In this paper, I try to identify the reasons why the dialogue between sociocultural anthropology and animal rights theories and movements continues to be difficult and scarce. At first sight this weakness of communication is surprising, if one looks at the amount of anthropological studies on human/animal relationships, in most cases pointing to how animals are considered in many cultures as non-human subjects or persons. For understanding the roots of this state of affairs, I compare the ways anthropologists and animal rights theorists and activists have engaged with the issue of the differences and commonalities between human beings and nonhuman animals. For this aim, I contrast the search, among philosophers and activists, for a universal rational ethical foundation of animal rights, to which natural sciences’ findings can give support, with sociocultural anthropologists’ focus on the embeddedness of human/animal relationships in symbolic systems and in political relationships. In spite of the paradigmatic shifts intervened in a century and half of sociocultural anthropology, I show, through a critical review of the recent works of Ingold, Descola, Viveiros de Castro and Kohn, that even today this difference in approach is far to be overcome.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Today some biologists question that sentience is exclusive of animals, insofar some form of it can be detected too in plants . Sebeok  proposes a semiotic distinction between lifeforms as related to differences in mode of nutrition (in turn considered as “ways in which information is maintained by extracting order out of the environment”).
The first ground-breaking decision was an India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests police statement of 2013 advising the state officials to deny any proposals that requested the establishment of a dolphinarium on the basis that “cetaceans, in general, are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behaviour have suggested that they have an unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, even if it did not mean granting a real personhood status to dolphins (see https://io9.gizmodo.com). The following year, a writ of habeas corpus concerning Sandra, a Sumatran orangutan, was issued by an Argentinian court; the court decided, by assimilating her to a self-aware non-human person, that she would no longer be held captive in a zoo (see http://indipendent.co.uk/, news of 22 December 2014). Other similar cases in which the recognition of the status of nonhuman person to some animals was at issue have been subsequently debated in other North and South American courts, which expressed in most cases negative advice.
Singer’s central argument is well known: pace Descartes, there is a widespread evidence that all animals are sentient beings which can suffer pain (as well as feel enjoyment), and in this respect differences with how human beings experience suffering are minor. If we accept the principles of Bentham’s utilitarian liberal ethics, the capacity of suffering and enjoying is the “vital characteristic” that gives not only to human beings but to all sentient beings the right to equal moral consideration, constituting a “prerequisite for having interests at all” [78: 7]. It follows that “if a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—insofar as rough comparison can be made—of any other being. […] So, the limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient if not strictly shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interest of others” [78: 8–9]. The conclusion is that there is no reason for negating to animals, on the basis of the moral stance maintained by many human beings which Singer [78: 9] calls “speciesism” (“to allow the interest of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species”), the same equality of legal treatment reserved to human beings in everything which involves their suffering.
Full text of Article 13 of Title II states that: “in formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage” (https://ec.europa.eu/).
In this regard, Lévi-Strauss views are quite similar to those of Tylor. See below in this article.
In some way, Lévi-Strauss criticism of humanism can be compared to Singer’s criticism of speciesism. On the other hand, Lévi-Strauss views pity and compassion mostly as primary feelings, without necessary ethical connotations; Singer, instead, following Bentham’s utilitarian ethics, derives rights of protection of animals from suffering from the extension to them, as equal to humans in sentience, of the same treatment reserved to the latter.
I must briefly refer to the lack of clarity, not to say confusion, in the contemporary debates on the innate foundations of “empathy”, “altruism”, “sympathy”, “identification”, “pity” and “compassion” both in human and in some other mammals’ species. In effect, the meaning of each of these terms largely depends on the theoretical framework of the scholar using it [1, 17, 33]. Of course, this is not to say the situation on the side of “selfish”, “individualist”, “egoist” and so on, theories of human and animal behaviour, is better.
Before Lévi-Strauss, the most notorious attempt in anthropology of engaging with the first issue was the detailed study of Hallowell  on Northern Ojibwa worldview as based in their concept of nonhuman beings as “other than human persons” with which relationships were driven by the same ethical principles guiding one’s “living well” with human others. Hallowell nevertheless refrained from using the notion of animism, considering it inappropriate to account for the specificity of Ojibwa’s worldview. In what concerns pre-Lévi-Straussian theories on the second kind of statements, a special mention is due to Lévy-Bruhl’s  argument that they are rooted in a “logic of participation”, which coexists with the logic of non-contradiction, often surpassing it in “primitive” peoples. I lack here the space for dealing more in detail with these important works.
