published on March 6, 2014
Tres Bête: Evolutionary Continuity and Human Animality
As a way of extending Jacques Derrida’s urging that philosophers think about the findings of recent scientific animal studies, this essay asserts that such attention to ethology, primatology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience makes it necessary to accept a biological continuum between humans and other animals. Countering Heidegger’s claims of abyssal difference and Derrida’s apparent agreement, this discussion examines work by Terrence Deacon and Philip Lieberman on the evolution of human speech, studies in animal communication, genetics, and biosemiotics to demonstrate our kinship with other animals, but also our distinctive abilities. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Nature lectures provide a theoretical understanding of this strange kinship and an early philosophical engagement with science that anticipated Derrida’s notion of its relevance. Final attention to Derrida’s claims that it would be trop bête to speak of biological continuism reveals the possibility that he intended to undermine such a position and open the way for philosophy to consider primatology and evolutionary genetics.