Future Tense

If Nonhumans Can Speak, Will Humans Learn to Listen?

Illustration of a boy and a hyena looking at one another  in silhouette.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

An expert on global futures and learning responds to Simon Brown’s “Speaker.” This story and essay, and the accompanying art, are the first in a series presented by Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, as part of its work on Learning Futures and Principled Innovation. The series explores how learning experiences of all kinds will be shaped by technology and other forces in the future and the moral, ethical and social challenges this will entail.

Living in the Anthropocene is fraught with paradox. For centuries, we have convinced ourselves that we, humans, are special and superior to other species and the rest of the natural world. We stand as self-appointed speakers for the planet, as though no other beings can feel, think, or communicate.

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Today, however, we are forced to acknowledge that we are not so special after all. On the one hand, we wonder and worry whether artificial intelligence will become conscious, leading us down a dystopian spiral of human irrelevance. On the other hand, we see a major shift in scientific thinking about plant intelligence and animal consciousness, suggesting that the difference between human and nonhuman species is just a matter of degree, not of kind. Meanwhile, our hyperseparation from the natural world is threatening every species on Earth—including humans.

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Simon Brown’s story “Speaker” helps us imagine a near future in which humans step off the pedestal of human exceptionalism and learn to communicate with other species. The story introduces Project Sentience, which is designed to facilitate a dialogue between human and nonhuman Speakers from more than 20 species.

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Although early modern Western philosophers thought that only human species were sentient (see Descartes), today most scientists agree that the circle of sentience extends beyond the human, including vertebrate animals such as human companion species (cats, dogs, or parrots) and farm animals (cows, pigs, or sheep). Western scientists have not yet conclusively determined whether sentience extends to nonvertebrates (such as octopuses or insects), leaving the question of nonhuman sentience subject to continuous debate. Yet, many non-Western cultures attribute sentience to all living and nonliving beings on the planet, including rivers, mountains, or stones. Some nonhuman entities have been granted legal personhood, as with the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers in India, and Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio. From this perspective, the debate over nonhuman sentience may point to the human mind, at least in modern Western culture, failing to grasp the interconnectedness of the world.

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While the current debate over sentience continues, the short story “Speaker” fast-forwards into a future in which sentience does not belong to humans alone. Project Sentience enables “a joining of minds” between human and nonhuman species through a pair of protein microchips inserted in each of their brains, bypassing language to get to actual mental processes and thoughts. Each species is represented by their own Speaker with the goal of enabling different Speakers—and ultimately all species—to learn from one another and work together. We meet Samora, a Project Sentience human staff member, who is paired with Akata, a Speaker for the hyena clan. Alongside exciting opportunities afforded by technoscience—from interspecies collaborations and rescue missions to fascinating conversations and even jokes—we find the remnants of human exceptionalism still at play. Samora’s father is fully dismissive of the project, finding it demeaning to have his son connected so closely to a hyena, of all species (“You really need to get a life, son,” he tells Samora). Samora occasionally doubts the intelligence of his hyena partner, while Akata needs to remind her human partner that she too needs some privacy now and then. The project itself struggles to secure more attention, more funding, more research, and more Speakers to boost its worldwide reputation.

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Overcoming the modernist assumption of human exceptionalism and reconfiguring our relationship with a more-than-human world is a complex and long-term project. It cannot be achieved by technoscience alone, as the story so cleverly reminds us. Although inserting a microchip in our brains may help facilitate interspecies dialogues, nothing will fundamentally change until we change ourselves and the culture of human exceptionalism that defines us.
According to the Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood, we must reimagine “the world in richer terms that will allow us to find ourselves in dialogue with and limited by other species’ needs, other kinds of minds.” This is, she argues, “a basic survival project in our present context.”

One way to do so is through radically reimagining education. Today, schools (especially in Western cultures) remain deeply rooted in the ideals of Western Enlightenment, perpetuating the logic of human exceptionalism and justifying the hierarchical idea of “man over nature.” Its Cartesian logic divides culture and nature, mind and body, self and other, in deliberate and systematic ways. Curriculum and pedagogy endow humans with agency, reason, and rationality, while simultaneously reducing nature—commonly portrayed as mute and blind (yet always knowable) —to its exploitable value to benefit humans. Even when teaching about environmental stewardship, we insist on thinking of ourselves as “caretakers,” “protectors,” and “saviors” in order to better manage nature as a resource in pursuit of economic growth and progress. David Abram, an American cultural ecologist and philosopher, notes the tragic consequences of such education, which makes people “literate” while simultaneously making “stones fall silent … trees mute, the other animals dumb.”

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For those of us schooled within Cartesian logic, it is difficult to think beyond the dominant model of schooling, let alone reimagine and rebuild its foundations. However, some radically different visions are gaining momentum. “Learning to Become With the World,” a discussion paper written by the Common Worlds Research Collective (which I belong to) and published by UNESCO’s Futures of Education Initiative, explores approaches that include existing education practices rooted in Indigenous knowledge traditions, land-based and place-based pedagogies, ancestral knowledge systems, African cosmologies, South American eco-activist movements, Asian philosophical traditions, and Western education alternatives inspired by ecofeminist and decolonial work, among others. These alternative visions of education share a commitment to relational, animate worldviews, which presuppose that there are, as “Learning to Become With the World” puts it, “infinite human and more-than-human worlds within worlds,” all of which are radically interdependent. First and foremost, they acknowledge that human and planetary survival are one and the same thing. As an inseparable part of the Earth’s ecosystem, we cannot continue to learn about the world from a safe, privileged distance. Instead, we must learn to become with the world around us, with all of its violent inheritances, troubling contradictions, and painful uncertainties.

The power of the “Speaker” lies in its ability to playfully bring these big existential questions down to Earth, reminding us that such a radical reimagination of our relations with a more-than-human world is already happening all around us. Of course nonhumans can speak! Even if we don’t always understand their language, most of us have had very personal experiences of communicating with our own companion species or nonhuman others such as trees or stones. Just as Samora did with his hyena partner, we too can learn from and with nonhuman species—no brain implant required.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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