Brandon Keim is one of my favorite writers, so it was a joy (if at first a bit intimidating) to interview such an insightful author. Brandon is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature, and science, and he is currently working on a book proposal provisionally entitled Meet the Neighbors: Stories of a More Than Human World, about how new insights into animal minds are transforming the way we treat them. His first book, The Eye of the Sandpiper, was published in June 2017 by Cornell University Press. Also in 2017, National Geographic published Inside Animal Minds: What They Think, Feel and Know, an issue-length exploration of animal intelligence. Brandon’s work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, WIRED, National Geographic News, Aeon, Nautilus, Scientific American Mind, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, Audubon Magazine, Mother Jones, Conservation, NOVA and Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has made broadcast appearances on NPR’s Science Friday and Here & Now, PRI’s The World and CBC’s As It Happens. Brandon is also a photographer. You can find many of his longform pieces as well as some of his photographs on his website.
HF: As an author and photojournalist, you primarily write about and photograph the natural world, including how nonhuman animals navigate a human dominated world. How did you become interested in the lives of other animals?
BK: I’ve been interested in other animals for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of caterpillars, a neighborhood cat—in recollection I fed the cat a leaf and he never came back, which doesn’t make sense but there it is—and watching prairie dogs on family vacation. Whenever I met an animal, I’d be very curious and affectionate. Which I think is pretty typical for a kid—but fortunately I ended up with a career that let me pursue and share that interest.
HF: What has studying nonhuman animals taught you about us as human beings?
BK: So much! I don’t know where to start, but one thing that’s been on my mind a lot lately is how so much of what we do is like what they do.
By that I mean, so much of what we do is cognitively “simple.” It doesn’t require the arguably ultra-sophisticated cognition that’s been said to be uniquely human, or at least unique to a few extra-smart species.
Take communication: language as we’ve defined it—with syntax and referentiality and recursion and the ability to coin new words and so on—seems to be something that only humans do. Which isn’t to say other animals don’t have some of this complexity; they absolutely do. Domestic chickens, quite wonderfully, were the first birds in whom referentiality—which means referring to some specific entity outside yourself, not just making emotional noises—was scientifically demonstrated. Plenty of other birds use syntax. So do prairie dogs, and cephalopod skin patterns are grammatical, and so on.
Full-blown language, though, seems to be a human thing. And historically so much baggage has been laid on that. Philosophers have said that language makes us human, that possessing it makes us so different from and superior to other creatures. And when scientific findings on communicative complexity in other species are reported, there’s a tendency to frame it in terms of their now being qualified to cross that gap and join us.
But so much of our own communication doesn’t involve all that high-level stuff. A gesture, a comforting touch, a hug, a meaningful look: that’s not language at all. But it’s extraordinarily important to us. It makes up a big part of our own interactions. And it’s ubiquitous among other animals. Rather than assigning so much significance to language, I now think of communication as being what’s really significant, and language as just this strange sub-category of communication. A remarkable and special sub-category, but not some kind of pinnacle.
Which is ironic for a writer to say! But there’s other traits that fit this pattern. Empathy, for example, or self-awareness; I’d argue that much of our empathy and sense of self is so-called animal-like.
HF: Unlike many journalists writing about animals, you also commonly write about insects—including the ethics of how we treat them. For example, you wrote an article for Aeon about cockroaches who could be electrically shocked and controlled remotely by children. Why are stories such as this one as important to write about as questions about the legal personhood of chimpanzees?
BK: I’d like to say it’s because every insect’s life is just as important and worthy of regard as a chimpanzee’s life. In practice, though, I clearly don’t live that way; I don’t lament the bugs on my windshield like I would a frog or a squirrel, much less a chimpanzee.
That said, their lives are valuable. I do my best not to kill mosquitoes. And while most people won’t ever meet a chimp, we encounter insects all the time.
For kids, insects are often the most common animals in their lives. Their experiences with them may be profoundly formative. Habits and perspectives developed with insects might later be applied to other animals. Insects challenge us in some profound ways, too: even a little kid has life-or-death power over a caterpillar or ant or moth, and bugs seem quite alien in comparison to most vertebrates. They challenge us to empathize with creatures, with people, who are very different from us.
I wish I could say I met those challenges well. I shudder to think about what I did to ants for several childhood summers. But then, I didn’t think of them as having inner lives of any sort; they might as well have been mechanical. Caterpillars, on the other hand, seemed quite personable, perhaps because they’re fuzzy and have big eyes, and I cared for quite a few of them.
HF: You have also written about the promise and limits of technology in medicine, markets, and science. What have you learned about how we approach technology and how it limits or extends our progress?
