Volume 0, Issue 0

When We Think of Beasts

In Discussion on 2014/01/03 at 10:11 am
La Bête de la Mer (Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse)

La Bête de la Mer (Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse), uploaded to Wikipedia by Kimon Berlin

When we think of beasts, we concentrate on, instead of the volumes of overwhelming similarities, that which sets us apart from them. Distinguishing characteristics. We can own them, for one. They might communicate or not, but they don’t speak any of the human languages, don’t demonstrate a huge vocabulary, and show little facility for learning languages that aren’t the ones they were born with. They aren’t big on manual dexterity and, when they make or use tools, they get by with the bare minimum. Though many of them sing or dance or both, they aren’t big on the literary arts or visual arts — but we should take into account that we look for representational elements when we don’t even share visual spectra with many of them, as we also fail to make allowances for lack of vocabulary and manual dexterity in expression. In any case, they don’t seem to tell stories, and we do like stories.

We value mobile creatures over sessile ones, disregarding plants and fungi altogether when we think of beasts. These latter iterations are colonial life forms which are as mobile as any other, just on a much slower time scale. They are mistaken for inanimate by those who don’t give it enough thought or don’t have an attention span on the scale of seasons, years, decades, or generations.

Beasts don’t seem to be good planners. We tend to regard any demonstrated knowledge of sciences and the cycles of the environment as functions of innate code instead of learned. In beasts, the ability to handle crisis is driven by having large populations with significant amounts of variation among individuals so that some are in a position to endure, survive, and repopulate — proving that the species as a whole is the storehouse of intelligence and not any individual. And we do value the individual over the species aggregate. Which is odd, because we value the multicellular aggregate over the single-celled — who obviously communicate, who build, who record and tell stories, who are so damned efficient and thorough and skilled at all of it that we tend to regard them as machinery and therefore somehow beneath our notice. We are made out of trillions of these creatures all working in concert the way that companies and organizations are made out of people. These cells, in turn, are made out of cooperating and communicating organelles and protein-and-chemical-driven processes.

As order of aggregation increases, so does fallibility and the tendency to collapse, to spontaneously disaggregate. And again we focus, arbitrarily, on the orders of organization most similar to ourselves and completely disregard those lower. Or higher.

And then there’s the remaining distinction between ourselves and beasts — and here I am including the sessile and the single-celled in the use of the term. We are allowed to eat them. There is a strong taboo against eating those too close to our own kind — which is how we store the information in our societies and cultures that there is a strong risk of transmission of lethal or debilitating diseases from eating things too similar to one’s own kind. Chief among these diseases is the possibility of psychological contamination, of considering oneself to be somehow above others of our own kind as we consider ourselves to be above beasts, as predators of or parasites on them, of allowing that corruption of code to set us apart from our own kind.

Once you identify as a predator, you are comfortable only in the society of other predators — but not too comfortable, for obvious reasons — and value others of your own kind only as beasts.

We concentrate on the distinctions between ourselves and beasts so we can determine who or what we are allowed to own, to keep and use as livestock or pets or servants — to determine who or what we may allow ourselves to consume. Though in reality we don’t consume anything. We only murder creatures and break them into pieces. Then we hand the pieces off to the single-celled machines in our guts — foreign colonists, all, often parasites on whatever we have eaten, taken in and offered protection and a quiet place to work — to break down for parts and materials and bits of code for themselves and leave us their discards and wastes, which they then sort and feed piecemeal to our own cellular constituents.

The semantic construct of “beast” comes with all of this unhappy baggage, including the aforementioned risk of psychological disease and the corruption of identity when we fail to maintain the separation of ourselves and creatures like ourselves from what we think of as beasts, inaccurate and useless as the distinctions are. But how else are we to determine who or what we may eat and who or what we may own and exploit? What psychological damage is done to us when we remove the element of “not beast” and “of higher value than beast” from the identity complex? But then, consider the psychological damage done by considering other humans, other creatures like us to be “nearly beasts” or “no better than beasts” due to prejudices and bigotries and the preservation of privileged castes. The semantic construct of “beast” is key to enabling indiscriminate slavery and exploitation and consumption of anything and everything we consider to be “beneath” us, because “beast” is a nearly universal component of the human hierarchy of the value of creatures and objects.

All we have to do to rationalize the worst things humans do to other humans is to consider the victims beasts.

Leave a Reply