By this way, “orders or systems of relations (e.g. “nature” and “society”) that appear as separate totalities in everyday life become suspended at the higher level created through ritual action as interdependent parts of a single totality” [84: 149]. Turner also assimilates this “tropic structure of ritual” [84: 153] associated to meaning construction in the cases at issue, with Jakobson’s formulation of poetic function.
According to Ingold, for Tylor “culture referred to the progressive development of human knowledge in its various fields—of science, art, law, morality, and so on” [49: 86].
As noted by Ingold, the case of the beaver was later taken again by Kroeber, one of the most influent proponents of culture as a “superorganic” domain emerging after organic evolution, particularly of brain, in the human species. With the acquisition of symbolic language and thought, man acquired the capacity of imaginatively planning future actions. So, Kroeber argued the opposite to Morgan: “the human engineer constructs a plan in advance of the execution; the beaver lives merely to execute plans designed—in the absence of a designer—through the play of variation under natural selection [49: 90].
I then disagree with Ingold  on this point. For Tylor, not even the development of articulated symbolic language (I: 234–239, II: 445–446) instituted a radical discontinuity between “beasts” and “savage” men and between these last and his “civilized” Victorian contemporaries. In Primitive Culture, he exposes his “Interjectional and Imitative Theory” of the origin of language (of which he himself acknowledged that, due to the lack of sufficient evidence, it did not offer “a complete solution of the problem” [86, I: 229]) according to which it at least in part derived from “what may be called self-expressive sounds, without defining closely whether their expression lay in emotional tone, imitative noise, contrast of accent or vowel or consonant, or other phonetic quality” (I, 230), For Tylor, from one side there is a fundamental unity and continuity shared by all human beings with respect to their principles of thought (I, 184); from another, even among most “civilized” peoples, human language, including symbolic and articulated speech (due in this case to what Deacon  later called its referential opacity), has remained an imperfect device for pursuing and expressing an “objective” scientific knowledge of the laws of functioning of the natural world of which the same mind is also part. For Tylor’s views on the origins of language, see .
As I mention below, after being dismissed in later anthropology insofar considered of little theoretical utility for a focus of interest on symbolic systems, the concept of animism has been, since the last decade of the last century, reworked by several scholars, in the context indeed of their criticism of the opposition between nature and culture and their plea for an anthropology “going beyond” this opposition.
The decay of the belief of a soul-like personal force animating lifeless things and phenomena proceeded instead from the progress of empirical enquiry and mechanistic explanation based on a purely materialist philosophy (II, 183). Tylor suggested that was the concept of soul in itself to be incompatible with whatever progress of scientific knowledge, insofar its foundation laid on a materialist philosophy: “The divisions which have separated the great religions of the world into intolerant and hostile sects are for the most part superficial in comparison with the deepest of all religious schisms, that which divides Animism from Materialism” (I, 502). As noted by Ingold , once he learnt about Darwin’s views on the descent of man, he came to agree that even explanations of “mind” ought to search for its material substrate.
This was the case of Bird-David  revisiting of animism as a “relational epistemology” (opposed to the modern “dualist” epistemology seen as grounded in the separation of subjects and objects) intrinsically connected with “sharing” as the basic principle of an eco-cosmological sociality and sensibility involving in the same network humans and nonhumans.
Since Being Alive , he indeed argues for integrating the “dwelling perspective” with what he has called the “perspective of the line”: “The latest phase—the one I am in now—is an exploration of the idea that life is lived along lines. […] I have not ceased thinking about dwelling in my current explorations in the comparative anthropology of the line, which grew from the realisation that every being is instantiated in the world as a path of movement along a way of life. Or to trace the progression of my thinking in reverse: to lay a path through the world is to dwell” [51: 4].
Of course, the so-called “ontological” approaches by no means exhaust the range of studies, researches and reflections on human/animals produced by anthropologists during recent years. Other approaches are exploring the potentialities of crossing Animal Studies with anthropological issues and modes of inquiry [47, 71]. Another emerging field is that of “multispecies ethnography” .
It is interesting to note how Descola’s special emphasis on the field of law for detecting more general changes in what concerns recognition of animals’ personhood immediately recalls the analogous special stress Mauss  put on the key innovations introduced with Roman Law for the historical emergence of modern concepts of person.
He adds: “These dangerous words are used here in a purely—but metaphorically—pragmatic, indexical, or pronominal sense. [For example], “Subject” is the semiotic position correlated with the capacity to say “I” in a real or virtual cosmological discourse. “Object,” by the same token, is that which is “talked” about. […] My metaphors come, therefore, from semiosis, not production or desire: there is no dialectics of “self” and “other” […], but rather alternation and disjunction, that is, exchange (of perspectives)” [87: 219].
