, , , , , , ,

In part one, I touched on the tremendous insight into animality in Barbara Smuts’ article “Encounters with Animal Minds.”  However, the main themes of her narrative revolved around interspecies relationships and the concept of intersubjectivity.  Using personal narratives to describe her research experience with a baboon tribe in Africa and her intimate experience with dog companion Safi, she creates a theory of interspecies relationships based on direct experience.  Despite her focus on direct experience and phenomenological insight, she doesn’t stray too far from her scientific roots.  She concludes the paper with seven concrete stages she discovered in building interspecies relationships.

Barbara Smuts’ stages for building interspecies relationships between animals are based on her experiences with baboons, but they can apply to all animal (including human) interspecies encounters.  Although the stages are simplified to the scale of interpersonal relations, they also apply to inter-community relations.

  1. The animal responds to other animal in an impersonal and reflexive way.
  2. The animal attempts to learn about other animal (like if she is a threat or not).
  3. The animal recognizes other animal as an individual and responds to her in ways that may differ toward other individuals of her species.
  4. The animal recognizes other animal in the likeness of him, allowing communication to commence.
  5. The animal and other animal co-create a system of communication allowing them to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.  This communication system typically transcends the communication boundaries of their species or cultures.
  6. The animal and other animal engage in mutually beneficial activities that further tighten the bond, thereby leaving them to share “mutuality” and sustain their relationship.
  7. The animal and other animal experience such a profound relationship that their subjective identities merge into a single awareness (even if it’s temporary).

Stages 1-3 do not necessitate “friendly” motives.  By “friendly”, Smuts’ means that the motives do not necessarily rule out the likelihood of one inflicting harm on the other, like in the case of predator-prey interactions.  In this context, predator and prey are not enemies because of this shared experience, but they are not friends either.  Additionally, in stages 1-3, equal level of achievement between the animals involved is not required.  For instance, a cat may recognize a beetle long enough to discern his individuality but the beetle may never view the cat other than a “looming threat.”

The remaining stages 4-7 require that the animals involved recognize one another as communicative beings, thereby requiring cooperation.

Stages 4 and 5 do not require mutual affection or altruistic motives between the animals.  Instead, they insist upon “the capacity in both [animals] to recognize and communicate about what’s in their best interests.”  This “capacity” does not conform to western technical understanding of mind and consciousness.  It is instead something transcendent that requires relating to one another and meeting on a shared ground that is not exclusively embedded in the cultures of either animals.  As a result, the capacity for the animals to understand each other grows from the culture they co-create, unique to their relationship.

Stages 6 and 7, what she calls the stages of intersubjectivity, involve a commitment in the relationship between the animals “no matter what.”  This means the relationship transcends utilitarian motives.  As a result, they tend to be the most rewarding kinds of relationships (and most lasting).  These relationships are usually confined to the interpersonal level, though not exclusively.  In stage 7, the separation between the two animals temporarily dissolves, otherwise known as a shift in consciousness.  The “selves” of the animals melt away for a time and the individual beings become one whole being.  This experience is primarily spiritual and can range from a few minutes to several hours.

Smuts describes intersubjectivity as a shared mutuality more and its significance in building interspecies relationships, particularly in the last two stages:

There is an inherent paradox in intersubjectivity so defined because at both of these levels [six and seven], participation in the relationship cannot be coerced but must, by definition, reflect independent agency by each animal.  Yet at the same time, the relationship creates for each individual a new subjective reality…that transcends (without negating) the individuality of the participants.

As a result, intersubjectivity requires the presence of a “self,” but this self differs completely from the scientific understanding of “self-awareness” and “consciousness.”  This “self,” which she also refers to as “presence,” is more synonymous with soul or spirit, the seat of aliveness.  Through intersubjectivity, we “sense that inside this other body, there is ‘someone home,’ someone so like ourselves in their essence that we can co-create a shared reality as equals.”  Essentially, life recognizes other life.

Though Smuts applies her stages solely to animals, I would take it so far as to apply this understanding to all living beings–including plants and microorganisms.  It would certainly add explanation to the complexity of symbiosis, pollination, and mimicry.