Bunkum: “If You Teach Kids That They’re Animals, They’ll Act Like Animals!”

It’s an old canard that popped into my mind recently. The vocabulary word for the day is “equivocation.” It’s slightly less direct than usual, but that’s what it amounts to.

First, we’re talking about the scientific definition of animal. I’m not familiar enough with modern taxonomy or cladistics to get the specific features that define animals and only animals, but the word amounts to a diverse branch of the tree of life. This branch includes vertebrates, which include placental mammals, which include primates, which include humans. We have a lot in common with our non-human kin, on the cellular level up to the anatomic level to varying degrees. We inherited animal features from our animal, non-human ancestors, therefore we’re still animals, though we have some polymorphism that makes us distinct from other animals. We don’t have any sort of difference that’s profound enough to place us into an entirely separate biological category, but thanks to that polymorphism, we do have enough to place ourselves in a sub-category: The species of homo sapiens.

The colloquial use of “animal” would be better described as “non-human animal.” In fantasy and sci-fi works, other sapient species also get excluded from the category. There is a pragmatic need for this version of the definition, since we place the needs and desires of human-level conscious beings over those of less conscious beings. Our higher level of consciousness means we can suffer in ways that other animals can’t. We also hold humans to a higher standard of responsibility for their actions because of that consciousness. Humans are moral actors who can understand the consequences of their actions.

The equivocation comes from the jump from the scientific definition to the colloquial definition. Funnily enough, it involves a contradiction in the process. The kids are human, therefore they can’t be non-human animals. If you choose to use the colloquial definition in both cases, that leads to essentially the same contradiction, since you’re including humans in a category that’s defined in part by excluding humans.

If you choose to use the scientific definition for both cases, it simply makes the sentence a tautology instead of the ominous assertion they want it to be: Because humans are defined as animals, the set of human behaviors is included in the set of animal behaviors. Writing poetry, building skyscrapers, and arguing semantics are animal behaviors, though they are specific to humans. All human behaviors are animal behaviors, but not all animal behaviors are human behaviors. Of course, teaching kids that humans are animals does not imply that humans are not humans. It simply doesn’t make sense to assert that such a fact condones or encourages the kids to act like non-humans.

There’s something rather arbitrary about the assertion, arguing that our behavior and morality should be dictated by one particular definition of a particular scope about us. The extent of “humans are animals” influence on morality would be about biological needs. “Humans need food to survive, therefore it is moral to provide food to starving humans,” for a simplified example. I find this rationale to be disturbingly similar to science fiction villains who discriminate against sapient robots because they aren’t biological. “Animal” is only one term we can use to describe or define humans, and we don’t have to settle for any one term. The fundies who use this bunkum should get acquainted with the general concept behind Venn diagrams. Things can fall into the overlap between different categories, including irrelevant and impractically broad categories. The category created by the overlap may be significant, but the entities in that overlap don’t cease to belong to the parent categories.

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3 responses to “Bunkum: “If You Teach Kids That They’re Animals, They’ll Act Like Animals!”

  1. Good post Bronze Dog, I wonder how many fundies would understand your observations perfectly but still decide against them.
    Once again I have chosen an angle on this subject not exactly covered in your post but something I felt strongly about as I read it.
    Fundies, and a lot of non-religious people as well, still dislike comparisons between us homo sapiens and other species on the planet.
    Either because their views on creationism mean they see us as ‘god’s finest creation’ (what drivel) or they accept that we have evolved from other creatures, yet to such an extent that we are still insulted by the comparison.
    My problem with the idea is this: we have all witnessed the world around us in our lives and witnessed the doings of other humans the whole time as well.
    What the hell lets us see all our behaviour as so much better!
    Our species is advanced in many mental areas like intelligence, has constructed ‘civilizations’ and endless toys for our own amusement. We’ve decided on ‘human rights’ to be respected among our own. (The rest of the natural world naturally can be excused from affording us these rights that we privilege ourselves with.)
    In addition to all of the wonderful feelings and things we can manifest with our powers, we’ve indulged in shocking habits and sins unknown among any other earthly creatures.

    I see the natural behaviours of ‘animals’ (non-humans) as often quite admirable in its practicality and lack of reading on the good/evil scale.

    In conclusion, being described as an animal doesn’t give me any feelings of inferiority. Apart from being accurate (I and all other readers are animals), the behaviour of non-human animals doesn’t reveal many of the foul atrocities committed by us humans, even indirectly, we are guilty of so much that the rest of the creatures on this planet would not even understand the evil need for.

    • Fundies, and a lot of non-religious people as well, still dislike comparisons between us homo sapiens and other species on the planet.
      Either because their views on creationism mean they see us as ‘god’s finest creation’ (what drivel) or they accept that we have evolved from other creatures, yet to such an extent that we are still insulted by the comparison.

      I think you’ve inspired me to post about another bit of bunkum: The Great Chain of Being, AKA “The Evolutionary Ladder.”

  2. I’ve thought about this and come to a realization, the taboo against calling humans “animals” isn’t even internally consistent among those who make that taboo.

    Among more finely tuned words, none of them have ever complained about calling humans “vertebrates” or “mammals”. Everyone agrees that we’re those. So, it’s fine to group us with cats and fish and birds when that grouping is based on having a spine, and it’s fine to group us with dogs and monkeys and horses when that grouping is based on fur and milk production, but not fine to base on the more general category of animal? None have said “if we are taught we are vertebrates we will learn to act like vertebrates”.

    It gets worse. Not one of them has complained about calling us “a life form”, which is the most general way to group us with things that don’t by any sense of the word “think” at all, like fungi or bacteria. None have said, “if we are taught we are life forms then we will learn to act like life forms”.

    So, it’s fine to group us more specifically with every other mammal or vertebrate, and it is fine to group us more generally with every single life form on the planet, but it’s insulting and horrible to group us at JUST this one very specific mid-range grouping with all the other multicelled quickly moving things.

    Yeah, that’s my biggest issue with it. It’s arbitrary and inconsistent.

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