Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Part Machine and Entirely Animal

September 17, 2010

I’ve been preparing for a seminar to be held next week at the Oakley Center for the Humanities & Social Sciences at Williams College in Massachusetts. Along with a small group of other professors and writers, I’ve been invited to travel to Williams to consider the topic of post-humanism.

Truth be told, I had to do some homework when I first received the invitation. What exactly is post-humanism? As I’ve been learning, the general idea is to consider whether a focus on the humanities—with its hard emphasis on all things human-- has perhaps run its course in today’s world. Animal studies and the study of machines, including cyborgs (part real, part artificial creatures) are all the rage these days.

Here are the key questions to be considered at Willliams (I’ve retained the organizers’ wording but edited for length):

What intellectual and practical problems arise from conceptually separating humankind from other species?

How can we strike an acceptable balance between thinking about humanity in the most general sense and attending to group or individual differences?

Does the contemporary convergence of human bodies with products of human technology (IT resources, prosthetics, genetic modification, pharmaceuticals, and the machine world in general) render humanism obsolete?

If not humanism, then what?

I take my role to relate primarily to the first and fourth questions. How does a focus on other creatures—the sentient apes, elephants, and dolphins to be sure, but also cats, frogs, and spiders—lead us to rethink claims of human uniqueness?

I have lots to say on this topic. We humans are animals too, after all.

Maybe an equally important role I can play is to anchor the jargon-filled and somewhat abstract discourse that tends to reign at these seminars (to which I definitely contribute myself) in discussion of animals’ everyday realities. When I sent in my paper for the seminar, across the top I noted:

It was an interesting experience writing [this paper] during a week when I had sole (usually shared) responsibility to care for 29 cats, some feral, some ex-feral, and some indoor companions, a few with labor-intensive special needs. This experience underscored my wish to remember, as I write, to keep front and center in my mind not just the abstract animals of academic discourse but also the flesh-and-blood animals all around us, and the concerns that occupy their thoughts and feelings each day.

We’ll see how it goes at Williams; I expect to learn a lot.

Meanwhile, a funny thing: As I was reading through the other participants’ papers, many primarily about machines, I had to call my local hospital to set up an MRI. As anyone who’s undergone this imaging test knows, patients must answer a roster of safety questions in advance. Did I have cardiac valves or stents? Implants of certain kinds?

I was offering my no, no, and no answers until this question: Any metal in the eyes?

Bingo! In my own way I’m a little bit cyborg. Ten years ago, after my second cataract surgery (needed at an unusually young age), my retina detached. A skilled surgeon at Richmond’s Eye Hospital restored my sight by draining the vitreous fluid from my eye, and reattached my retina by means of a gas bubble and what he called “a metal buckle.”

On the phone I shivered a little when the MRI technician indicated that we had, er, a slight problem. “The MRI magnet is powerful,” she said, “and it will pull that metal right out of your eye.”

Needless to say, I investigated further. My eye surgeon has by now retired, but my regular eye doctor was able to assure me that in fact what’s termed “a metal buckle” is actually synthetic material—a type of silicone that the MRI magnet will show no interest in.

So, I will fly to New England next week thinking of myself as part machine—and entirely animal.


  1. September 17, 2010 8:53 AM EDT
    Great article and good luck at Williams. When they drained the vitreous fluid from your eye they likely (certainly?) replace it with fluid that at one point was safety tested in owl monkey eyes. Another connection to and reason to be thankful for our animal world.
    - Sian Evans
  2. September 17, 2010 7:57 PM EDT
    If not humanism, then what indeed? Thanks for another interesting article!
    - Shannon
  3. September 17, 2010 10:18 PM EDT
    Sian, I'd actually never realized that-- my fondness for owl monkeys only grows and I hope none suffered to help human eyes, mine or others'. Shannon, it's interesting for me reading the other participants' papers this weekend, since many of them are centrally focusing on machines/cyborgs. When I think 'beyond humanism' I think of humans fully embracing other parts of the natural world as beautiful and valued ... I'm slow to envision machines as fully part of that world, or to envision machine compassion, machine social justice... oh I know I sound impossibly idealistic here! Maybe I'm polarizing machines and humans too much in the end.
    - Barbara J. King
  4. September 18, 2010 7:08 AM EDT
    I hope the Williams experience is wonderful--a little early for fall foliage, but there's a little color around the edges. So good that you want to concentrate on Real Animals, instead of abstract ones. I think that scientists often forget to do that when considering animals, including human ones.

    (I, too, am a cyborg, with a cataract implant.--Never thought of myself that way before!)
    - Mary Pratt
  5. September 18, 2010 8:38 AM EDT
    Mary, yes, I hope to leaf-peep even though early in the season. Before I go to Williams, I give a public talk at Hampshire College in Amherst. My hotel is in Northampton so I will have a little time to wander around and soak things up. And at Williams I'll be very interested to discover if there are other "animal people" there who observe and/or care for animals day by day. Maybe there will be!
    - Barbara J. King
  6. September 18, 2010 10:41 PM EDT
    After reading the premises of the Williams conference, I can't help but think of how selective and artificial our boundaries between humans and other animals sometimes are, especially in medicine. Specifically, I'm thinking of the new heart valves (harvested from cow jugular veins) that have just been approved for use in humans (with some of the first patients being at the local children's hospital-- On most days, we'd be happy to count the ways in which we're different from cows. But when your heart or your child's heart is at risk....then you may be thankful for the similarities between you and your fellow animals.
    - Neil Zaki
  7. September 19, 2010 8:40 AM EDT
    Neil, there's resonance between your comment on cows and Sian's comment above on owl monkeys. Jane Goodall has made a similar comment relating to pigs' contribution to heart valves. And it works the other way too- we've had our animals here benefit from advances in human medicine. One of our cats suffers from a terrible skin allergy and takes human meds., and the advances in imaging techniques and various other tests have helped our cats a lot.
    - Barbara J. King
  8. October 15, 2010 12:39 PM EDT
    The close relationship of apes and humans has, until recently, mostly benefited humans, as illustrated by the owl monkey and cow heart valve posts. However, in the last ten years or so, zookeepers and veterinarians have observed an epidemic of early-onset heart disease in captive great apes. The AAZV (zoo veterinarians) has launched a large-scale cardiac study in apes, using technologies familiar to any human with heart problems. Bonobos are being trained to cooperate with doctors performing echocardiograms on them while they are fully awake. One gorilla has already had a pacemaker implanted- the same pacemaker used in humans, and implanted by a team of cardiologists that usually operate on much less hirsute patients. Drugs that were probably originally tested on primates for use on humans are now being used to improve the quality of life of primates. We have come full circle, and the lines dividing us are blurring even more.
    - Melanie

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.