What’s the Difference?

I’ve recently been thinking about “difference”. While animal historians often write about the changing understandings of the difference between humans and animals over time, I don’t think that they have fully unpacked what they mean by “difference” itself. Was the difference between human and nonhuman animal species and same as the difference between colonizer and colonized?

In the age of empire, the difference between a British man and a Burmese women was not articulated in the same way as, for instance, the difference between a British man and a wasp. The cultural, political and social stakes in the differences were not alike at all. While the differences between species were not fixed or self-evident, they were radical and embodied. This is not to deny that there are co-evolutionary continuities between humans and other species. It is an acknowledgement that there are also unfathomable differences in sensory experiences and consciousness between different species—differences we might be able to know of, but not be able to feel or experience. In contrast, the difference between humans has to be made. Humans were differentiated.

This is one reason why the histories of working animals and human slavery are fundamentally incomparable. Some animal studies scholars have attempted to show the similarities between the practices and rhetoric of working animals and human slaves. These “dreaded comparisons” have rightly fallen foul of anti-racist activists and postcolonial scholars.[1] They have not been attentive to the differing nature of the difference between species and the differentiation of humans.

The relationships between humans and working animals have to navigate a radical divide. The two actors have to find common understandings across very different materially experiential worlds. These differences were often overcome through violence. Humans, however, can inhabit the same experiential world. There is the potential for humans to experience the world in materially commensurate and communicable ways. Human slavery has not been founded on negotiating profound difference, but upon making superficial difference profound. This differentiation was made through violence and racism.

Animal historians have to be particularly careful in how they approach questions of difference. Using methods and arguments that bear surface similarities to postcolonial scholarship without engaging meaningfully with that scholarship can lead to lines of argument that can be used to further marginalize colonized peoples. And a comparison between working animals and human slaves does precisely that.


[1] Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal,” Philosophical Exchange 1, no. 5 (1974): 103–16; Marjorie Spiegel, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (London: Heretic, 1988).


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