Defining Animal Agency with Sarah E. McFarland – ASI’s Defining Human Animal Studies 12


[Music] Hi. My name is Sarah McFarland and I’m a
professor of English at Northwestern Northwestern State University,
where I teach courses in literature and literary theory,
including human-animal studies. I’ve been asked to define
the concept of animal agency. Agency implies subjectivity, which
means that someone has desires and intentions as well as a sense of having
desires and intentions, that sort of metacognitive thing. Darwin put it
something like action as performed by rather than happening to. Agency includes
a cluster of closely related ideas like free will, ability, rationality, mind, and
subjectivity. Agency has variable social manifestations often associated with
ideas of selfhood, motivation, purposefulness, freedom, and choice.
Traditionally, agency is only granted to humans. But there is evidence of the
necessary cognitive skills like memory and anticipation, imitation, creativity,
and self-awareness across the species spectrum. On the flip side there is
evidence that even humans do not have the kind of free will and thus agency
that we think we do. Simply put, to have agency is to be the author of your
actions, to be an I, to have a subjective sense of self. Within philosophy,
acknowledging non-human actors presumes a radical deconstruction of
anthropocentric subjectivity of the sovereign humanist subject as a unique
and exceptional being. To recognize animal agency is to be aware of other
animals as likewise conscious, purposeful entities in the world whose actions are
experientially meaningful and actively authored. Something like your own action
seemed to be the result of your own conscious, purposeful authorship. The
opposite of animal agency, might be said to be genetic or biological determinism,
which reduces behaviors to attributes like genes or physiological features.
Something like reducing actions to instinct. Yet animals transgress
human expectation all the time, seriously and playfully. Look up the
honey badger Stoffel, for example, and you’ll see videos of an animal
expressing his agency in creative, intellectual, and performative ways.
Likewise Alex the parrot, who systematically disobeyed verbal requests
in order to manipulate Irene Pepperberg during her animal intelligence studies.
In some, animal agency means that nonhumans also consciously offer their
own choices and behaviors. For more information about animal agency consider
the collection “Animals and Agency’ by MacFarlane and Hediger, Eileen
Crist’s “Images of Animals”, and any of the various works by Marc Bekoff or
Frans de Waal for starters. Thank you for your time today. [Music]

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