after Ernest Hemingway (1932), I shall call the “animalarian” phenomenon. Others still, including well-respected scholars, talk learnedly of animalism as a given, as one “ontology” among others.


The variable use made of the word “animalism” here requires some focus. It may refer to the inclusion of animals in the sciences of man and society, in which sense animalism is not a modern phenomenon, as evidenced by now well established disciplines including archaeozoology (Chaix and Méniel 1996), ethnosciences including ethnozoology (Pujol and Carbone 1990), ethnozootechnie (Digard 2010), the ethnology of nomadic pastoralist societies (Équipe Écologie et anthropologie des sociétés pastorales, ed. 1979), or the anthropology of animal domestication (Digard 2009a). The word “animalism” may also mean the (recent, as we shall see) displacement of the social and cultural center of gravity from man to animals, in a kind of intellectual trend of animalarian activism. It is in this second sense, and only in this second sense, that the term “animalism” shall be used here.


The contrasts we I have just sketched out result from both societal changes and relatively recent intellectual developments.

Societal Changes

The “Modernization” of Livestock Farming


In a context dominated by the need to rebuild an economy destroyed by World War II, the traditional, versatile family farming practiced in France before the 1950s gradually became more concentrated, with farmers today representing less than one percent of the French population. It simultaneously intensified, with the multiplication of above-ground or “battery” techniques, and also became hyper-specialized, with distinct sectors for beef versus dairy cattle, for example, or broilers versus laying hens.


Changes elsewhere in the lifestyle of the French public have only amplified this trend. While the population has increased from 40 million after the war to 65 million today, meat consumption increased from some 50 kg to nearly 100 kg per person per year between 1950 and 1980, when it began regressing to around 90 kg today. We can safely say that total meat consumption in France has doubled since 1950.


These changes have necessarily affected the relationship between man and livestock, making it more impersonal, to the point of causing significant stress, as much among farmers as the animals they raise, as both parties are subjected to productivist pressures (Porcher, 2002).

The Expansion and Changing Nature of the Pet Phenomenon


Still in France, the number of pets has almost doubled in thirty years—they now number sixty million, including eleven million cats and eight million dogs. The number of households with pets has also increased, to 53%. What has changed above all is the cultural status of these animals (Digard 2005). Pets are now part of the family, treated like children, often even serving as substitutes for a child or a spouse for people living, although far from being invested with a uniquely cathartic function, or considered solely as a remedy against loneliness, they are seen, along with the house and garden, as part of the “plan for perfect happiness” of the average French family. Increasingly anthropomorphized, they are the object of massive indulgence. Nothing is too good or too expensive for them, be it their food, their care, or their health—hence the proliferation of veterinary clinics across the country.


The phenomenon, widespread in a population ever more urbanized, or “rurbanized”—in any case profoundly cut off from its distant country roots—the dominant model of the pet also tends now to encompass other categories of animals, including various domestic animals (ferrets, rabbits, and dwarf pigs), commensals (rats and mice), or exotic creatures (lizards, various snakes, and tarantulas) which recent fashion has promoted to a particular status in France known as the “new pets” (nouveaux animaux de compagnie). The horse, an “intermediate” animal has, since it left the sphere of utility for that of leisure, become the third favorite animal of the French after dogs and cats, its status tending towards that of pet (Digard 2007, 195–200). Finally, we have wildlife, to which hundreds of hours of tear-jerking broadcast documentaries are devoted, where wolves, bears, big cats, and sharks are presented as peaceful and harmless creatures remorselessly persecuted by the diabolical human species without reason when it would be far more accurate and more enlightening to speak of the “trophic cascades” triggered by declining populations of these large predators (Estes et al., 2011).


In the system of relations between the French and the animal world, wildlife (incidentally ever less “wild” as it is managed and regulated, reconstituted, protected, and artificially fed) occupies a symmetrical and opposite position to that of pets: symmetrical because the two categories of animals enjoy the same pinnacle status, and share the same “uselessness;” [1]  By definition, wild animals are the subject of no exploitation…[1] opposite because, while pets represent the summit of anthropomorphization and are appreciated for their closeness, wild animals instead owe their aura to the (partly illusory, as we have seen) sentiment that they are “free” of all human action, not “contaminated” by man, who is perceived by the modern environmental Manichaeism as the very embodiment of evil.

The Widening Gap between Livestock and Pets


The conjunction of the phenomena mentioned in the previous two sections thus reveals a clear hierarchy between plebian livestock animals and a patrician class of pets. While the latter are omnipresent and manifestly overvalued, the former appear all the more marginalized, hidden, and as despised as they are intensely exploited. The difference has been amplified by a historically constant trend since the late Middle Ages toward the miniaturization of pets, and a mastodonization of farm animals.


