“The human is an animal that claims not to be one,” says Laurent Bègue-Shankland, professor of social psychology at the University of Grenoble Alpes and member of the Institut Universitaire de France. In his fascinating book In front of animals (Odile Jacob), he explores the ambivalent relationship that binds us to our “best friends”: a bond made up of fascination and domination, of attachment but also of cruelty… Why our behavior towards animals is they so paradoxical? What do they reveal about us? How do we manage with our conscience to eat animals or to skin them in scientific experiments? Maintenance.
Le Temps: Why did you write this book?
Laurent Begue-Shankland: More than a hundred scientific publications now make the link between aggressive behavior in humans – one of my research themes for twenty years – and animal cruelty. This idea was already suggested by Pythagoras, Kant or Montaigne, but data on this subject have multiplied in recent years. It seemed interesting to me to take stock of our relations with animals, because they are very revealing of our relations between humans, of our conception of difference. Animals are screens on which we project our emotions and our inner worlds: we have a powerful attachment to them but also darker behaviors.
Are animals really our best friends?
It may seem strange that our best friends are also our best treats! We are intimately attached to the animal world, having developed during our common evolution an emotional closeness that is difficult to ignore. Many studies have shown the beneficial effect of pets on our health and morale: hugging an animal reduces blood pressure or allows better recovery after an operation. In March 2020, people confined with an animal had a morale 16% higher than others¹. But if animals contribute to our well-being, the reverse is not true: when an animal meets a human on this planet, it often ends badly for him.
We have always been fascinated by animals but we have also sought to dominate them. We did not deprive ourselves of using all their resources: their driving force, their materials – flesh, fat, skin, hair, feathers, bones, ivory… We also had to invent means to protect ourselves from the predators who terrorized us. It is only since the end of the 19th century that the anxieties caused by certain threatening animals have diminished in Europe: wolves and bears have been decimated, insect pests dominated…
We feel more empathy towards species close to ours in appearance, size, intelligence
We establish a kind of hierarchy between animal species?
We feel more empathy towards species close to ours by their appearance, their size, the intelligence that we attribute to them and all the morphological clues that make them comparable to us. Recognizing ourselves more in great apes than in anemones, we are more attached to primates, whereas morphologically very distant animals leave us almost entirely indifferent. After watching the documentary The Wisdom of the Octopus (Oscar 2021 for best documentary) which shows the sensitivity and cognitive abilities of octopuses, many will find it difficult to order them in restaurants because we experience a lot of disgust in consuming those who are gifted with thoughts…
You say that our generation will have surpassed all others in their scientific understanding of animals…
Over the past thirty years, we have made great progress in understanding their social, cognitive and emotional capacities; abilities that we thought them, by nature, lacking. And yet, we have never used them so much for food or scientific purposes: from 65 to 100 billion animals end up on our plates, and nearly 115 million are used in scientific research.
The increase in our knowledge about animals does not automatically transform our behavior towards them, but it nevertheless makes their massive consumption more uncomfortable. We are forced to put in place strategies to muzzle our empathy towards them and resolve what the American psychologist Leon Festinger called in 1957 “cognitive dissonance”, in other words a state of uncomfortable tension caused by the contradiction between two cognitions that are not easily compatible. : we love animals and yet we continue to eat them.
To reduce this dissonance, we often resort to invisibilization: slaughterhouses are today located on the outskirts of urban spaces; we no longer present the body of an animal on the table with its fleece or its feathers… It is more comfortable to eat a piece of meat of geometric shape on polystyrene… Minimizing the capacities of animals is also another strategy: a study² indicated that the simple fact, for someone, of anticipating the consumption of a piece of meat contributed to lessen the emotional and mental capacities attributed to slaughter animals.
Does our empathy for animals also depend on our gender?
Absolutely. Already, in the 19th century, 60% of the antivivisectionist leaders (against cruel experiments on living animals) were women, which represents a high figure at a time when they were almost invisible in the public space. Even today, commitment to animals at public events remains very feminine. According to a study³, the probability that a woman hits an animal is 39 times lower than a man. We still wonder about the reasons for this difference: women are perhaps better prepared to take on the role of care, mothering functions…
Why is it important to be aware of our ambivalence towards animals?
The break we have created between them and us comes from a form of narcissism that could well turn against us. Because of our interdependence, of which we are increasingly aware, mass extinctions of animals can also announce a rather worrying fate for ourselves. There is no question of abolishing animal experimentation, but we could, for example, develop more alternative solutions (cell cultures, mathematical modelling, etc.), sometimes more relevant according to the scientists themselves. Our view of animals must continue to evolve: we see them more and more for what they are, not just for what they bring us.
1) AssessFirst 2020 survey, quoted in “Barbaries. Animal welfare: it is urgent to act” by Loïc Dombreval (Michel Lafon, 2021)
2) Quoted in “Faced with a wild beast”, Joëlle Zask (First parallel, 2021)
3) “Gender Differences in Human-Animal Interaction”, Harold Herzog, Western Carolina University, 2007