By Penelope Smith
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Many humans have an attitude that restricts their ability to understand or empathize with non-human animals and other life forms and has some serious consequences for all life on this planet. It is called anthropocentrism, or viewing man as the center or final aim of the universe. I refer to this in my book, Animal Talk, as the "human superiority
complex" considering humans as superior to or the pinnacle of all forms of life. From the anthropocentric view, non-human beings that are most like human are usually considered more intelligent, for example, chimpanzees who learn to use sign language or dolphins who signal word or thought comprehension through touching electronic devices in their tanks. Animals or other life forms that don't express themselves in human ways by language or in terms easily comprehensible by common human standards are often considered less developed, inferior, more primitive or mechanistic, and usually of less importance than humans.
This viewpoint has been used to justify using animals as objects for human ends. Since humans are the superior creatures, "dumb, unfeeling" non-humans can be disregarded, mistreated, subjugated, killed or whole species eliminated without much concern for their existence in itself, only their usefulness or lack of it to humankind.
Many humans, as they see other animals are more like them in patterns of behavior and expression of intelligence, begin to respect them more and treat them with more regard for their rights. However, this does not transcend the trap of anthropocentrism. To increase harmony of life on Earth, all beings need to be regarded as worthy of respect, whether seen as different or similar to the human species.
The anthropocentric view toward animals echoes the way in which many humans have discriminated against other humans because they were of different cultures, races, religions, or sexes. Regarding others as less intelligent or substandard has commonly been used to justify domination, cruelty or elimination of them.
Too often people label what they don't understand as inferior, dumb, or to be avoided, without attempting to understand a different way of being. More enlightened humans look upon meeting people, things or animals that are different than themselves as opportunities to expand their understanding, share new realities, and become more whole.
Anthropocentrism does not allow humans to bridge the artificial gap it creates. It leaves humans fragmented or alienated from much of their environment. We see the disastrous consequences of this in human disruption of the earth's ecology, causing the disintegration of health and harmony for all including human life.
Anthropocentrism causes humans to misjudge animal intelligence and awareness. Humans can get too fixed in the view or model that they indeed are the center of and separate from the universe and therefore the most intelligent and aware. They then see or seek only to prove that point.
Anthropocentric humans also tend to judge non-human animals according to human cultural standards, as human groups often do with other human cultures. Instead of viewing and evaluating animals according to the their own cultural experience, heredity, training and environment, they impose human environments, tests, standards and methods and evaluate animals, according to the ability to exhibit human-like behavior.
This is similar to the bias that was found in college preparatory and intelligence tests, which caused anyone unfamiliar with a white middle class upbringing to score lower and therefore to be considered less intelligent. Individuals with different ethnic backgrounds could not comprehend the tests' frames of reference and therefore were not able to express their intelligence through them.
When we respectfully regard animals as intelligent, sensitive fellow beings with whom we walk upon the Earth, our whole perspective of life changes. In cooperation instead of alienation, we can create a new balance and joy in living for all us here. Lets each of us do our part.