Virago, £30, 469pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

What It Means to be Human, By Joanna Bourke


Take Emmanuel Levinas's encounters with a dog called Bobby in the 1940s, in a camp near Hanover. Here the philosopher, a Lithuanian-born Jew, was one of 70 cruelly overworked slaves. But every morning and evening Bobby bounded forward to greet him delightedly. "Wasn't it remarkable that, at a time when millions of Homo sapiens were being classified as sub-human or even non-human," Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, "Bobby 'had no doubt that we were men'." But as Joanna Bourke relates, Levinas, when writing up this experiences 30 years later, found himself in difficulties. Recognition of the Other was for him the key to ethics, to which nothing was more important than the face-to-face encounter. But how to place his and Bobby's? Surely the dog couldn't "universalise from basic principles", and did he actually have a face?

This last query was hardly without precedents. Pre-eminent physiognomists, Johann Kaspar Lavater and Sir Charles Bell, would have denied Bobby a face. Look into a dog's eyes, said Swiss pastor Lavater, and you see the vast difference from yourself; besides, the ears are floppy, sign of slavishness. Bell's negative depended on the mouth. "Dogs, in their expression of fondness", a feeling he did concede them, "have a slight eversion of the lips... but nothing which truly approaches to human expression." More than nomenclature is at stake. Eyes are "mirrors of the soul", which most orthodox religious deny animals possess. Lips are for speaking, and isn't speech our supreme distinguishing ability? The great philologist Max Müller was eloquent here, arguing against "even so great a general" as Darwin: speech rendered evolution from apes "impossible, or, at all events, unscientific".

How about deaf-mutes then? Unlike true humans, they could not sing out praises to God. Reynolds' Miscellany 1855 had to pronounce them essentially animals. "Lacking rationality," observes Bourke tartly, "they were excluded from voting, along with 'idiots', infants and criminals. And, of course, women."

If earlier centuries had doubted that women had souls – childbirth rendering them animal - the modern period doubted their capacity for reason. Here comparisons with members of the slave races - African, Australasian – occurred. They were frankly physical, frequently submissive, weak when not vicious: qualities hardly consonant with a position on the top rung of creation's ladder. For Bourke, in this intellectually energetic and important book, human/animal relations and human/human ones ceaselessly cross over, with identity as one infused by the identifications accorded the other.

Bourke uses two brilliant indices. First the writer to The Times, in April 1872, who called herself An Earnest Englishwoman. She pointed out that as British law favoured mistreated dogs and horses over assaulted wives and mistresses, women might do well to ask for "a definitive acknowledgement that they are at least animals". Second, Bourke takes Haiti, where she grew up. In 1791, this slave society declared itself a nation, earning vilification from an outraged Europe. Haitians, like Levinas's camp-mates, were denied proper humanity. Bourke also makes Wuthering Heights a locus classicus for the revision of human/animal distinctions.

What It Means to be Human surveys two centuries of fraught attempts at definition. What a history it reveals of aggressive ingenuity and cavalier disregard for commonsensical contradiction, always propelled by ulterior purpose: to maintain power, or shore up the status quo. Bourke, with persuasive dedication, deconstructs each attempt to oppose or jettison inclusiveness. It is Derrida, more than his friend Levinas, whom she finds the wisest philosopher to address human/animal issues. Bourke considers him "the philosopher of the Möbius Strip", that "continuous single-sided" paper construct with no exits or entrances.

Bourke, whose last chapters probe xenotransplantation and stem cell research, refuses to end with a clarion-call or blueprint. I return to Levinas's encounter. Another dog might have behaved similarly to Bobby but not identically; Bobby was unique. Once uniqueness is admitted, the very notion of eating, hunting, experimenting on or culling any animal undergoes irreversible change.

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