NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog published a Q+A between Jeff VanderMeer and recent PEN/Faulkner award–winning author Karen Joy Fowler that started out as an innocent-enough conversation about animal consciousness, and evolved into a discussion of turkey-killing machines, domestic terrorism, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and other things that are “scary as shit.”
Fowler: On the limits of empathy—I just read the new book by Frans de Waal called The Bonobo and the Atheist. A lot of it was about our natural proclivity towards empathy and how many animals we find this in, and cited many studies and observations. But in the end the book concluded that there seems actually to be what they call an empathy deficit for people or creatures that you don’t see as part of your own tribe. Not only do you not empathize with them, you actively dis-empathize.
VanderMeer: Dis-empathize, right. If sharks were as smart as chimpanzees—using our conventional definitions of worth—it wouldn’t make a difference, in a sense. So how far do you think “personhood” should go in terms of our thinking of animals? Is there a cut-off point? Or is it simply that we need to rearrange our entire thinking about this?
Fowler: I just think that’s such a hard question. At least, I think it’s a hard question. I can tell you where my thinking is today. But what I’m seeing is that the more we look at animal cognition, the smarter other creatures seem to be. I’m at a point now where I eat fish. I’m sure the day is fast coming when I will learn that fish are creative puzzle solvers.