This line is coherently followed also in his latest work  directly dealing with the worsening of the global ecological crisis and the related fears of the “end of the world”.
This sympathy for most objectives of animal rights movements do not mean that Derrida and de Fontenay embrace their theoretical foundations. So, Derrida stresses that it is not by recognizing humanlike cognitive faculties to animals but by facing the co-presence of their alterity and lived nearness with us humans that both should live together in a better way.
Acampora, Ralph. 2006. Corporal Compassion. Animal Ethics and Philosophy of the Body. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Argyrou, Vassos. 2005. The Logic of Environmentalism. Anthropology, Ecology and Postcoloniality. Oxford: Berghahn.
Atran, Scott. 1990. Cognitive Foundations of Natural History. Cambridge: CUP.
Bekoff, Marc. 2007. The Emotional Lives of Animals. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Bekoff, Marc, and Peirce Jessica. 2009. Wild Justice. The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Benthall, Jonathan. 2007. Animal Liberation and Rights. Anthropology Today 23(2): 1–3.
Bird-David, Nurit. 1999. “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Current Anthropology 40(S1): S67–S91.
Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge. Cambridge: CUP.
Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books.
Brightman, Robert. 1993. Grateful Prey. Regina: University of Regina.
Brosius, J.P., A. Tsing, and C. Zerner (eds). 2005. Communities and Conservation: Histories and Politics of Community-Based Natural Resource Management. Lanham, MD: Altamira.
Calarco, Matthew. 2008. Zoographies. The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia University.
Cao, Deborah, and White Steven (eds). 2016. Animal Law and Welfare. Baltimore: Springer.
Carrithers, Michael, Collins Steven, and Lukes Steven (eds). 1985. The Category of Person. Cambridge: CUP.
Chamovitz, Daniel. 2012. What a Plant Knows. New York: Scientific American.
Charbonnier, Pierre. 2015. Prendre les animaux au sérieux: de l’animal politique à la politique des animaux. Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines [En ligne], #15. Accessed 28 October 2017.
Clifford, James, and George Marcus (eds.). 1986. Writing Culture. Santa Cruz: University of California.
Costa, Luiz, and Carlos Fausto. 2010. The Return of the Animists. Recent Studies of Amazonian Ontologies. Religion and Society 1: 89–109.
Danowski, Deborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2017. The Ends of the World. Cambridge: Polity.
Daston, Lorraine, and Mitman Gregg (eds). 2005. Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. New York: Columbia University.
Deacon, Terrence. 1997. The Symbolic Species. New York: Norton.
Deacon, Terrence. 2012. Incomplete Nature. New York: Norton.
De Fontenay, Elizabeth. 1998. Le silence des bêtes. La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité. Paris: Fayard.
De Grazia, David. 2002. Animal Rights. Oxford: OUP.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1993. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham University.
Descola, Philippe. 1994. In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia. Cambridge, NY: CUP.
Descola, Philippe. 1996. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle. New York: New Press.
Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Descola, Philippe. 2013. The Ecology of Others. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm.
Descola, Philippe. 2014. La composition des mondes. Entretiens avec Pierre Charbonnier. Paris: Flammarion.
De Waal, Frans. 2010. The Age of Empathy. New York: Three Rivers.
Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2011. Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford: OUP.
Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2014. Animal Rights, Multiculturalism, and the Left. Journal of Social Philosophy 45(1): 116–135.
Douglas, Mary. 1970. Natural Symbols. London: Barrie & Rockliff.
Ellen, Roy. 1986. What Black Elk Left Unsaid: On the Illusory Images of Green Primitivism. Anthropology Today 2(6): 8–12.
Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. 2001. The Ethnography of Creation: Lewis Henry Morgan and the American Beaver. In Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies, ed. Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon, 54–84. Durham, NC: Duke University.
Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. 2014. Bodies, Words, and Works: Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan on Human–Animal Relations. In America’s Darwin: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Culture, 1859–Present, ed. Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher, 265–301. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.
Fuentes, Agustin. 2006. The Humanity of Animals and the Animality of Humans: A View from Biological Anthropology. American Anthropologist 108(1): 124–132.
Garner, Robert. 2005. Animal Ethics. Manchester: Manchester University.
Garner, Robert, and Slobhan O’Sullivan (eds). 2016. The Political Turn in Animal Ethics. New York: Rowman.
