The worst idea in history: animals and us
by Rob Tiller
I’m recovering just fine from my neck surgery, and the weather turned nicer, too. For a couple of days, it felt like spring, though after that, it cooled off. In the pleasant interval, I took my camera out to see the birds at Jordan Lake, and also stopped in to check on the bald eagles nesting at Shelley Lake. These are some of the pictures I took.
Spending some time with the animals, or even just standing by the water hoping they’ll show up, is very therapeutic. Walt Whitman got it right in his famous poem; being with them is moving and soothing. When I get out around sunrise or sunset, I’m always a little surprised when there are few or no other people looking at them, but not sorry.
Apropos, there was a lively short essay in the NY Times this week on something I’ve hoped others were thinking about: the disconnect between what we know about animals and how we treat animals. Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College, wrote that western philosophy has labored mightily to establish that humans are different from and superior to animals, and failed. Perhaps this is starting to be noticed.
Everyone who stayed awake through high-school biology learned that homo sapiens are animals, with close physical similarities to many other animals. But most of us still think of ourselves as not actually animals, but rather, better than animals.
As Sartwell notes, we’ve also been taught to regard humans as distinctive and superior on account of their consciousness, reasoning abilities, and moral systems. Comparisons of humans and other animals generally focused on the things humans did best, such as human language, rather than areas where animals outperformed us, such as sight, hearing, smell, strength, speed, endurance, and memory. Where animals showed sophistication in their communications and culture, we learned to avoid thinking about it.
The essential lesson pounded into all of us was that human intellectual qualities justified treating other animals as mere objects to be dominated and exploited. This idea is so familiar and deeply entrenched that it is hard to see it clearly as an idea subject to discussion.
In my student days at Oberlin College, we used to debate the extent to which ideas could affect human history. We were thinking about whether the philosophies of canonic thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, or Marx were primary drivers of cultural change.
We didn’t even think to consider the effects of the idea that humans are separate from, and far superior to, animals. The idea has no known author and no supporting reasoning. If examined with any seriousness, it falls apart as nonsense. Yet, as Sartwell suggests, it is almost certainly the most important idea in human history.
Sartwell raises the issue of how thinking of humans as fundamentally superior to other animals relates to other hierarchies. To justify slavery, colonialism, or other violent oppression, the groups to be dominated are characterized as beastly, wild, savage, brutal, fierce, primitive, uncivilized, inhuman, and so on — in short, “like animals.”
Even today, discrimination follows this same basic pattern in addressing people with African ancesters, other disfavored nationalties, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people. That is, these groups are defined as something less than fully human, and therefore not entitled to the highest degree of privilege.
The hierarchies that stem from treating animals as inferior have caused enormous harm to the humans who are denied full human status. Slavery is a dramatic example from our past, but there are many others that are very much still with us, like suppressing the votes of minorities, lower pay for women, and violence against LBGTQ people.
As Sartwell notes, this hierarchical, exploitative way of thinking divides us both from each other and from nature. Indeed, it has led to an existential crisis for nature. A couple of articles this week highlighted aspects of this.
According to a new study, about one third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction. Climate change, habitat loss, and pollution caused by humans accounts for much of this dire threat. Meanwhile due to these same factors, the populations of large animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish) have fallen by 68 percent since 1970. More than two-thirds of these animals. Gone. Since 1970. Holy camoly!
Part of our unfolding catastrophe has to do with our view that animals are so inferior that they can properly be treated as food. A new piece by Jenny Splitter in Vox sums up some of what’s happening. Meat production through factory farming — that is, raising and slaughtering billions of animals each year — accounts for more than 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and also for vast losses of habitat for wild animals. This food system is raising the threat of extinction for thousands of species.
Our meat-based food system is not only deeply immoral, but unsustainable. To continue along this path likely means ecological and human disaster. Splitter’s piece notes that we may get help from technology, like lab grown meat, and from requiring more responsible farming practices. But cutting back on eating meat and moving toward a plant-based diet is something we as a species will have to do eventually. And we as individuals can do it now.
If you are either on board with plant-based eating or interested in experimenting, or even if not, I recommend trying Guasaca Arepa on Hillsborough Street. They have some outdoor picnic tables, where I ate my first ever arepa this week. It’s a Columbian speciality that involves putting various fillings in a sort of cornmeal cake. Guasaca has many fillings on offer, but I tried the vegan. Though a bit messy, it was delicious!