There’s More Than One Way To Skin A Dead Companion Animal

There are enough details in the New York Observer report that we can piece together what happened. The scene: the monthly meeting of the New York Skeptics at a Kips Bay restaurant.

Massimo Pigulucci, an academic philosopher, polished the surgical-steel stud in his left lobe. He sipped his Pinot Grigio, cleared his throat, smiled at his dinner companions, and asked, “Is there anything unique about human beings?” Skinning a dead cat

Horrors! A philosophical car accident! Something went catastrophically wrong with Pigulucci’s thought. To prove that his steering off the sanity highway was purposeful, he clarified: “Is there such a thing as some characteristic or characteristics that distinguish human beings from the rest of the living world?”

The paper reports that one Leslie, a psychotherapist, offered, “Whales can communicate 10,000 miles away.” She also claimed that these great fish (Melville said so) have a vocabulary larger than do people. This is almost certainly false, since the number of unique words known to humans numbers in the millions.

And even if whales can use the superior sound-conducting properties of salt water to good effect, 10,000 undersea miles is a drop in the bucket. People can communicate over billions of miles, and over thousands of years of time. Whales have dull conversations and write no books.

A few apes, held in the most rigorous laboratory conditions, can be taught to mimic a handful of signs, and can even use these signs to ask for an extra ration of bananas. But even a Harvard educated monkey would never know that Sparky Anderson was signaling for a suicide squeeze.

Comparing animal to human intelligence is like contrasting the processing power of a Casio LED Watch to that of wiring every computer on Earth together in parallel. There is nothing on this planet that is like us. There is nothing even remotely close to us. Perhaps a member from the almost-human Neandertals—or some other representative from the genus Homo—could have held his own in a chess match with a human, but there aren’t any of them left to check.

There are plenty of reasons to study our relationship to animals—I know a woman who claims that serial murders are drawn disproportionately from chicken farmers—and certainly there are ethical questions to be answered with respect to our treatment of the beasts.

So while it remains interesting to ask why we are different, there is no point to ask if we are different. That we are is so obvious that the explanation of why academics question our uniqueness must be psychological. Perhaps their mothers were too indulgent or they enjoy being thought “deep.” Who knows?

Here is another for instance. The Telegraph reports that the new, peer-reviewed Journal of Animal Ethics begins life with the plea to call “wild” animals free-living.

Why? Well, “‘wildness’ is synonymous with uncivilised, unrestrained, barbarous existence.” Are we to conclude that “free-living” animals have civilizations, that they are restrained and non-barbarous—except, of course, when they are mercilessly eating each other?

Also, we mustn’t call animals “critters” and “beasts.” Pets should be called “companion animals”, and their human masters should be known by the difficult-to-pronounce “human carers,” as in, “Hi, I’m Sam. Fido’s human carer. Ignore the leash.”

The Animals and Society Institute, human carers of the Journal of Animal Ethics, is miffed that some think that “crazy academics…are worried that animals will be ‘insulted’ if we call them pets.” Not so. They insist that the language we use to describe our Earth-companions “shapes our treatment of them.”

[I]dioms like “skin a dead cat” contribute to a permissive social attitude towards the abuse of animals. Negative animal idioms normalize or trivialize violence towards animals. When sayings like “flog a dead horse” are used and become a normal part of our vocabulary, we can no longer “see” the implications of human violence against animals. These expressions mask the real violence within them and demonstrate human power over animals.

The dangers of tenure! The signs have long been plain: if they would have been a snake, they would have bitten us. We can’t expect a leopard to change his spots, so we must look forward to more of this kind of shockingly poor reasoning from academics. We can’t just let sleeping dogs lie. We must protest our students! If we don’t do something to curtail these professorial excesses, our goose is cooked.


  1. Ken

    Ah, “what’s unique about humans?” Is an old philosophical & sociological & anthropological question.

    For a long time the answer thought true was that humans could & did fashion, and invent, tools. Then chimps were observed doing this (crudely, but still)…so the issue again became an issue. Later it was determined that humans could create, use & understand symbols — the ‘ability to symbol’ or something like that.

    Penn & Teller did a good play on this in their short skit called, “The Invisible Thread.” That was sometime in the late 80s. Here’s the YouTube start, but it merely provides key background info for what comes later:

  2. mbabbitt

    I’m waiting to read the comments written by non-humans to this blog entry.

  3. John Gorter


    Non-humans ? How about

    ‘Die! Miserable Earth scum!’

    John Gorter

  4. MDM

    Egads! Is there no end to politically correct bull s**t?! So sorry…I meant to say bovine fecal matter. Please don’t turn me in.