Geertz, Clifford. 1983. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books.
Griffin, Donald. 1984. Animal Thinking. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Hallowell, Alfred I. 1960. Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View. In Culture in History. Essays in honor of Paul Radin, ed. Stanley Diamond, 49–82. New York: Columbia University.
Handler, Richard. 1988. Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
Hurn, Samantha. 2012. Humans and Other Animals: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Human–Animal Interactions. London: Pluto.
Ingold, Tim, (ed). 1994. Introduction. In What is an Animal?, ed. Tim Ingold, 1–16. London: Routledge.
Ingold, Tim.  1994. The Animal in the Study of Humanity. In What is an Animal?, ed. Tim Ingold, 84–99. London: Routledge.
Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.
Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.
Kirksey, S.Eben, and Helmreich Stefan. 2010. The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 545–576.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California.
Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society. London: Routledge.
Kuper, Adam. 1999. Culture. The Anthropologists’ Account. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. Oxford: OUP.
Leach, Edmund. 1964. Anthropological Aspects of Language. Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse. In New Directions in the Study of Language, ed. Eric Heinz Lennenberg, 23–63. Boston: MIT Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude, (ed). 1962. Jean Jacques Rousseau fondateur des sciences de l’homme. In Structural Anthropology Two. Chicago: Chicago University 1983.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1964. Totemism. London: Merlin.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: Chicago University.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1984. The View from Afar. Chicago: Chicago University.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2017. We are all Cannibals. New York: CUP.
Lévy Bruhl, Lucien. 1926. How Natives Think. London: Allen & Unwin.
Mancuso, Alessandro. 2016. Antropologia, “svolta ontologica”, politica. Archivio Antropologico Mediterraneo 18(2): 97–132.
Mauss, Marcel 1985 . A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; The Notion of Self. In (Ref. 15).
ΜcLennan John F. 1869–1870. The Worship of Animals and Plants. Fortnightly Review 6: 407–427, 562–582; 7: 194–216.
Mocerino, Roberta. 2016. Gesture, Interjection and Onomatopea in Tylor’s Theory of the Origin and Development of Language. Theoria et Historia Scientiarum 13: 71–84.
Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1868. The American Beaver. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1877. Ancient Society. New York: Holt & company.
Morris, Brian. 1994. Anthropology of the Self. London: Pluto.
Mullin, Molly. 2002. Animals and Anthropology. Animals and Society 10(4): 387–393.
Pellizzoni, Luigi. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World. London: Ashgate.
Regan, Tom. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. Los Angeles: University of California.
Rescigno, Francesca. 2014. I diritti degli animali. Torino: Giappichelli.
Rosa, Federico. 2003. L’age d’or du totemisme. Paris: MSH.
Sebeok, Thomas. 1994. ‘Animal’ in Biological and Semiotic Perspective. In What is an Animal?, ed. Tim Ingold, 63–76. London: Routledge.
Schaffner, Joan. 2011. An Introduction to Animals and the Law. Houndmills: Palgrave.
Singer, Peter. 2009 . Animal Liberation. New York: Harper & Collins.
Skafish, Peter. 2014. Introduction. In Ref. 86.
Skorupski, John. 1976. Symbol and Theory. Cambridge: CUP.
Stocking, George W. 1995. After Tylor. British Social Anthropology, 1888–1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
Tambiah, Stanley. 1969. Animals Are Good to Think. And Good to Prohibit. Ethnology 8(4): 423–459.
Taylor, Angus. 2009. Animals and Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate. Peterborough: Broadview.
Turner, Terence. 1991. We are Parrots, Twins are Birds: Play of Tropes as Operational Structure. In Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology, ed. James W. Fernandez, 121–158. Stanford, MA: Stanford University.
Tylor, Edward B. 1899. Remarks on Totemism, with Especial References to Some Theories Respecting It. JRAI 28(1/2): 138–148.
Tylor, Edward B. 1920 . Primitive Culture. New York: J. Putnam’s Sons.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds. Chicago: HAU Books-Chicago University.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2015. Cannibal Metaphysics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Willerslev, Rane. 2007. Soul Hunters. Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California.
Willis, Roy (ed.). 1990. Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World. London: Unwin Hyman.
Wise, Steven. 2002. Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Cambridge: Perseus.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Mancuso, A. On Some Difficulties of Putting in Dialogue Animal Rights with Anthropological Debates: A Historical View in Three Episodes. Int J Semiot Law 31, 677–705 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-018-9556-y
- Animal ethics
- Animal rights
- Cultural symbols
- Human/animal relationships