And the gap continues to widen between livestock and pets: between the ostracism of the first and the ostentatious exhibition of the second, under the influence of concentration, specialization, and growing industrialization in dairy and meat farming, in parallel with the excessive commercialization of the pet phenomenon. These activities represent a considerable budget [2]  In France, the average household budget devoted to…[2] with proportional annual turnover of close to four billion Euros! Faced with this blessed windfall, the food industry is less and less reluctant to pluck the sentimental heartstrings in its advertising campaigns, contributing ever more to the excessive anthropomorphization of pets. [3]  With its attendant accoutrements—Ô my dog perfume for…[3]

The Radicalization of the Animalarian Movement


The world of animal welfare is a nebulous complex, counting some 280 associations in France alone (Burgat, 1997b), from the “Friends of the Turtle” to the veteran although not always venerable Société pour la protection des animaux, founded in the mid-nineteenth century, to which we can add the highly successful Brigitte Bardot Foundation (especially active in the legal arena), or the League for Animal Rights.


The transformation here relies on four concomitant phenomena, first among them the gradual shift from the concept of “animal protection,” conceived as a compassionate human duty, towards the notion of “animal rights” and, for the most radical militants, to that of “animal liberation” in the name of “anti-speciesism.” These concepts, popularized by Peter Singer (1975), call for a few immediate observations. Anti-speciesism is defined in opposition to speciesism, the attitude of refusing to other species that which is claimed for one’s own. Under this principle, anyone opposing the death penalty for humans, for example, should logically also refuse the slaughter of animals for food, along with hunting, fishing, and the eradication of predators, pests, parasites, and so forth. The notion of speciesism is based on that of racism for the human species, although the two clearly have nothing in common. While the monstrous nature of racism springs from the non-existence of races among humans, speciesism is an absurdity, since species most certainly do exist, with a biological content that places usually impassable genetic barriers between them (except in rare cases of hybridization). Anti-speciesism is therefore nothing but a philosophical choice, seeking to justify itself a posteriori by means of misunderstood or deliberately falsified scientific arguments. Thus man and chimpanzee are presented as almost equal by virtue of the 98 % of genes they have in common, forgetting the two percent of “key” or “switch” genes that make all the difference; the word “animal” is always presented in the singular, in order to give it a symmetry with the word “human,” despite the existence of tens of millions of animal species, making the idea of maintaining identical relationships ludicrous.


The second aspect of this radicalization is in the way the animalarian cause is now actively promoted, supported, and pushed with national and international authorities using extremely powerful and organized Anglo-Saxon lobbying techniques, while on the ground, there are small, extremely active groups, some of them so violent as to be classified in the United States as a terrorist threat second only to Islamic jihadism. [4]  See the well-documented crime novel by Jean-Claude…[4]


Thirdly, animalarian claims are sucked into a spiral of runaway feedback which leads inexorably to extremes. Thus, for example, we have seen, at the “Rencontres Animaux et Société,” organized in the spring of 2008 by the French Ministry of Agriculture, the demand for “animal welfare” (Burgat and Dantzer 2001) change firstly into a demand for animals to be defined as “sentient beings” in Civil Law, in an intermediate category between people and property—with all the legal and economic consequences one might imagine—and then later into a claim for animal rights, with the self-proclamation in 1978 of the “Universal Declaration of Animal Rights,” a simulacrum of the human equivalent. More generally, the same logic often drives vegetarians to become vegans and vegans to become “veganians,” opposed to all breeding and use of animals, while “deep ecology” concerns itself with the defense of trees, fruits and vegetables in the name of anti-speciesism. It is, as ever, the same logic which ultimately leads anti-speciesism to indict and demonize man, and to be itself transformed into anti-human speciesism, and ultimately into anti-humanism.


Fourth and finally, there is much to say on the subject of the all-pervasive use in French of “bien-être animal,” a mistranslation of the English “welfare” with misleading connotations of comfort and fulfillment, where a simple rendering of “correct treatment” would be more appropriate (Picard, Porter, and Signoret 1994). Far from being an expression of “the right balance,” [5]  As Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer would have us believe…[5] we have instead in French a subjective and hypocritical deception (see Bourdon 2003; Digard 2009b, 102–105; Porcher 2004 and 2011, 109–117). Should one want to adopt the animals’ point of view, the necessary criteria may be very difficult to establish. If it is to be the perspective of animal farmers that is chosen, one cannot fail to wonder which of them would be incompetent or stupid enough to deliver animals, barring accidents, in a condition unfit for the market. For certain corporate technocrats, “animal welfare” is used cynically to impose production standards they know in advance to be beyond the means of poorer producers. And finally, what are we to make of these conscienceless agronomists and animal scientists working away on the preparation of “welfare” criteria (satiety, sleep, comfort) for European livestock animals, which remain unknown to a good third of humankind?

