Review of ‘What is an Animal?’ edited by Tim Ingold

26th May 2014

Davidson and Noble Book Review Cover 1990‘What is an Animal?’ edited by Tim Ingold, 1988, London: Unwin Hyman, ISBN 0-04-945012-5 (hbk)

Review by Iain Davidson and William Noble

Why should any archaeologist be concerned with the question forming this book’s title? And why should any Australian specialist be interested in the question?

One answer to both these questions is that the western-world history of understanding of the evolutionary significance of Aborigines has largely been one of questioning their status as humans. We need to be aware of the issues about the differences between human and animal to understand better the error of such questioning. But to draw attention to it may be to suggest that we are still interested in whether Aborigines are really people. Our own recent writing (Davidson and Noble 1989; Noble and Davidson 1989) suggests that, far from Australia’s Aborigines being a connection to earlier evolutionary stages, it was precisely due to the fact that these first colonists were human that they were able to colonise Australia at all.

The point which allows this view of the humanity of the first colonists of Australia is raised directly in this book by Tanner (p.128): ‘If we define language as “only that portion of human communication which uses symbols in the form of words and syntax” can we say that humans alone use language itself?’. We have explicitly identified language and hence humanity in this way. Language is essential for the complex feat of making a boat capable of reaching Australia. Jones (1989) recently suggested that such a craft ‘could be made with the minimum cutting technology’, but in doing so ignored the technological sophistication of knowing how to lash bamboo stems together. No animal does anything like that: It is a sophistication derived from the sort of conceptualisation only made possible by language. In addition, perceiving the need for a boat or raft in the first place is a conceptual accomplishment only made possible by language.

So the book may be of interest to Australian archaeologists. Does it solve the problem it poses in a way relevant to archaeologists? Only one of its contributors is employed in an archaeology department. Even so, the question is not one to have a demarcation dispute about. We critique each chapter separately.

It is not clear what the editor and contributors take their point to be in raising the question ‘What is an animal?’. In his introductory chapter Ingold confounds us immediately by remarking that people have ‘incorporated animals into their social groups, whether as domestic familiars or captive slaves’. The enslavement by people of other people may be akin to treatment by people of non-human animals. To apply the concept of ‘enslavement’ to human exploitation of the capacities of other species risks blurring the difference between human and non- human creatures. This may be Ingold’s intent, but if so that must be argued for, not simply presumed as a legitimate move. How can a non-human animal be enslaved? Enslavement implies conflict and conquest, that is, the political commerce carried on by people in and between their social groups. To be ‘enslaved’ is to be placed in a political relationship whose terms are, in principle, accessible to both parties. Such access can only be gained via a shared natural language. Thus, it is exclusive to humans.

Tapper supports Ingold’s conflation of the ‘slavery’ concept, citing an argument made by Ingold elsewhere (1933), contra Marx, to the effect that human domination of certain animal species, in being like slavery, means that the productive relation between the species is a ‘social’ one. But in the sense meant here, ‘social’ relations can only occur among members of language communities. Humans and non- human animals may engage in various genial, hostile or indifferent relations, but only among humans can the nature of whatever sort of relationship it is thought to be find expression, in the course of human social interaction. ‘Fido’ can’t concur with or argue about the constructions (including its name) you put on him. Slaves can; and they can rebel. That’s why they have to be guarded, chained up. They don’t just drift away from the flock if untended. It may be possible to reduce a human creature, all its sensorimotor facilities intact, to the state of a non-human animal (rare cases are reported of human creatures, surviving from soon after birth, out of all contact with other humans). That transformation can occur. But it is not possible to effect the opposite, to transform a non-human animal into a human being. And, of course, the enslavement of humans by other humans is not an instance of reduction to ferality.

