The Rational Animal
A Philosophical Fable by Susan Budd
Its first word was spoken on international television. Actually, its first words, since it spoke in a complete sentence. It did not speak eloquently. On the contrary, the average six year old had a better command of English than the odd little animal had. Yet it spoke intelligibly.
No one was surprised. Everyone knew they could talk, so no one was surprised when the television special aired. But quite a few people where surprised in the years following the discovery of the species when the animals they had adopted as pets started chatting away like toddlers. A lot of owners were delighted, many having formerly attributed human characteristics to their dogs. Some panicked and responded to the poor little animals’ first words with fear and even violence. But eventually word got round that they could talk.
The wonder of it is that it took people so long to figure it out, though “figure it out” is an undeservedly flattering way to put it. After all, we didn’t “figure it out.” We studied them for years and didn’t figure it out. They just started talking. Or more to the point, they just started talking our languages. Apparently they had been talking their own all along.
The discovery of the species had been the discovery of the millennium. It gave the world a ray of hope after the catastrophic climate change that altered the face of the planet.
After years of ignoring the gloomy predictions of global warming theorists, the governments of the world finally recognized the reality of the threat. At first it was believed that humanity could avert the disaster, but it was too late. The first flood destroyed the coastal cities of North America and Europe. The second submerged Japan entirely. By the time the ocean had stabilized to current levels, more than 90% of Earth was underwater.
In the aftermath of what many were calling “The Great Flood,” the nations of the Earth labored to maintain their governments and sustain their surviving populations. The United Countries of America led the way from the newly relocated White House at the top of Mount McKinley. The highly successful restructured government was modeled around the world.
The UCA made it look easy of course, for it had already been on good relations with its neighbors to the north and south. First Mexico was nearly submerged and the US-Mexico border was abandoned. Then the policing of the US-Canada border became a fairly low priority in the days of looting and mayhem. Eventually what was left of the continent was peopled by citizens of all three countries, fused into one by the cataclysm they had come through together. They regrouped. And so did the world.
Among the geographic novelties of the new globe was the temperate region in the Ellsworth Mountains of Antarctica. Every nation on Earth had designs on the place and the spirit of competition was rapidly overtaking the spirit of cooperation. Had it not been for the pirates, war might have ensued. But the pirates that roamed the World Ocean posed a threat to every nation and so a pact was made. The bounty, as it were, would be colonized by all nations.
The first Antarctic colonists reported sightings of the new species which would later be dubbed Phascolarctos sapiens, or more commonly, smart bears. Understandably, their interest centered around their stomachs. Food was scarce in the new world and one gets sick of fish after a while. The plump herbivores subsisted on leaves that were inedible to humans. They were relatively defenseless. And they existed in abundance. So it was quite natural for the resourceful colonists to greet them with bows and arrows.
Now, humans may be natural-born hunters, but they are also natural-born nurturers. And the strange new animals were cute. They were cuddly and fuzzy and irresistibly cute. So many of the colonists took to domesticating the creatures as house pets. Similar in appearance to the Koala, except for their blond coats and the almost human whites to their eyes, they showed themselves to be gentle, pleasant, and clean. The fad quickly reached the UCA where the smart bear replaced the dog as America’s favorite pet.
Meanwhile laboratory experiments were conducted on the animals and zoologists were dispatched to Antarctica to observe them in their natural habitat.
Even a casual observer could tell that the bears made a wide range of sounds. But lots of animals had extensive communication systems. The vocalizations of the bears did not initially seem to be any more sophisticated than those of dozens of other species.
The first bears that were captured did not seem especially intelligent. In fact, they were slow to learn commands and could not be enticed to play with the toys that amused other domesticated animals. But they were affectionate and sweet-tempered and so it became the custom to purchase a young bear as a children’s pet.
As the popularity of the bears grew, the Antarctic colonists gave in to the pleas of animal welfare groups to cease hunting the animals for food. The demand for pets made the animals far more valuable alive than dead. And besides, they weren’t especially tasty.