Intellectual Developments


Zoomania and Western animalarian activism might appear as harmless fancies if they were not accompanied, comforted, encouraged, and supported by other developments which might be called “intellectual” (if not “scientific”), which have contributed step by step to the emergence of animalism.

A Slow Reverse in the Hierarchy of Values Since the Eighteenth Century


These developments have occurred within a context which can be described by a slow but steady transformation, over the course of centuries, of ideas and sensibilities related to nature and animals, particularly through the spread of environmentalism (not to be confused with ecology) which, after finding its roots in nineteenth-century romanticism—where it questioned the preeminent place of Man in favor of that of Nature—is set to become perhaps the dominant ideology of the twenty-first century. In an extension of romantic sensibilities, environmentalism is founded on a Manichean view of the world, characterized by a pessimistic perception of man as essentially harmful, and an angelic and idealized vision of nature, deemed fundamentally good and beautiful.


Emerging in the wake of the French Revolution, ideas of compassion towards, and protection of animals began to be implemented practically from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, with the founding of the SPA in 1845 and the passing in 1850 of the Grammont law forbidding the mistreatment of domesticated animals in public (Agulhon 1981; Pelosse 1981, 1982). These ideas gained renewed popularity at the end of the nineteenth century with the convergence of the protectionist and feminist movements, the latter regarding both women and animals as the victims of men. [6]  See Adams (1995) and Pierre (1997) who distinguishes…[6]


Behind all this, it is impossible to ignore the slow erosion of Enlightenment humanism under the combined pressure of triumphant capitalism and postmodernist ideologies. The flip-side of the idealization of nature and compassion towards animals is the demonization of Man, or at least his abasement, accentuated with the end of the great “isms” (with the exception of cynicism), as the West entered “postmodernity” (Lyotard 1979) or “supermodernity” (Balandier 2005), both characterized by a hyper-relativism in which “anything goes,” by a “liquid life” in which everything is disposable (Bauman 2006), by change for change’s sake, and by the widespread blurring of differences—between the sexes, between generations, between freedom and individualism.


This is the general ideological environment in which we begin to see, in the human and social sciences as well as in certain adjacent domains, several new approaches to the question of relationships between humans and animals.

Contemporary Accelerations and Amplifications


An extensive bibliography, especially in English, shows the magnitude and influence of these extensions. [7]  In addition to the references below, see the many others…[7] Multiple fields or currents of thought can be distinguished.


First, chronologically, since they lay claim to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), animalist philosophers have erected a simplistic denunciation of the theory of the “animal-machine” they wrongly attribute to Descartes, confused with Malebranche (Cottingham 2009). Whether or not they confess their “inability to define anything proper to man alone” (Fontenay 1998, 13), what they have in common is to seek to minimize or erase any difference between the human animal and non-human animals. [8]  See, in diverse forms and to varying degrees: Chapouthier…[8] Hence questions asked with a straight face as if in some parody of a paradigm, like “is my dog free?” (Dortier 2008). The philosophical current of animalism is part of a broader environmentalist philosophy, which considers that “we cannot separate that which proceeds from human actions and what is of the order of natural forces: hence the need for a non-anthropocentric morality, promoting nature to the status of a subject to be respected” (Dalsuet 2010), a profession of faith perfectly representative of what might be termed “postmodern romanticism.” The noise of this current tends to drown out the few discordant voices, those of Luc Ferry (1992), Jean-Marie Meyer, and Patrice de Plunkett (2008), or Florence Eibl (2010) among them and, despite his importance and reach, even that of Francis Wolff (2010).


In the wake of animalist philosophy, from which it takes its intellectual justification, animalarian activism works for a different treatment of animals (Digard 2009b), although with, as we have seen, a difference of degree, between a conventional route on the one hand, which considers animals as objects of law to which man has a duty (protection, good treatment) and, on the other hand, a new and more radical route advocating that animals, like people, should be subjects of law. So claims the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Animal” (singular!) of 1978, or the “Report on the Legal Status of the Animal” (singular again!) submitted in 2005 to the French Minister of Justice by Suzanne Antoine, a magistrate supporting changes to Civil Law (Coulon and Nouët 2010).