Clark challenges the idea that ‘humanity’ can be called a Quinean natural kind – as forming a class whose members are unmistakable for any other kinds. Substances like water or gold are held, In Quine’s scheme, as natural kinds. But, Clark says, humans considered as a species – that is, whose members are identified through a capacity to reproduce themselves – may not be. He tries an argument to the effect that Homo sapiens sapiens might have been unable to reproduce successfully with Homo sapiens neandertalis, yet the two have practices in common, such as burial and worship, that make them both recognisably human. We note that there is no good evidence to support either part of this argument. The probable significance of the difference between standard neandertal and modern human morphology is in the capacity for more varied vocal articulation in the modern human form (e.g., Liberman 1984). Given an ever-strengthening selective advantage of vocal language, hominid morphologies with more versatile articulatory capacity would be likelier to survive (Davidson and Noble 1989:137). Homo sapiens sapiens may indeed be mistakable for neandertalis; the surviving hominid form can still be differentiated from other surviving primates, if for no reason besides the absence of reproductive success between members of the species Hss and any of those others.

The philosopher, Midgley stresses that the concept of an animal has both an inclusive meaning – we are all animals – and an exclusive meaning – we are not as other animals are. She is one of many to cite Griffin (1984) and his argument for giving a place to animal thinking. She mocks what she calls ‘species solipsism’ – attributing consciousness only to humans – citing as if as evidence the belief by elephant trainers that their charges show extraordinarily human intelligence. Yet counter arguments can be put, including the belief by trainers of dolphins. those favourite ‘intelligent’ creatures, that their charges learn only by conditioning (Pryor 1981). There is in the popular belief that ‘my pet talks to me’ much of what Lock, writing of early learning in children, calls ‘completing the action’.

Coy discusses a rather similar phenomenon in her comments on Griffin. She points out that humans have the ability ‘to predict the actions of other individuals, so that ‘completing the action’ is very human. In a rare example in this book that the origins of the exclusive relation between humans and other animals is an evolutionary one, she speculates on the significance of this for cerebral evolution. We would argue the other way around, that evolving reflectivity enabled the awareness of the actions of other individuals of both the same and other species.

The emiotician. Sebeok, goes to the fundamentals and addresses the question ‘What is life?’, preferring a classification that ‘while plants exhibit predominantly indexical signs. in animals both indexical and iconic signs appear, whereas human sign-processes encompass the entire gamut from indexlcallity via iconicity to symbolicity’. Hegoeson to discuss the semiotic content of various relationships between species of animals: predation; parasitism; conspecificity; insentience; taming; and training. Curiously he omits the relationship of animal as ancestor – one where the moral and emotional become mixed, historically, with any attempt at science and where the issues of the signs perceived in the ancestral species become paramount. Why did Victorians think that Aborigines had signs of being ‘missing links’?

Ingold contrasts the views of early and more recent commentators on the matter of language and consciousness in human and non-human animals of carious kinds (bees. beavers). He comes firmly to the view that non-human animals, in not having linguistic capacity, have no conceptual world to express. There can be no quarrel from the present reviewers with that. Ingold goes on to assert that this does not amount to denying what he calls practical consciousness and intentionality to non-human animals. As with much of human conduct. carried on in well-worn grooves of tradition and habit, prefiguring of the aims of one’s actions is not a constant feature of human behaviour, yet human behaviour is no less practically intentional for that. Ingold relies on fairly ad hoc kinds of reasoning to carry this argument. To be sure, humans need not reflect on how they ambulate in order to get from here to there, and even their going from here to there may be an unremarked sub-aspect of a larger project. But a point must always be reached in analysis of human behaviour where the purpose of the activity has been formed up as a plan articulated in advance.

Elsewhere, Ingold (1983) has expressed the notion that the axe for the human axe-wielder in the woods is as its teeth are for the beaver – tools for the accomplishment of practical ends. But the point he dodges there, as here, is that the axe-wielder must have a prlorly expressed and currently expressible plan, so as to be doing the business of axe-wielding at all. In contrast, the behaviour of non-human animals (and pre-linguistic humans), by his own argument, can never result from a plan (of their making). It can only result from response to here- and-now contingencies. Allowing that human habitual conduct (how to wield your axe) may go linguistically unmonitored, following its practised acquisition, does not amount to an argument that the purpose of the action is automatlsed too. Anthropology feeds on the abundance of accounts provided by human axe-wielders et cetera, regarding their plans and purposes. The scenario would be unintelligible, outside the contrived contexts, In which an inquirer found a fellow-human mystified as to what it is they were doing, in response to an Inquiry about what they were doing.

