The Human Zoo

Rat in a Cage

Does it make a difference if a rat is trapped in a cage or in a natural pit?

This question came to my mind after a public debate organised at the Westminster Reference Library. The theme was based on The Human Zoo book written in 1967 by the British zoologist Desmond Norris. According to this book, we humans are encaged in our cities. The city is not, as it is often said, a ‘urban jungle’, but on the contrary an artificial environment in which humans can’t be themselves. I was chairing a panel of academics and artists who had different views on the subject.

Alexander Lumsden used The Human Zoo book as a source of inspiration for his artwork mixing imagery of honeycombs and of anonymous people. His argument was that we are living in cities the same way as bees live in honeycombs: trapped in comforting but sticky cages. But as the field biologist William Feeney pointed out, why should a honeycomb be considered as something natural and a city as a manufactured environment?

Both honeycombs and cities could be seen as natural structures produced by animals, or equally as artificial structures interfering with what bees and humans were meant to experience in nature. The difference in my view is intentionality. Any structure or event that happens unintentionally is commonly referred as being “natural”, and anything that happens because of some sort of intention is described as being artificial. Most of us assume that bees don’t act intentionally when they build their honeycomb, this is why we believe they live in a natural habitat.

I could rephrase my initial question as following: does it make a difference if a rat (or human) is trapped intentionally or not?

In both cases, their existence is heavily constrained. In that sense, whether this has been intentional or not doesn’t make a difference. Except that their existence is not only constrained, but also demeaned in case it was intentional: a conscious being has denied their right to move freely, and has treated them as inferior creatures. The rat (or more so the human) has been alienated, a state that I define in the book Digressive Society as the incapacity of determining the nature and meaning of his/her existence.

If someone believes that society is merely a collection of individuals without any intention on its own, then that person won’t feel encaged in a large city, but simply in face with nature, whether this is a pleasant experience or not. If on the other hand that person believes that society acts as a conscious being, then he or she might feel encaged in a large city, or at best cared of.

The more a society becomes predictable, the more its individuals will tend to treat it as if it was acting intentionally, and the more they will feel that the meaning of their existence is dictated. They will however be better equipped to influence society, its behaviour will better reflect its members’ intention, either through their laissez-faire or intervention. Let’s compare two societies that do equal harm to its members, one being unpredictable and the other one being understood by its members. The harm caused by the first one could only be considered as natural, since no intention can be derived from its behaviour, but the harm of the second one could be considered artificial, and ultimately of its members’ responsibility.

The determining factor is thus not what a society does, but how well it is understood by its members: are they trapped in a system that is deliberately maintained, or are they simply dependent on unintentional events?


The Human Zoo event was held on the 6th July 2015 at the Westminster Reference Library. Members of the panel were  MICHELLE BADDELEY (Behavioral Economist based at University College London), WILLIAM FEENEY (Field Biologist based between the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland), LEWIS BUSH (London-based Photographer, Writer, Curator and Teacher), and ALEXANDER LUMSDEN (Interdisciplinary Artist whose work focuses on the topic of change and the constant dualities of progress in the digital era).