The developments in question also concern several scientific disciplines. In ethology, not so long ago, violence and domination were the great explanatory principles of animal behavior (Lorenz 1969). Today, these concepts have given way to those of cooperation and solidarity. Thus, the “ideal family” can be found among mongooses (Rasa 1990) while baboons are “almost human” (Strum 1990). In parallel to this paradigm shift, a double movement has taken place. First, a movement abolishing special classification for humans, initiated by sociobiologists intending to study humans as animals (human animals) using biology alone. [9]  Edward O. Wilson (1975), who was one of the main promoters…[9] This movement gained traction after the publication of Desmond Morris’s book (1967), with an ethological trend less concerned with methodological rigor than with pumping a juicy editorial vein (De Waal 2006; Picq 2012). The second movement, a corollary of the first, involves a promotion of animals to phylogenetic and taxonomic positions not so far removed from that of man, where animals “think” (Griffin 1984) and have “culture.” [10]  Thomas Marshall (1995) for dogs, (2004) for cats; Joulian…[10] In fact, ethologists who find “culture” among animals mobilize a minimal definition of the concept for this purpose, one which biologists have long used to denote “everything in the behavior of an animal, which is acquired in its lifetime in imitation of other members of the population, and is not genetically transmitted” (Dubois 2008)—a definition that is clearly far from that of the anthropologists (Godelier 1998).


In the United States, an effort to synthesize these various movements has emerged under the term “animal studies” which advocates an “ethology for the humanities” and a “critical epistemology” of ways of thinking about human-animal relationships, ways of thinking they consider to be “polluted by our notions of that which is unique to man.” Dominique Lestel, one of their main representatives in France (his own claim), replicates and extends the idea of “hybrid” societies and sociability into wherever human societies develop special, non-symbiotic, and non-predatory relationships involving a “sharing of meaning, interest, and emotions” in “sometimes very complex and highly creative arrangements” with at least “one other animal species” (my emphasis) or even with robots (Lestel 2006).


The last, but not the least important intrusion of animalism into the scientific field has borrowed the traits of a poststructuralist, monistic, and hyper-relativistic critical anthropology. Under this provisional and imprecise label I give the place of honor to the approach of Philip Descola in Par-delà nature et culture (2005). Remember that this author places on the same level, in a unique “system of distribution of properties,” four ontologies which he designates using classic terms—naturalism (“modern ontology”), animism, totemism, and analogism—although taken in new directions, based on the similarity or difference of the interiorities or physicalities of “existants,” living beings, things, or spirits (Descola 176). I have argued elsewhere (Digard 2006) about all the reservations this “world folded into four” inspires in me (Libération, November 17, 2005). Having struggled to rid ourselves of obsolete anthropological categories, are we now supposed to cram societies and cultures into one or other of these four ontologies? And besides, why four rather than three or six? And why no “fetishism,” which has tormented thinkers from Charles de Brosses to Freud and Lacan? Whatever, I doubt very much that any of these ontologies apply, and I certainly do not see how they are a step forward, but they are not my target here. The criticism I wish to make of Philippe Descola addresses another particular but essential aspect of the model he proposes: motivated by the (questionable) fact that it is “now hard to act as if nonhumans are not everywhere at the very heart of social life” (Descola 2005, 15) our author intends to recast the field and the tools of anthropology “in order to include in its scope more than the anthropos, all existants related to it, relegated at present to the function of entourage” (Ibid.). In the Descolian project, then, anthropology would no longer be the science of man, but that of “existants.” In this, Philip Descola has done no more than follow Bruno Latour whose “symmetrical anthropology” (2001) proposed “expanding the range of actors” to include the “nonhuman” (Latour 2006, 93–101) an idea that had already been doing the rounds of several American university campuses for some time.


The first risk generated by this ambition is the dilution of both the anthropological discipline and its purpose, which have no need of it. What would become of an entomology that decided to include all arthropods in its scope? The second risk is that Par-delà nature et culture—a brilliant and erudite book—encourages and vouches for currents of thought which are singularly lacking, giving them an unmerited luster. One might indeed fear that the widened anthropology advocated by Philippe Descola will awaken a vocation in any number of imitators, inspiring works that would be scientific in name only, work that environmental extremists, blind followers of the “anti-speciesism,” supported by a few misguided philosophers, are sure to seize upon to fuel and justify their most utopian dreams of a “new contract” or a “fusion” with nature, or again, of “animal liberation,” all excesses which obviously only complicate the problems and obscure the solutions.

Recent Events and Publications


The various disciplines and schools of thought that have just been mentioned are fertile ground on which symposia and publications have continued to proliferate over the last ten years. While remaining in the field of the human and social sciences, they have in common the goal of erasing the difference between man and animals. For brevity, the anthology below will be limited to France.


The floodgates of animalism in anthropology were opened in 2000 by a special issue of Terrain entitled “Do Animals Think?” (Les animaux pensent-ils ?) with an introduction by Gérard Lenclud and contributions from Frederick Joulian, Joëlle Proust, Véronique Servais, and a number of others, in reply to which I immediately issued an alarmed and premonitory review (Digard 2000).