Convincing the scientists to cease their experiments on the novel creatures was not so easy, but eventually they too had to succumb to public pressure. People did not like experiments done on the very same creatures their children cuddled up with at night.
The first accounts of the animals’ speech were not taken seriously, so families tended to keep the news of their talking pets to themselves for fear of being called crazy. News did not travel as quickly in the new world as it had in the days before “The Great Flood.” There was no internet. All evidence was anecdotal. But people gossiped. Eventually they brought their friends and neighbors over to hear their pets utter phrases like “I wuv you” and “gimme hugs.” Naturally the animals were regarded as mimics, much like talking parrots. But much more than mere mimicry was going on.
Before a moratorium was declared on the vivisection of the bears, some startling discoveries were made about their larynges and tongues. As it turns out, Phascolarctos sapiens has a relatively low larynx and a tongue much like a human tongue. It can also control its breath just as a human does when speaking. For this reason, it can articulate sounds with great control. Its voice is much higher in pitch than a human voice, but it uses inflection in a way that no parrot can.
Linguists were astounded by the facility with which young animals acquired language skills. Clearly grammar came as naturally to their minds as it does to ours. They quickly sped from single words to short sentences. They distinguished between past, present, and future tenses. Moreover, they had excellent memories and a penchant for narrative and descriptive imagery. Nevertheless their conversation never surpassed the level of a kindergartener. For as advanced as their language skills were, their ideas remained childlike.
Attempts to teach them arithmetic proved thoroughly ineffective. They seemed to have some concept of number, but even the simplest of addition problems were beyond their ability.
If presented with a plate bearing one marshmallow (a treat universally relished by the creatures) and another bearing two, a bear will always select the plate bearing two and when asked for an explanation for its behavior, it will invariably state that the chosen plate contains “more” than the other.
The same outcome results when the choice is between two marshmallows and three, or three marshmallows and four, and so on. Thus do they demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of more and less. However, when asked how they know that one plate has more marshmallows than the other, they are bewildered and cannot explain.
The concept of counting is meaningless to them. They learn to recite, or to be more accurate, to sing numbers—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one—in much the same way that a child (or bear, for that matter) sings “The Alphabet Song,” where elemeno-pee is sung as a word like any other.
Reading was also incomprehensible to them. They could not be persuaded that the ink marks they were being asked to look at possessed meaning.
They even had difficulty with pictures. When shown an illustration in a book, a bear will frequently comment on the colors, especially if the colors are vivid, but it will rarely be able to identify the subject of the illustration. It is likely that they simply cannot conceptualize what they see in two dimensions. But their innate desire to please their interviewers keeps them trying and their remarkable memories allow them to answer accurately when the forgetful interviewer presents them with an image they have discussed before.
While scientists studied, zoologists observed, and pet owners marveled at the amazing marsupials, the philosophical implications of a talking animal did not go unnoticed.
Before the discovery of the smart bears, man was the only animal that talked—really talked. Man was the rational animal. What was his defining trait now? His intellect? But that was a difference in degree rather than in kind. The bears were intelligent. The fact that their intelligence seemed to be arrested at the level of a five or six year old child mattered not. There were people with developmental disabilities who likewise did not develop past the level of a small child.
Furthermore, the bears often demonstrated a rationality that seemed to surpass their actual IQ. When presented with a dilemma, they reasoned in a manner that could only be described as sensible, sensitive to the needs of others, and even logical. Their reasoning was simple, but it was sound.
While philosophers puzzled about human nature, for it was indeed human nature that they sought to define in contrast with Phascolarctos sapiens, theologians gingerly took up the question of their place in God’s plan. Did they have souls? It was a delicate question, and it could not be put off forever. Bear-lovers assumed they did with the same conviction with which they had believed in the souls of their dogs. But not everyone found the creatures charming.
A small religious sect known as the Image of God was fervently opposed to the species. Imagers called the animals “demon-bears” and advocated their extermination. Fortunately the group did not pose a serious threat to pet bears, who were protected by the same laws that protected pet dogs and cats from cruelty and violence.
