On Life with Animals

Fearful, feral, and adorable in its ignorance, the first day with my current feline inspired an intrigue and curiosity within me; not for knowledge of the animal’s mechanisms. Cats are simple creatures, despite the many variables which define their hopefully-entertaining or endearing quirks. There’s little to wonder of them, aside from their insistence on repeatedly vocalizing an unclear distress. The curious aspect of living with an animal was that of its societal normalcy. “There’s a predator in my home,” I would think every other day or so. A cute, practically harmless predator, but a predator nonetheless. Her prey is colorful fishing poles with jingling bells. She’s caught a moth between her jaws before, but the kitten was so clueless as to nature’s intent that it simply flew out from between her lips. Stimulus. Her eyes widened in new excitement thanks to the erratic, unmistakable movement of life. Response.

Stimulus and response, as with cats, drives much of our own behavior. Our soup is too hot, so we pull the food away from our mouths to avoid a burn. Our skin itches, so we scratch at it. These are not things we think of, nor things which are generated by culture. They’re automated processes granted us via instinct. Since we possess instinct, what, if anything, separates us from animals, who could never feel more than emotion or the drive to pursue pleasure and avoid pain? Problem-solving is not unique to humans. I could use an obvious example such as a corvid, but even my cat has figured out that chewing on things she knows she shouldn’t chew on is the best way to get her owner to check on her food supply. Affection is not unique to humans. My pet greets me with love every morning when she rubs up against my hands and glides her head along my palms.

You could attempt to identify the concept of love as an exclusive characteristic, but then, you’d be left scrambling for whatever vague and romantic definition within which you could find the conviction to speak with fevered certainty. It’s not a good enough answer. Socrates’ answer was “rationale.” New agers might say that the difference is the human ability to self-reflect. Both of these strike me as nearing the mark, but neither satiate my need for definition.

There is an excellent and damning video series on Youtube titled “The Rise of Political Clickbait“. This series explores the deception, journalistic dishonesty, and manipulation, especially on social media, through which political commentators and figures control large groups of people. Their victims tend to comment on Facebook posts with entire words in uppercase and in total and mindless agreement with the opinions of the clickbait producers. The creator of this video series indirectly, though justifiably, criticizes these people – these consumers – for their sheeplike acceptance of almost every lie handed to them by a voice they believe they can trust, with little-to-no fact-checking or logical thought. Stimulus, response.

What separates these people from animals?

Trick question. The answer is that people are inherently separate from animals in that we, aside from the possession of souls and divine role in the universe, are capable of questioning. I can’t say that the most sheeplike of social media users are, themselves, animals, because they still possess the ability to learn to practice their capacity to question. Given the right circumstance, the person whom you might consider to be the most mindless zealot could perform a turnabout in the course of a day and take their first step on the path of a truth seeker.

Instead, think in terms of levels of thought.

There’s a quiz called the Cognitive Reflection Test which is composed of three simple questions, each of which is easy to solve, but also tricky if you attempt to answer with a kneejerk response. The CRT reveals that human beings have two modes of thinking; one which is near-instant and instinctual, and the other, which is more time-consuming and thought-out. To my knowledge, all mentally healthy human beings are capable of this second, more analytical method of processing, but we as a species are too often quick to trust our first, more primal thought process. The truth is that this second mode of thinking is that which separates us from animals.

This second mode of thinking is the mode which allows us to arrive at the correct responses to the questions on the CRT. It is the mode which permits us to question our beliefs and examine the beliefs of others, to judge information outlets, develop new conclusions, avoid succumbing to repetitive propaganda, et cetera. This is the mode that differentiates us from animals. It’s easy to observe that most people on social media are stuck operating in the first mode. It’s not cynicism – every trending story on Facebook or hashtag on Twitter is gorged with uninformed opinions. Large groups of commenters may be in the right, but it’s clear that they do not understand why. This is animal behavior.

Identifying animal behavior as the cause of the current political state in the USA is foolish at best; people run thoughtless opinions through social media on a mass scale on all political platforms with zero exception (not even libertarians). However, this doesn’t disqualify the spread of thoughtfulness from being the solution to our societal problems. Humans, almost regardless of philosophy, have a moral obligation to pursue truth and wisdom, lest we find ourselves no better than the animals we’ve hunted and tamed. Allowing the thoughtless to dominate vital conversation on the history and future of the world is no different than allowing predators into your home, and more dangerous ones than those of domestic short-haired cats.