A multitude of followers sprang up in the furrow plowed by Philippe Descola and / or Dominique Lestel (paternity is difficult to establish as the offspring are unrecognizable). Among these, Albert Piette, professor of ethnology at Amiens and later Nanterre, advocates “an ethnography of the socio-animal experience” (Piette 2002), while his pupil Marion Vicart, engaged in observing her dog Moksha or a female macaque encountered in the Kintzheim forest in Alsace, exercises “equitable phenomenography” (VIcart 2008, 2010). Dominique Guillo published an “interspecies sociology” essay on “anthropocanine societies” (Guillo 2009, 294). Meanwhile Sophie Houdart concerns herself, more broadly and less frustratingly, but no less equivocally, with appealing to “nonhumans” to “repopulate the social sciences” (Houdart and Thiery 2011). Reading all these authors, one wonders whether the social sciences are not more lacking in rigor than objects of study, and what they have to gain by becoming even more chaotic than they already are.


These doubts have evidently failed to worry researchers who have recently grouped into networks around animal rights issues. The first, to date and to my knowledge, is the IPRAZ Association (Imaginaires, pratiques, relations anthropozoologiques) founded by Emmanuel Gouabault of the University of Geneva, and Jerome Michalon of Saint-Etienne University, which first met at a symposium entitled “Relations anthropo-zoologiques [11]  The proceedings of this symposium were published in…[11] in 2008, followed by a second at the University of Geneva in 2010 and a third at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure in Lyons in 2011. Meanwhile, in Le Mans in 2009, the newspaper Le Monde dedicated its “Philosophy Forum” to the question “Who are the animals?” (Qui sont les animaux?). In the acts of these meetings (Birnbaum 2010), one can find several features or indices of an “animalist turn” in anthropology, including this one, from Frédéric Keck, also author of a vast survey on the collective fear of bird flu, analyzed as a “myth” (Keck 2010a):


The social sciences were constituted in the nineteenth century to answer the question: Do working classes and colonized peoples have same rights as the European elite?’ […]. Today the social sciences can reply to the “animal question,” do animals have the same rights as humans, and how are they to be applied in farms and laboratories?

(Keck 2010b: 136–137)


More recently, on January 17, 2011, the Maison Européenne des Sciences de l’homme et de la société in Lille was the venue for an international symposium, “Animal Studies, French Perspectives” (Études animales, perspectives françaises), at which several symptomatic communications were presented. Besides the now inevitable “Challenging the Cartesian system of the ‘animal-machine,’” here recited by Peter Sahlins, who came in expressly from Berkeley, delegates heard Catherine Rémy (CNRS) talk about the study of “hybrid relations” and the “common corporeality” of men and animals; Pierre Serna (University of Paris 1) asked “Was the Animal a Citizen Like Any Other During the French Revolution?;” Eric Baratay (University of Lyon 3) spoke of his project to “Write History from the animal’s point of view […] to see how they live, perceive, and feel the historical phenomena into which men lead them.” The latter comes from an author who also develops his questioning in a book of highly directed erudition (Baratay 2012) whose purpose is essentially to reduce relationships between animals and men throughout history to an uninterrupted litany of appalling treatment of the former by the latter, so exaggerated that it would indeed be surprising were the animals not to feel hard done by—QED! In the same vein, also in 2012, a special issue of Études rurales entitled “Animal Sociability” (189) was published comprising, among other audacious pieces, an ethnography of a herd of cows worth its weight in hay, concocted by Florent Kohler of the University of Tours—one of the new champions of the “anthropology of non-humans.”


Finally, and at the risk of boring the reader, how can we not mention the repeated conferences, without publications, whose only purpose seems to be to occupy the terrain, always reuniting the same people, who keep circulating the “good word” in a loop, with never a soul to contradict them? At the Cerisy conference between July 2 and 9, 2010 on “What We Know of Animals” (Ce que nous savons des animaux), the program insisted on the “multiplicity” of the knowledge in question—a position immediately contradicted by the list of participants, the same faces as always, and only them: Vinciane Despret, Raphael Larrère, Florence Burgat, Georges Chapouthier, Isabelle Stengers, and so on; in October 2011, in Rennes, after Abu Dhabi, Cape Town, Delhi, London, New York, Oslo, San Francisco, Newcastle (Australia, 2009), Sydney (in 2010) and before Utrecht (in 2012), yet another conference on “Minding Animals” with, as ever for the French, Florence Burgat, Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer…


