James Serpell : In the Company of Animals

Serpell gives a broad and on many points thorough discussion of the cultural, evolutionary, physiological and religious influences on human relations with non-human animals. The focus of his thesis is on the phenomena of pet-keeping, but also delves into the concepts behind livestock keeping as well as attitudes towards wild species. The tone of the book is sober and plain-spoken, driven by a scientific and anthropological epistemology based in secondary research. Philosophy per se does not drive the discussion, rather realism and factual information are brought to bear on what Serpell clearly considers to be the problem of animal welfare. Through his discussion, Serpell addresses many conundrums addressing a sometimes kind and often violent attitude towards other species across human cultures and time-periods. For example, the crux of the book is varying attitudes towards pets as a genuine meeting of species in a relationship of care, and the benefits of pet-keeping for human well being, compared with the attitude that pet-keeping lowers human moral standards and that humans (and animals) can be treated ‘like animals’ in a hierarchy of moral worthiness.
Serpell’s investigation of ancient culture and cultural rituals regarding animals provides stimulating evidence for current welfare debates and philosophical thinking. His analysis suggests that humans have an evolutionary ability to empathise between subjects, and this includes other species. In part this has developed because hunters must intimately know their prey. Yet empathy includes feeling another’s pain, and so Serpell suggests that human cultural evolution changed significantly when awareness of concepts of self and other, as well as meaning in life and death emerged in prehistoric times (ca20,000BC). Regarding the necessary killing of animals for survival, rituals developed as means to cope with empathic concerns for the other. This included strict and particular means of killing and using of the bodies. Serpell therefore concludes it is paradoxically the human ability to empathise with animals that has caused humans to develop cultural structures supporting the use (and abuse) of animals on such large scales as we see in 2015. This is manifest as the current separation of roles in the food chain for raising livestock, killing and butchering and all of these from purchase and consumption of a packaged and re-framed product. In Western cultures this process is couched in a complex Judeo-Christian moral framework of species hierarchy and the dominion of ‘Man’. Once again, this attitude of dominion of ‘Man’ followed a historical pathway in thought from ancient animistic polytheism, through the rise of reason as a value, through to the emergence of a ‘man as the image of a single god’ theory, along with a bias towards the so called betterment of ‘human’ moral values. Today, beyond Serpell’s account, and as religiosity declines along with an increase in scientific evidence of non-human animal sentience, a return to ‘original empathy’ might be occurring (or have the opportunity to occur).
Interestingly within this discussion, it can be considered that the growing human awareness of death as meaningful brought about religion and culture, including those rituals concerning death of other species. Serpell points to the archeological evidence of ritual burial for humans and ritual arrangement of animal bones to be dated around similar times.
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