John Hartigan, Jr.
Ethnographers are generating a more detailed view of humans’ relationships with other animals. Quite poignantly, Animal Ethos, by Lesley Sharp, focuses on the deaths of laboratory research animals, which possibly number in the millions annually worldwide. This book is crucial for anyone seeking to understand how researchers and lab technicians think about what they are doing when they work with animals fated to die at the end of their usefulness in producing data. But this book also highlights some of the boundary work ethnographers engage in as they bring animals into their accounts.
Animal Ethos is organized into three parts, Intimacy, Sacrifice: An Interlude, and Exceptionalism, comprising five chapters: “The Sentimental Structure of Laboratory Life,” “Why Do Monkeys Watch TV?” “The Lives and Deaths of Laboratory Animals,” “Science and Salvation,” and “The Animal Commons.” Sharp’s guiding question is: “How do scientists think in moral terms about their work with animals when they go home at the end of the day?” (p. 4). She broadly characterizes this book as an “ethnographic engagement with the moral realms of science,” focusing on “how quotidian processes within domains of science evidence moral thought and action” (p. 5).
Sharp honed her attention to such domains in her previous work on organ transplants. Medical anthropologists will likely be most familiar with Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self (2006). As Sharp pursued transplant practices further, animals started coming into view for her. The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science examined xenotransplantation—efforts to cull organs from animals for human use—along with bioengineering to designing implantable mechanical devices in humans. In analyzing research practices informed by “hopes of implanting parts derived from primates or pigs into ailing human bodies,” Sharp focused intently on “the moral dimension of risky experimental science” (2013, 3). She makes the same choice in Animal Ethos, which certainly is insightful regarding humans, but ends up limiting our attention both to the data produced through lab research and to the animals themselves.
The use of research animals is largely predicated on their degrees of commonality with humans. As Sharp notes: “The ethical practice of employing animals as human proxies relies on hierarchies of similarity, whereby our species share evolutionary, behavioral, and cognitive histories and qualities with other animals” (p. 50). This is the basis on which animals, as research subjects, are used to model certain conditions, diseases, or frailties in humans. Among these varied “proxies for humans,” not surprisingly, the ones “who” cause the most consternation and unease among researchers are those closest to us—primates, our evolutionary relatives, and dogs, our oldest and most enduring domesticates. Their similarities to us matter to the researchers in more than emotional or moral terms; they are the basis for data being produced and the ranges of claims or practices based on those data. Yet Sharp construes such commonalities only as discursive analogies; assertions of “interspecies kindredness” just rationalize an exploitative logic—as in, “evolutionary proximity naturalizes this logic and legitimates such scientific practices” (p. 50). Sharp’s boundary work here—delineating social from evolutionary frameworks, ideology from biology and genetics—screens the animals from the reader.
Such interdictions are most striking in the book’s wide-ranging attention to emotion; remember, it was Darwin who pointed out that emotions are something we share with many nonhumans. In arguing that the difference between humans and animals “is one of degree and not of kind,” Darwin wrote in the Descent of Man: “We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.” But in Animal Ethos, the line around the ethnographic subject, suggesting a difference of kind, is drawn so emphatically that it seems only humans have emotions, or certainly only theirs are under consideration.
As the “animal question” and the “species turn” percolate through various corners of the humanities and social sciences, Animal Ethos provides an indicator of the hurdles facing those lines of thinking, even within an ethnography focused on “interspecies encounters” and “cohabitations” (pp. 1, 2). Sharp makes note “of long-standing interests in anthropology” regarding “interspecies intimacies” (p. 17), and she references Latour’s approach to regarding nonhumans as “actants” (p. 10). But she writes, “I bristle at playful celebrations of ‘multispecies’ encounters,” citing Eben Kirksey’s work, in particular. So how does Sharp approach and regard the copious nonhumans in the settings she studies? Basically, “as an anthropologist,” she reports, “I am by this point in my career hardwired to think of animals in social terms” (p. 41): that is, as meaningful (to humans), not meaning-bound (with conspecifics or in interspecies encounters). The “affective responses to animals” that interest her so much, “are evident not in how involved researchers use animals, but in how they talk and think about them” (p. 42)—i.e., what they take “home at the end of the day” rather than what they do with animals during working hours. Though she rails against “animal erasures” committed by these researchers in using the language of “sacrifice,” Sharp’s choice of focus produces similar effects.
We also only glimpse briefly the kinds of knowledge practices and claims being generated from these animals. Sharp mentions Douglas, a senior neuroscientist, to make the point “that each time a researcher draws on this data and reports findings derived from his or her monkey, the researcher not only remembers the monkey but, in a queerly bureaucratized way, memorializes the animal too” (p. 139). The animals’ afterlives as data are surely part of their laboratory lives, as well as those of the generations preceding and following from them. But to bring this into the ethnographic frame entails taking our shared “evolutionary, behavioral, and cognitive histories and qualities with other animals” (p. 50) seriously as something to be known, as well as something ideologically framed. It is an open question whether attention to nonhumans will largely refortify ethnography as a redoubt of human exceptionalism or if it will offer a powerful means of challenging anthropocentrism through fine-grained renderings of our entanglements with other species. The answer lies in the possibility of infusing a social analysis with an evolutionary perspective. Sharp’s boundary work around this question provides a lesson for ethnographers hoping to engage animals as ethnographic subjects, whether in or outside of labs.
Sharp, L. 2006. Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sharp, L. 2013. The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.