And as if the extension of the field of anthropology beyond reasonable boundaries were not enough, these pioneers of animalist anthropology appear to stop at no interpretative excess. The mildest form of this excess is the abuse—not to say imposture—of metaphor. Here is an example from an exhibition entitled “Beasts and Men” (Bêtes et hommes) held at the Parc de la Villette in Paris between September 12, 2007 and January 20, 2008, curated by Vinciane Despret. To a question from journalist Bertrand Le Gendre on the presence of otters and vultures displayed in cages at the entrance to the exhibition, Vinciane Despret replied that the animals were “our guests […] here to testify on behalf of other animals” (Le Monde, October 7, 2007). A second example is taken from the book Humains, non-humains. Comment repeupler les sciences sociales, already quoted (Houdart and Thiery, eds. 2011), to which, by the way, Le Monde des Livres of February 4, 2011 devoted two pages,entitled “Making room for non-humans” (Faire une place aux non-humains). Studying the use of bivalve molluscs of the genus Corbicula as “biological sentinels” for the condition of fresh water courses, two of the book’s contributors wrote “With the agreement of other living organisms authorized by scientists to speak for the rivers, Corbicula could certainly suggest alternative ways to [engage with] the environment” (Gramaglia and Sampaio da Silva 2011, 232). On reading this, one cannot help but imagine Eric Baratay indignantly enquiring if these vultures, otters, and mollusks have been asked for their permission.


The malignant form of excess is interpretative, fortunately most often a caricature, more laughable than credible. Again, two examples. Having observed the behavior of young chimpanzees of both sexes playing with sticks, two Harvard researchers in ethology (Kahlenberg and Wrangham 2010) concluded that males use them as weapons and females as dolls. The gold medal, however, undoubtedly has to go to this, taken from Cédric Sueur’s doctoral thesis, defended in Strasbourg in 2008, entitled “Participatory Democracy in Monkeys” (De la démocratie participative chez les singes), a comparative study of the influence of relationships on the organization of group treks in two species of monkeys. [12]  The thesis in question has, moreover, been awarded…[12] The author observed the behavior of a troop of macaques foraging, the troupe hesitating between a fruit tree and a water point before splitting between the two, only for the minority party to rejoin the majority troupe. The author’s conclusion—it was monkeys, and not men, who invented democracy (here confused with gregariousness)!


The surprising anthology we have just browsed through confirms, as if there were a need, the most pessimistic diagnosis: yes, an animalist turn is happening in anthropology. At the rate things are going, I also would not be surprised one day soon to see some (as they say nowadays) “innovative” researcher try to convince us that we are not born human or animal, but that we become so, and that to think otherwise is dreadfully “essentialist”—the supreme insult in the present climate. Even worse, the development seems to make the worst-case scenario suggested by Philippe Muray more likely. Not without a certain black humor he says, “To rid itself of humanity, the new [‘hyperfestive’] civilization, is actively […] zoologizing it” (Muray 2010, 68). And further:


When this positive action for equal opportunities in the animal world has borne fruit, and anomalies that previously seemed natural or inevitable have become inadmissible, then all the capitals of the world will organize gigantic street festivities, Zoo Pride marches or Animal Parades […]. Thus a sort of global Revolution Day would be celebrated, the day of abolition of speciesism, where the centuries old crime of distinguishing a human from an animal world would finally be concluded. Such an abolition, of course, would also spell the beginning of the hunt for the last animophobes, with the introduction of new instruments of criminal law […]. Thus also, and to unanimous applause, a new legal loophole would be closed.

(Muray 2010, 474-475)


But already reality exceeds fiction, at least in horror. Since May 2011 in the United States, condemned prisoners on death row have been executed by injection of anesthetic designed for animals (Le Monde, May 19 and 21, 2011).

Summary and Outlook

There is No Independent History of Ideas


Popular zoomania, popular animalism, and intellectual animalism are linked, partially overlap and feed each other. While zoomania has aroused a “politically correct” attitude which generates misanthropy, [13]  I must have heard “The more I know people, the more…[13] animalist theories, for their part, are the germs of a new obscurantism: they feed the denial of what is proper to man, a denial that wants to see only biological continuity with other species, and remains blind to the hiatus between that which humans and animals create and do, a step-difference which is witness to an evolutionary leap, both qualitatively and quantitatively, in a genetic and neurological hominization process which has been going on for no less than twenty-five million years! Animalist theories are involved in an attempt to discredit science, rushing in the same direction as those who present science as a just one discourse or “ontology” among any number of others. By a kind of perverse process, the sciences of man and society, on the very grounds that everything is not just matter, seem particularly taken with this process of undermining: by focusing more on representations than on practice and / or by confusing the one with the other; in giving room to their pansymbolist and metaphorist inclinations, allowing them to say anything at all as well as its opposite (the paragon of this trend has to be Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009)), they seem to be blissfully driving a wedge between themselves and the physical and biological sciences, which in turn look back with ridicule and contempt, as demonstrated by adjectives such as “soft sciences,” or books like Intellectual Impostures (Sokal andBricmont 1997) and more recently Bullshitology (Frankfurt 2005; see also Elster 2010). If there is an animalist turn in anthropology, there is no doubt, therefore, that it is also an obscurantist turn.


