Dr Stephanie Eichberg
The Human-Animal Boundary: Adding a New Perspective to the Pre-Modern History of the Nervous System
By focussing on the history of the nervous system and associated embodiment theories of sensation and the mind, my thesis seeks to establish what William F. Bynum termed "the intellectual framework that justified the extrapolation of information obtained in animals to human beings." I am investigating the role that animals played in the emerging discipline of neuroscience with all its attached metaphysical discourses not only as a pointed example of the ongoing ambivalence that accompanied the use animal models in the life sciences. I have chosen this particular branch of the life sciences because its inherent conceptions regarding the corporeal and non-corporeal sources of human bodily and mental perception reveal most poignantly the extent to which such enquiries circled around the issue of the human-animal boundary. Accordingly, my overall aim is to establish that the negotiation of the human-animal difference is a neglected but fundamental aspect that needs to be addressed within the history of (neuro) science.
Despite a lasting notion of a fundamental difference between humans and animals, the understanding that human bodies function according to the same, or similar, working principles as animal bodies, a notion that was backed up by visible anatomical analogies, provided an ongoing rationale for the use of animals as substitutes for the human body. Yet, it has hardly ever been investigated what impact this constant animal-to-human transfer of observations, descriptions of structure, and experimental results had on the way that historical researchers conceived of the true constituents of human nature. I argue that, despite the ongoing belief that humans stood at the apex of creation, the use of animals as models for the human body steadily rubbed against the metaphysical conviction that humans had something superadded to their corporeal materiality. As the latter aspect often prompted an investigation of the body in the first place - exemplified by the search for the seat of the soul - the human body and mind also retained a model function in that preconceived notions about the superior faculties of human bodies determined the way that animal investigations were conducted.
Despite a focus on those bodily faculties that are now associated with the nervous system, my project situates itself within a variety of historical enquiries: next to investigating the growing importance of the nervous system, it touches on the related history of anatomy and physiology, and considers changing philosophical notions of the soul and the mind. But mostly, it aims to link these investigations to an overall historical debate on what constitutes humanity as opposed to its counterpart, the animal. I have come to believe that a continuous (re)assessment of the human-animal boundary is the one thread that connects ancient philosophies and anatomical practices with those of the early modern (and modern) period. Thus, my project is not so much a rewriting of the history of (neuro) science, but a shifting of perspective within it. By singling out specific historical moments and historical actors in this particular branch of the life sciences, I want to draw attention to what has often been acknowledged in passing, but has so far not been studied in depth: the fact that human uniqueness - more and more equated with nervous faculties - has been constituted metaphysically in opposition to the nature of animals, while the boundary between them became increasingly blurred in hands-on anatomical and experimental practices. This might be the reason why related research activities and philosophical disputes about the human body and mind have since Antiquity been specifically linked to a negotiation of what it is that makes us differ from a non-human animal.
 William F. Bynum, '"C'est un Malade": Animal Models and Concepts of Human Diseases', Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 45 (1990), pp. 397- 413: 401.