Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives

By Philippe Descola; Gisli Palsson | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Nature in culture or culture in nature?

Chewong ideas of 'humans' and other species

Signe Howell

In western moral philosophy since Classical times, humans have been set apart from-and above-all other animals according to some essential criteria (e.g. Ingold 1988). This separation has been justified on grounds of moral superiority and reinforced by the Cartesian separation between mind and body, associated with thinking and feeling, respectively. The properties of these dualities have not been held to be of equal value: humans are superior to animals, mind is superior to body, just as thinking is to feeling (Skultans 1977). Furthermore, the mind and mental processes have been regarded as characteristically male qualities and bodily and emotional concerns as female ones. When we further consider a dominant strand of thinking which holds that mind is cultural and body is natural, we find ourselves within the familiar western schema. Such a view is, of course, to be regarded as just one ethnographic example of how humans may construct meaning about their own identities and environments. It is, however, an approach which has universalistic ambitions and it has proved peculiarly resistant to challenges.

Debating a similar topic, Ingold states, '[e]very generation has recreated its own view of animality as a deficiency in everything that we humans are uniquely supposed to have, including language, reason, intellect and moral conscience' and '[we discover afresh regularly that]…human beings are animals too and…it is by comparison with other animals that we best can understand ourselves' (Ingold 1994:15). As I read him, Ingold advocates a full analytic acceptance of human animality. These and similar statements by others provoked me into reconsidering my perceptions and earlier interpretations of the views on humanity and environment held by the Chewong, a small group of aboriginal people of the Malay tropical rainforest. 1 I shall argue that the Chewong include animals, and other

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