In order not to close on this pessimistic note, and at the risk of aggravating my case as clinging to a dying humanism, or some vestige of antiquated positivism, I would like to conclude by trying to identify a few perspectives, in spite of everything.

A Synthesis is Possible


During the last twenty years certain intellectual and scientific turns stand out: the animalist paradigm; leaving behind the nature / culture opposition; the Naturalistic Turn by Brian Leiter (2004), and so on. This much is accepted by both those who are part of this trend (Dortier 2010) and by its critics (Wolff 2010). Both describe the current developments as the replacement of a paradigm—that of “structural man” (Wolff 2010)—by a new paradigm, that of “neuronal man.”


Is there not another way of looking at things? Aren’t the two approaches complementary, even indivisible?


It seems to me that it would be more scientifically productive to aim for continuity and / or collaboration rather than opposition between the sciences of man and society and the life sciences, between social / cultural anthropology and physical / biological anthropology. I am referring here to the work of neuroscientists such as Lionel Naccache on the differences between information and knowledge (2010) or Antonio Damasio on the human brain as a social organ constructed by contact with other brains (2010). Reading these, one begins to think that our “humanities” will soon no longer have much to bring to the discussion with the discoveries of neuroscience. Is it not within such a unified framework that we might reconsider the distinction between “nature”—that which is “given”—and “culture”—that which is “cultivated”—if is true that culture is part of the nature of man?

For a Positive Approach to Cultural and Social Facts


A moment ago I was mocking the propensity of anthropologists to let some of their more esoteric tendencies allow them to say everything and its opposite, and thus to be driving a wedge between themselves and the “hard sciences.” Why have we not sufficiently reflected on the shortcomings and faults that Claude Levi-Strauss blames on philosophical education given in the chapter “How to Become an Ethnographer” (Comment on devient ethnographe) in Tristes Tropiques? Over half a century later, Vincent Debaene made a fresh attempt, evoking “a French exception” (Debaene 2010, 86). While the Anglo-Saxon anthropologists focus on “the rules of succession, economy, and land tenure,” their French counterparts prefer to look at “art and mythology” or “make films”; the former write “soberly and analytically,” the latter “lyrically and expressively”; the former are endowed with “pragmatism,” the latter with a “speculative and philosophical temperament” (Debaene 2010, 86). Whatever one thinks of these somewhat Manichean assessments (also rather overly indulgent toward our Anglo-Saxon colleagues), it must be recognized that French anthropologists, with a few exceptions, have shown far greater intellectual agility than real scientific rigor.


In addition to a rapprochement with biology, already mentioned as desirable, anthropology urgently needs to seek a positive approach to social and cultural facts if it hopes to keep its status as a science. By this I mean an approach where the interpretation of facts is strictly regulated and controlled. There is no question of exposing such a program here. Its main elements are in any case well known, and it would be sufficient to implement them with maximum rigor. I will confine myself here to a reminder of four of them:


1) The careful preparation and description, as precise and as objective as possible, of a corpus of facts, is the basis of ethnology; it is also sometimes an end in itself, as the meticulous description of the “how” is often sufficient to reveal the “why.”


2) A distinction must be made between practices, which are observable realities, and representations, which are operations of thought, transmitted only through discourse. For example, the material facts show that hunter societies who attribute humanity to wild animals kill and eat them with actions no different from those performed elsewhere by other hunters who do not—except in the representations that each makes of their respective actions. This principle is opposed, it will be understood, to the constructivist concept, for which there are no realities other than the representations the social participants make of them. Of course practices and representations are related. The accent on the practical I advocate needs to be understood (to paraphrase Jean-Pierre Changeux), not as “an ideological [or ‘materialist,’ according to a suspicion that has always weighed against this methodological orientation] positioning, but simply as the most reasonable working hypothesis” because it is the most positive, in the sense that it is the one that leaves the least room for the uncertainties of interpretation. Changeux also illustrated his point with a quote from John Stuart Mill “If it is materialistic to look for the material bases of mental operations, all theories about the mind must be materialistic or insufficient.” (Changeux 1983, 363). Basically, I argue for a return to materialism, this methodological materialism.