Of greater interest to the world than the ravings of a fringe religious group in the UCA was the two-year study conducted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Although the zoological data was incomplete—field work with the animals in their natural Antarctic habitat still being in its infancy—Pope Benedict XIX was ready to address the Catholic world on the status of the species.
Interest in the Papal pronouncement was certainly not limited to Christians. The philosophical implications of a nonhuman animal with an immortal soul affected everyone. Even atheists, who did not believe anyone had a soul, immortal or otherwise, realized that the religious concept of soul was intimately related to the humanistic concept of personhood and atheistic philosophers were deeply enmeshed in arguments about whether or not the bears should be regarded as persons.
The question of personhood was not solely an academic question. Early on, animal welfare groups found that the investigation of abuse allegations in the case of the bears was more akin to that of child abuse than animal abuse. After all, no other animal could name its abuser or describe the crimes committed against it.
Like children, the bears had difficulty processing the idea that the person who professed to love them was hurting them. But unlike children they did not hesitate to name names. It was not that they lacked a child’s reluctance to implicate a loved one. It was merely that they were too matter-of-fact to even consider concealment an option.
For it was a strange thing about the bears’ speech that they seemed incapable of deception of any kind, neither lying, nor dissimulation, nor even play-acting. When read to from a storybook a bear will always receive the story as fact. Explanations that the story did not really happen or that something someone said was not really true are comprehensible to children, who generally learn to lie by age four, but bears never master this dubious skill. Thus their accusations of abuse are candid and unembellished.
One would have to be made of stone to hear such a creature tell of its sufferings at the hand of its beloved owner without one’s heart breaking. Elevating the bears to the status of personhood would raise the penalty for abuse against them from that of animal abuse to assault against a person.
So everyone was concerned with what the Pope would say. Considering that opinions about the bears differed wildly, it is ironic that everyone was annoyed with what the Pope did say. From the Vatican Palace at Mont Blanc, Pope Benedict XIX addressed the crowd of the faithful: “Only God knows if they have souls.” It wasn’t the answer anyone wanted. In fact, to many it wasn’t an answer at all.
But it was. People had simply gotten out of the habit of paying attention to anything more than soundbites from their televisions. For those who took the time to listen to the entire address, it was the only answer possible.
The question of whether they had souls was a metaphysical question. The answer would determine how the creatures should be treated. But only God knows if they have souls. Yet the moral question of how they should be treated must still must be answered. If they are treated as if they have souls, and they do, then good. If they are treated as if they don’t have souls, and they don’t, also good. But what if we’re wrong? What if we treat them as if they don’t have souls, and they do? A few viewers caught the allusion to Pascal.
The borders of the Smart Bear Preserve shrunk as the Antarctic colony grew in size and prosperity. The Smart Bear business was as short-lived as it was lucrative, for the bears were easy to breed. But the sudden wealth the bears brought to the colony enabled it to expand its economy and become one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Now the Antarcticans no longer needed the bears. They did little for the economy and their habitat took up too much valuable space.
The zoological team stationed at the Smart Bear Preserve was fighting a never-ending and nerve-wracking battle with the Antarctic government. Aided by wildlife conservation groups around the world, they had been able to slow the steady destruction of Smart Bear habitat. But the competition for space on an ocean world was fierce and bear activists did not have as much public support as they needed to keep the Antarctic government at bay for much longer. For as much as the majority loved the bears, most people did not appreciate the need to maintain their natural habitat.
The animals flourished as domestic pets in households the world over. Every country had zoos that recreated the natural habitat of the animals. There was simply no need, thought the average person, to set aside a large tract of valuable land to the wild bears.
Meanwhile the zoologists living with the wild bears were working frantically to crack the code of their language. The study of the language had long been delayed by the fact that it took so long for anyone to realize that their vocalizations were a bona fide language.
The first generations of zoologists were primarily concerned with behavior. The animals seemed to have no aggressive instincts. They had no natural predators to fear, save man of course, and they were not quite smart enough to see that. Before the reduction of their habitat began they knew only abundance. Yet when confronted with a situation of scarcity, a bear will always share rather than horde what it finds. This was the chief source of fascination, this and their ability to learn our languages.
