In the first chapter of Animals and Society titled Animal-Human Borders, Margo DeMello questions and examines why there exists a human-animal division and the basis upon which it rests. According to him, human beings are animals from a strictly biological standpoint because both creatures depend on other organisms for survival, sexually reproduce, have independent movements, and rely on carbon for growth. However, despite the similarities between humans and nonhuman animals, there is a belief - referred to as human exceptionalism - that humans are unique in certain ways and hence this sets them apart from nonhuman animals (DeMello 33). He also traces the origin of human-animal distinction to the concept of speciesism.
My comment on this chapter is that it is true, as DeMello asserts, that the divide between humans and animals is a cultural, social, and historical rather than merely a biological construction. Given the great social and cultural diversities that exist across the globe and the different values attached to animals by humans in various parts of the world, it is not possible for the division to be merely biological per se. Instead, it is a sociocultural construct. It is also true that this human-animal distinction is not universally accepted as the belief in human exceptionalism differs markedly across societies throughout the world. For instance, there are some societies that believe in animism while others such as the hunter-gatherer societies do not believe in human-animal distinction but that both are related.
In chapter three of the book titled "The Social Construction of Animals," DeMello analyzes the basis for the classification of animals and the various ways societies construe different animals. According to him, the way animals are used in the society determines in some way their classification by humans and this classification further affects the manner in which humans treat animals (DeMello 45).
In this third chapter, DeMello has made an important thesis worth noting. It is that understanding the different animal classification systems is necessary since it helps us in knowing more about how animals are socially constructed and used in the society (46). However, it is also true that too much emphasis on biological determinism as a basis for construing animals in the society usually tends to ignore factors such as personality, social practices, and culture that influence animal behavior.
It is also correct, as DeMello succinctly observes, that the different uses to which animals are put in various societies help in their social construction. For instance, there are certain animals that are deemed inedible in some societies while in other societies they are considered as edible. Hence, the way Muslim societies socially construe animals like pigs may differ markedly from the way Jewish societies construe them based on their social or religious usage.
To surmise, DeMello is of the view that the diverse social and cultural constructions of animals across societies are responsible for the extant animal-human border.
DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies. Columbia University Press, 2012
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