  5. I would aver that it is the domestication of the chicken that has allowed it to flourish through the ages. The arrows in the defensive quiver of the chicken are limited. I don’t believe the “herd” defense would ward off repeated attacks by foxes or wolves. (Or other anti-social critters.)

    Nor are chickens noted for their keen sense of sight or smell. Yes, some roosters might be able to dominate other roosters, but if I were a hen, I’d want something just a bit more fierce than Foghorn Leghorn by my side.

    I suppose that at some level, there might be some chickens that would be able to adapt to their environment, in order to use their colour or shading as a camouflage. But, again, I think that foxes or wolves would again be undeterred from detecting the hidden chicken. Have you ever been around a chicken? They do smell.

    Having neither antler nor horn, limited vision and hearing, being neither poisonous nor foul-tasting, I would predict an early elimination of our feathered brethren. So how is it that the chicken has succeeded in surviving across the ages? I would suggest the economic benefit of the chicken as a food-source for man, whose cost of production is lower than its dietary benefit. Simple, horrible economics, and, whether Marxian or capitalistic, recognizes this.

    Man, at his worst then, allows for the survival of the chicken. Granted, for all the wrong reasons. But that’s life.

  6. andy

    The thing unique about humans is that we can ask the question ‘Is there anything unique about us?’

    Of course I will never get tenure.

  7. Doug M


    I would put the cow above the chicken in my list of unable to survive without human assistance. I have seen feral chickens, I have never heard of feral cows.

    What makes humans unique — Humans are the only speices that keep pets.

  8. Ray

    Even more dangerous than feral chickens are feral rabbits. They are mean. Remember when Jimmy Carter was attacked by one?

  9. The truly unique thing about humans is that some of us sit around and aimlessly think thoughts never thought before. Virgin thoughts, as it were. Unsullied, undeveloped, unconventional, unstructured, unfinished, unique thoughts. Humans who strain for these thoughts do so to prove to peers and themselves they possess a superior intellect. Today we are discussing Pigulucci’s contribution to this process. At first he wins the thought contest today within his group, but upon further review its discovered his thought has been thunk before. By ostriches.

  10. I guess this is the kind of cotton-candy thinking a society turns to when it thinks all the big problems have been solved. Or it’s a product of pampered people, fed and housed by the state, who are asked to produce nothing useful in return

  11. I am completely happy that you are taking on, even if briefly, this Massimo guy.

  12. Rich

    The geneticist Steve Jones once responded to the announcement that we share 99.4% (or whatever) of our genes with chimps who were, therefore, our closest ‘cousins’. He said, “When they sequence their own genome I’ll be impressed.” I’m with Steve.

  13. Noblesse Oblige

    Our goose is indeed cooked. But alas, that does slander on geese, free-living or not.

  14. DAV


    Also, we mustn’t call animals “critters” and “beasts.” Pets should be called “companion animals”

    I see you’ve been hanging around PETA-philes.

    There is nothing on this planet that is like us.

    Equally true of elephants, wouldn’t you agree?

    Every species has some characteristic which puts it where it is today. We have refined intelligence but it is hardly unique. There is a gradation throughout the mammalian world at least. Granted, the evidence is anecdotal.

    A few apes, held in the most rigorous laboratory conditions, can be taught to mimic a handful of signs …

    Yet many animals, even insects, apparently communicate with each other. They can learn, though — that’s the key. 3yo humans also need to be taught many things. You shouldn’t be comparing our efficiency with a lack elsewhere. Your strength doesn’t compare at all with that of the elephant. Of course, you would likely say intelligence is more important. However, strength seems to suit the elephant just fine.

    What that means, I don’t know but it’s a dog-eat-dog world. I prefer being the eater than the eaten. I’m not in favor of flaunting advantage but, as you have said, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

  15. Eric Anderson

    The idea that the difference between man and other creatures is simply one of degree is an important doctrinal plank in the materialst worldview. And if folks are able to convince themselves that the difference in degree is slight, then the myth is even so much more palatable (because a small difference is more believable than a large difference in the materialist paradigm).

    It is certainly a legitimate question to ask what is unique about humans. We get off track, however, when we focus on the similarities and systematically ignore the uniqueness. The fact that the question is even asked, and understood, and analyzed, and discussed, provides a pretty good starting point to understanding some of the uniqueness.

  16. We must protest our students!

    Never a truer word said!

    btw, I raise chickens. They eat my garbage, I eat their babies (in egg form). I am also a cereal killer.

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