The discovery that they were speaking a language amongst themselves was a fluke. Two wild bears were grunting to each other, as they are wont to do, when one turned to the zoologist sitting next to it and said, “How about you?”
Up until that moment, bear experts around the world unanimously agreed that the grunt was merely an expression of camaraderie. Apparently what sounds to human ears like a repetitive grunt is more nuanced than anyone could have imagined. The conversation with the bear that ensued was described by the zoologist, Dr. Han Wu, as an Abbott and Costello routine, with Wu playing the part of Abbott.
The bear’s “How about you?” indicated that it was bringing Wu into the conversation. It had switched over to English in order to include him. So Wu assumed he only had to ask the bear to translate what it had said to its companion into English. But translation turned out to be another concept the bears could not grasp. The question, “What did you say to your friend?” was answered with a series of seemingly identical rhythmless grunts. When Wu corrected himself and asked the bear what it said to its friend “in English,” the bear replied that it had not spoken to its friend in English. It went on like that for about a half an hour.
Zoologists and linguists hoped that if they could decipher the language of the wild bears, they could justify the Preserve’s existence. A language was a culture and a culture, they reasoned, deserved preservation.
Since the bears could neither translate nor teach their language to their observers, it was decided to return to basics. No longer would the wild bears be exposed to human languages. The next generation of newborns would be spared contamination with English, Mandarin, Yoruba, and all the other languages previous generations had learned from the men and women that lived among them.
Luckily, adult bears either could not or simply did not teach human languages to their offspring. Soon, the use of human languages disappeared in the wild and zoologists avoided speaking to each other in the presence of the bears, especially the youngsters who caught on so much more quickly than their elders.
Poaching was usually not a problem, but from time to time starving pirates took their chances with the Antarctic National Guard and raided the coastal regions of the Preserve, making off with as many animals as they could grab and horrifying the world by eating them.
The latest incursion was a blessing in disguise for the Antarctic government. Desperate pirates penetrated farther inland than they normally would and encountered five zoologists who were sleeping amid a family of bears. The zoologists fought back and three were killed. Of the two that survived the attack, one later died of her injuries and the other lived to tell the tale.
Instead of tightening security along the coast, the government announced the closure of the Preserve, citing danger to the zoologists who camped there. The decision was immediately denounced as hypocritical by every scientific organization remotely connected to the bears, but to no avail. Preserve staff was given ninety days to clear out and the wild bears were to be divided up among the world’s zoos.
In a final effort to influence the Antarctic government through public support for the Preserve, a bear’s rights organization donated television airtime to the cause. The now elderly Dr. Wu, who was still a minor celebrity, brought a wild bear from the Preserve and sat on the stage with the animal in his lap.
It was an emotional hour. Scientists and philosophers spoke, celebrities sang heart wrenching songs, and viewers called in with stories and donations. All the while the wild bear, untutored in English or any human language, watched the goings-on with increasing interest.
It had never heard human language until Dr. Wu brought it aboard the ocean liner that would transport them to the television studio in Whitehorse—a two week voyage. Though well past the peak years for language acquisition, it did not fail to observe the agitation and even frenzy of the people around it. Alert to the tension in the air, it concentrated all of its attention on the sounds and movements of the people.
Towards the end of the program, the camera was focused on the bear as celebrities approached to pat its head or tell it what a good boy it was. And just as an international fashion star reached down to scratch it behind the ear, it cleared its throat a little and said in a squeaky voice: “Save my home.”
The closing of the world’s only wild bear preserve was all anyone talked about in the weeks following the television special, so much so that even the bears started to comprehend what was at stake. Their wild relatives were being ejected from their natural habitat. A unique and irreplaceable way of life was coming to an end.
A more intelligent species would have rebelled. A more aggressive species would have struck back. But the bears were simple, sincere, and meek. They didn’t stand a chance.