BK: I’m ambivalent about technology. On the one hand, tools can help us accomplish remarkable things. They can ease suffering and relieve people from drudgery and reduce our impacts on the rest of life. On the other, tools can be fetishized. They can limit our vision even as they extend our power.
Take the development of artifically intelligent robots designed to kill crown-of-thorns starfish in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Populations of those starfish have exploded; they just obliterate coral reefs. Something needs to be done—but I read gee-whiz story after gee-whiz story about starfish-hunting robots, and the stories rarely mention the pollution that helps crown-of-thorns proliferate. They rarely mention that crown-of-thorns have natural predators, such as giant snails, who humans have obliterated. The robots are just a stopgap solution that—at least in the way they’re understood and portrayed—normalizes a profoundly [messed-up] state of affairs.
That dynamic can be found in so many contexts: agricultural biotechnology, human enhancements, and so on. But it’s really important not to let skepticism turn into pessimism. That’s something I’m prone to, I think, and in the last few years I’ve spent more time engaging with ecomodernist thinkers. That’s been good for me. The folks over at the Breakthrough Institute have actually turned me into a fan of nuclear energy.
HF: How has your writing, and the research involved, changed how you approach ethical questions about how we as human beings interact with each other, other animals, and the greater natural world?
BK: That’s a challenging question. There’s many answers to it.
To start with, I want to emphasize that so much of my research amounts to just talking to other people and learning from them. They’re the ones who’ve done the really hard work. Then they’re patient and generous in sharing with me.
Hopefully I’ve become more consistent in my approach to ethical questions. Over the years I’ve realized just how profoundly our ethics for animals change depending on context. In our homes, in a lab, on a farm, in the wild: the frameworks for each setting are totally different. The ways those animals are seen is totally different. I think much more critically about that than I once did. I’m also far more appreciative of just how much the inner lives of animals has in common with our own, which certainly bears upon the ethics.
I don’t know if this has much impacted my thinking about human interactions. I’ve always been motivated by the belief that people should treat one another fairly, with kindness and respect. Before I started writing about science and then animals, I wrote about politics and was much more of a social justice activist. If anything, my interest in animal ethics was fueled in part by how I thought about human relations.
As for the greater natural world, I’ve also become more aware of how relationships to nature are socially and historically constructed. And for the most part animals as thinking, feeling, community beings are formally absent from contemporary traditions of nature; from transcendence and beauty and the Land Ethic and conservation and environmentalism and so on. The book proposal that I hope will soon be a book is about the intersection of animals—of animal intelligence research, animal ethics, human-animal studies theorizing—with classical ideas of nature.
Sometimes I wrestle with how to write about issues I now understand more clearly than before, and about which I have stronger opinions—stronger judgements—than I did. Thinking one knows the answers is a trap, and this is where the journalistic tradition is very important. It obligates me to seek out other perspectives and be open-minded to them.
HF: Which questions are most at the top of your mind now?
BK: So many! I mentioned the book proposal, which revolves around the question of what it means for “nature” to think of other animals as fellow persons. I’ve also quite a few more nature-y articles that I’d like to write, and at the heart of each article is a question: Can ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere be understood as organisms evolving over time towards certain states of being? What are the lessons of paleoecological research on pre-industrial societies who occupied a peripheral rather than central position in their ecological networks? How does plant cognition differ from animal cognition, and what does an old tree know? Can autonomous vehicles be designed to avoid all animals, not just the big ones?
And, an animal-specific article I’d like to write: Is it possible to eat and use animals in ways that provide those animals with truly good lives, with lives that we’d accept for ourselves and our loved ones? If that’s possible, how can it become practically feasible?
HF: In thinking about if it is possible to use animals in ways that provide those animals with truly good lives, with lives that we’d accept for ourselves and our loved ones, how has observing animals—or learning about them in other ways—changed how you think about the desire for life, or the desire to avoid death? For them, for us, and for other nonhuman entities?
BK: I’d put those concepts in a different order: reflecting on how animals desire life has influenced my thinking about whether it’s possible to eat and use animals in an acceptable way. Clearly every animal does desire life, does value life, for themselves and other animals they love. Recognizing that helped me feel the weight and tragedy of how animals are presently used. So does that mean they can’t ever be used? Should the only cows or pigs or sheep or chickens in existence be wild animals or pets? Or are other relationships possible?
HF: Thank you, Brandon. I have so enjoyed our conversation, and it has filled my mind with more questions. Often, if I need a reminder of the wonders of the world, I go back to many of your articles. I can’t wait to read your new book.
Photo credit: Brandon Keim.