Goodwin identifies as ‘dualistic’ the pairing of genotype and phenotype or of organism and environment, within Cartesian mechanistic characterisations of reality. In just the same way, he notes that a Chomskian view of language partakes of (indeed, celebrates) Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Goodwin advocates instead a doctrine of mutualism, in which the terms of these kinds of pairs are witnessed as in dynamic equilibrium, rather than as separate sorts of entity. As a result, he offers the following answer to the book’s question: ‘An animal is a centre of immanent, self-generating or creative power, organised in terms of a relational order that results in a periodic pattern of transformation (a life-cycle) involving historical and actual components (genes and environment) and biological universals (the order of the living state)’.

Reed continues the mutualist orientation, with specific reference to the ecological theorising of James Gibson. He offers a general account, from this perspective, of the argument that objective information in the structure of perceivable energy accessed by an animal may specify animacy as distinct from inanimacy. The usefulness of such an approach is in allowing explanations of animals’ difference to conduct that require no appeal to ‘mental constructions’ on the basis of ‘raw sensory data’. The problem with Reed’s story is that he tries to rest too much of human conduct on this same base. In this respect he is slipping into the same error of over-extension made by Ingold.

Tanner has dedicated herself to showing the importance of women in human evolution through extended analogy with chimpanzee ‘social’ organisation. After raising the issue of the centrality of language, she then ignores it, concentrating instead on the theme about female chimpanzees; the use, by early hominids, of tools to gather plants, and the choice by female primates of their sexual partners. Alas, although she castigates those who prefer ‘faith and politics’ to evidence, her own work is mostly polemical. Yet she is surely right that females were fundamental in the differentiation of hominids from other apes because of the stresses on females in reproduction. And she is right too that evolutionary arguments should show change occurring through the new success of behaviours which may have been minor parts of the repertoire of the common ancestor.

Tanner over-emphasizes the earliest claims for stone tools in the archaeological record. Indeed, in emphasising that the environment for some primates was like living next to the well stocked refrigerator, the question she should really have addressed was what advantage there may have been to using tools at all, and if there was advantage to some of the apes, why wasn’t there for all of them? Her answer is that it helped female hominids, nutritionally stressed by pregnancy and nursing. But don’t female chimpanzees, and the common ancestor, suffer similar stresses? Tanner is right in emphasising some continuity between ancestors and descendants – and hence similarity between divergent descendants. But in her emphasis on tools, on the one hand, and symbols (in a very superficial way) on the other, she does recognise important steps in the otherwise smooth evolutionary path. Whether either of these steps constitutes a boundary between animal and human she completely fails to address, due to her polemical insistence on continuity as a justification of her use of a chimpanzee model.

So the book does raise some issues that are good for us to think about, but on the whole it hangs together rather loosely. As an indication of this, in a volume to 190 pages, 42 are devoted to a rambling discussion by Mundkur of religion in the relations between human and animal that is unworthy of inclusion with the other thought provoking, however misguided , works.


Davidson, I. and W. Noble. 1989 The archaeology of perception: traces of depiction and language. Current Anthropology 30:125- 55.

Griffin, D.R. 1984 Animal Thinking. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

Ingold , T 1983 The architext and the bee : reflections on the work of animals and men. Man 18:1 – 20.

Jones R 1989 East of the Wallace’s Line: issues and problems in colonization of the Australian continent. In P. MeHars and C. Stringer (eds) , The Human Revolution. Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans, pp.743-82. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Lieberman, P. 1984 The Biology and Evolution of Language . Harvard University Press : Cambridge, Mass.

Noble, W. and I. Davidson 1989 On depiction and language. Current Anthropology 30:337 – 42.

Pryor, K. 1981 Why porpoise trainers are not dolphin lovers: real and false communication in the operant setting. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 364:137 – 42.

Davidson, I. and Noble, W.
Review of 'What is an Animal?’ edited by Tim Ingold
June 1990
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )