Human-Animal Studies: Past, Present, & Future
Historically, animals have been used as a foil for humans, presented less in terms of their own capabilities and traits than as beings deficient in some fundamentally human features. The field of Human-Animal Studies (HAS) has endeavoured to change this by exploring the relationships between humans and (nonhuman) animals, and by challenging our construction, understanding, and treatment of them.
This article, published in the journal Society & Animals, reviews the evolution and future of HAS. For animal advocates, the review provides insight into the broad spectrum of perspectives that make up a field that provided an early academic basis for the animal protection movement. It also suggests challenges and opportunities that the field — and animal advocacy — could face in the future.
HAS consists of an academic presence through courses, graduate programs, and research centers; publication venues such as academic journals and book series; and a public presence through policy papers, outreach, and conferences. As an academic field, it brings together perspectives, researchers, and methodologies from disciplines ranging from animal law and anthropology to psychology, religion, and cultural studies.
HAS grew out of work in philosophy first published in the 1960s-1980s that, by emphasizing the moral importance of animal welfare, turned traditionally human-centered views of animals on their head. These works, such as Singer’s Animal Liberation, Midgley’s Beast and Man, and Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, became the foundation of the animal protection and welfare movement. As HAS grew, its focus evolved in the groups of animals it was concerned with; how lines between humans and animals are drawn; and the methodological approaches used for research.
One such shift illustrates how HAS has contributed to changing perceptions of animals:
- In raising animal being, HAS has marshalled scientific evidence suggesting that animals have capabilities and behaviors such as empathy and agency that were previously thought to be exclusive to humans.
- In lowering human being, HAS has shown that humans display many behavioral patterns that were previously considered limited to animals. For example, psychological research has demonstrated the role of instinctual and irrational behavior in human decision-making.
- In blurring the distinction, HAS has considered both humans and animals as mixtures of other beings, blunting the historical notion of human exceptionalism.
- In begging the question, HAS has embraced differences between humans and animals, promoting the value of respecting differences and “otherness.”
More recent shifts in perspectives in the field of HAS have questioned basic distinctions made between nature and human culture, and between individuals and groups. One noteworthy consequence of this shift has been a new focus on the role of group membership, creating a tighter connection between HAS and environmental movements. Furthermore, recent advances in neuroscience may give scientists a more rigorous grasp of emotion and affect in animals, which could fundamentally alter our understanding of the differences between humans and animals.
The evolution of HAS will be guided in part by how it grows as an academic field. Current tensions between the roles of hard and soft sciences could dictate its methodological toolbox. Its relative presence in universities and independent research centers could govern its reach into mainstream scholarship and its integration with other disciplines.
A second component of HAS’s future is political. Tensions exist between those who seek gradual but concrete policy advances and those who prefer wholesale societal change. Further tensions result from ensuring HAS remains connected to the cultural and policy mainstream, which may promote certain disciplines, methodologies, and research questions over others.
A final poignant factor that will drive the evolution of HAS is the enormous increase in human life and domesticated animals that has come at the cost of a mass extinction of wildlife. A recent report found that wildlife has declined by over 60% since 1970; the biomass of humans and domesticated animals now greatly exceeds that of those in the wild. If we do not take societal action to address these problems, the author predicts, we may “know more about animals and human-animal relationships than ever was imaginable” just as those relationships become “largely memories and products of our imagination.”