3) Knowledge of cultures is not limited to their members’ views of them. In other words (to borrow a quip from Christian Bromberger), it is not enough to proffer a microphone to be an ethnographer (think of the emic / etic opposition). The ethnologist must submit the native discourse to criticism—Who speaks? About what? To whom? In what context?—in the same way that historians carry out a critique of their sources (archives, chronicles, and inventories). Native discourse is not to be placed on the same plane as the scientific approach, which assumes—whether the postmodern deconstructionist likes it or not—specific methods of investigation, criticism, comparison, verification of the facts, of evaluation of methods, and methods of evaluation.


4) Finally, science, let alone anthropology, are not the preserve of the West; they are universal—we must at the very least try to give them this dimension—and while a certain amount of relativism is necessary to understand the cultural diversity that is the responsibility of ethnology, radical relativism does little, in my opinion, to advance knowledge of the identity and unity of the human species, which in my view is the heart of the entire anthropological project.


I hope the reader will forgive me these few simplifications. Even if the current climate casts me as the dissenter, I think I’ll represent the orthodox position sooner rather than later. Animalism will retreat before the evidence, and—let us hope we realize it before it is too late—anthropology will be scientific… or it will simply no longer be.


The material in this article was the subject of an oral communication given at the International Symposium organized by Frédéric Keck and Noëlie Vialles at the Collège de France, between June 22 and 24, 2011 on the theme “An Animalist Turn in Anthropology?” (Un tournant animaliste en anthropologie ?). There is at present no news about any publication of the proceedings of this conference, and given the seriousness and pressing nature of the topic, I preferred not to wait any longer to enjoy the hospitality that the editors of L’Homme kindly offered me.


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[1] By definition, wild animals are the subject of no exploitation for commercial, industrial, or commercial ends. Hunters themselves are in no way reliant on their game for food.

[2] In France, the average household budget devoted to pets, especially for their food, is equal to that of all non-private transport used, airplane and boat travel included.

[3] With its attendant accoutrements—Ô my dog perfume for dogs, and canine fashion shows by stylist Marie Poirier.

[4] See the well-documented crime novel by Jean-Claude Rufin (2007) and the sociological survey by Isacco Turina (2010).

[5] As Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer would have us believe (2008).

[6] See Adams (1995) and Pierre (1997) who distinguishes and opposes “utility protection” for public education, and “sensibility protection” which brings misanthropy.

[7] In addition to the references below, see the many others listed by Chartrand and Duhaime (2002).

[8] See, in diverse forms and to varying degrees: Chapouthier (1990); Burgat (1997); Larrère and Larrère (1997); Fontenay (1998); Jeangène Vilmer (2008).

[9] Edward O. Wilson (1975), who was one of the main promoters of this idea, is a specialist in ants. See also Christen (2009).

[10] Thomas Marshall (1995) for dogs, (2004) for cats; Joulian (2000) for chimpanzees.

[11] The proceedings of this symposium were published in the journal Sociétiés (2010, 108). Liege: De Boeck.

[12] The thesis in question has, moreover, been awarded the dissertation prize awarded by Le Monde in the category “Sciences exactes”!

[13] I must have heard “The more I know people, the more I like animals” a hundred times during my investigations in France (Digard 2005, 194).



The relations between people and animals in the West are undergoing amazing changes: an intensified exploitation of livestock, the omnipresence and overestimation of pets, and the idealization of wild animals. New forms of sensitivity (compassion) are emerging, and even an activism on behalf of animals that demonizes human beings. This contemporary zoomania and animal activism would amount to harmless fads if they did not coincide with, and were not reinforced by, other intellectual (scientific?) trends having to do with: animal philosophy, a new ethology, animals rights, “animal studies,” a constructivistic and hyperrelativistic anthropology and the accompanying demonstrations, conferences and publications that, together, cast doubt on the differences between human beings and animals. Whereas zoomania spawns a “political correctness” that fosters misanthropy—“The better I know people, the more I like animals”—“animalism” bears a new obscurantism: the denial of what is specific to mankind, the pejoration of science (said to be one form of “discourse” among others) and the infatuation with a “symbolic” anthropology that confounds representations and practices to the detriment of the necessary, urgent quest for a positive anthropology that would provide a tight framework and control for the interpretation of facts.


  • animalism
  • animals
  • positivist anthropology
  • ethology
  • humanism
  • obscurantism
  • relativism


  1. Societal Changes
    1. The “Modernization” of Livestock Farming
    2. The Expansion and Changing Nature of the Pet Phenomenon
    3. The Widening Gap between Livestock and Pets
    4. The Radicalization of the Animalarian Movement
  2. Intellectual Developments
    1. A Slow Reverse in the Hierarchy of Values Since the Eighteenth Century
    2. Contemporary Accelerations and Amplifications
    3. Recent Events and Publications
  3. Summary and Outlook
    1. There is No Independent History of Ideas
    2. A Synthesis is Possible
    3. For a Positive Approach to Cultural and Social Facts

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