The Casual Blog

Tag: animal cruelty

What animals say

I wasn’t planning on sharing any more of my Alaska brown bear pictures, but changed my mind.  Processing the pictures took me to a happy place.  I really enjoyed being with these animals (at a respectful distance, of course), and learning a little about their lives.

This has been a particularly sad week in animal news.  There was a huge bloody slaughter of dolphins in the Faroe Islands.  The U.S. government has authorized hunters selected by lottery to kill some of the few remaining bison at the Grand Canyon.  And as usual, with no headlines, hundreds of millions of farm animals were killed to provide human food. 

The way we think about non-human animals obviously affects the degree of brutality we’re prepared to inflict on them, but it has less obvious effects on how we think about ourselves.  We generally see them as distant and inferior, with no concerns as important as our own, and lacking in our intelligence and cultural achievements.  We attach great significance to their lack of human language.   

But animals teach us something about human language without needing that language.  First, they get along without it just fine.  That is, in the wild they manage to do the same things that are our highest priorities — get food, shelter, reproduction, friendship, community — without human language.  Indeed, it is likely that homo sapiens got along well enough for many tens of thousands of years without the language abilities that we now think of as setting us apart.

So animals demonstrate that language is not really as fundamental to our lives as we tend to think.  Of course, at times language is very useful, and also fun to play with. But while it helps us solve problems, it also creates them.  One example is how easily it creates the illusion of a vast divide between humans and other animals, and how easily it justifies human domination of other groups and forms of life.   

We often forget that words are only symbols, with no fully reliable connection to objects or actions.  No matter how beautifully and elaborately they are grouped together, they can never completely and fully reflect reality.  At their very best they are heuristics, practical shortcuts for thinking and getting things done.  

A merganser family

This shortcutting utility also accounts for a lot of problems.  Our word choices direct focus our attention in one direction, so that we have trouble seeing in another.  Once we’ve got firmly in mind the definition of humans as superior creatures, it’s difficult for us to think about the significance of, say, bears to other bears, or chickens to other chickens.  

A similar problem occurs with racial categories.  Once we’ve concocted a definition of racial characteristics and decided which ones are desirable, we have a hard time not favoring the ones we initially desired.  Language around race is part of how we built our racial caste system, and it also makes it very hard to dismantle it.

This is a problem inherent in the way we usually think.  But it helps, I think, to recognize that language is flexible, not fixed, and our intuitions can help us modify or work around linguistic limitations.  Some part of us already knows, despite the limits of our received language, that our cruelty to animals is wrong, and we have the capacity of finding new ways of communicating and acting on that.  

Lacrosse, seeing things, and ag-gag laws

Looking west at sunrise, April 13, 2013

Looking west at sunrise, April 13, 2013

Friday evening was supposed to be rainy, but instead was sunny and mild, and the dogwoods had just blossomed. Looking out over Raleigh from our apartment, the deciduous trees are leafing in nicely, lots of pretty green. The pine pollen season is also here, with the yellow powder coating our cars, and causing woe to allergies.

Sally and I drove over to Durham with Sally’s mom to see the Duke lacrosse team take on Virginia. Diane, at age 82, has become a big lacrosse fan, and bought us tickets as a gift.

It was a good contest. The score was 9-9 at the half. Virginia scored three unanswered points in the first five minutes of the third period, but Duke worked its way back to a 14-all tie with eight minutes to go. The final score was 19-16, Duke.


The sport is fast and exciting, and combines some of the best things about soccer (strategy, cunning) and hockey (speed and physicality). But we’re neophytes, and still trying to figure out why some outrageous things are penalized and other outrageous things aren’t. Are they really allowed to beat each other with those hard sticks?

During timeout, I enjoyed looking at the athletes and the fans in their summer clothes. I’m still very much in recovery mode after the second surgery on my left retina a few weeks back, and conscious at times of struggling to see, and at other times conscious of how extraordinary it is to see.

Tulips outside Diane's apartment

Tulips outside Diane’s apartment

At my appointment this week with Dr. M, my eye doc and new hero, he declared that he liked what he was seeing, and that things were coming along nicely. The retina was still attached, the scar tissue was settling down, and the hole in the macula showed signs of healing. I did not, however, do well on the eye test: the best I could do with the left eye was identify where the chart was — no letters. Dr. M said that this could improve after the next surgery in four or five months to remove the silicone gel (isn’t that a strange thing?) and probably remove the cataract that is probably forming.

This eye injury has been a reminder of how provisional the visual world is. At times I see things I know are not there, like bizarre floaters, and at times I see double images (one very blurry and one not). My depth perception is imprecise, so that tasks like putting a key in a lock are tricky. It’s harder to find things in the dishwasher, and easier to lose things most anywhere.

Of course, I’m not the only one with imperfect vision. Apparently we all (with normal vision) have a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, but our interpretive consciousness smooths out this problem and makes the visual field seem uninterrupted. Vision involves photons and neurons in an unbelievably complex process. Our ordinary sensation of a smooth continuous visual world is both a gift and an illusion.

This is one of the many interesting points in Bruce Hood titled The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press 2012), which I’m currently reading. It’s a lively assemblage of neuroscience and philosophy organized around the issue of the nature of consciousness. The brain is an amazing thing, with billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, but we’re just starting to understand the correspondence between the biological processes and perceived experience. Still, the evidence is accumulating that our understanding of conscious experience as a literal reflection of reality is quite wrong. Hood’s book also builds on the work of Gazzaniga (which I wrote a bit about here) and Kahneman (whose fine recent book I noted here), and takes some of their ideas a bit further.

Hood may be right that when we think of ourselves we are thinking about a thing that doesn’t really exist, at least in the way we normally thing about it. But he also seems to think that we can’t possibly completely dispense with our conventional notions of the self. Even with his throughgoing scientific perspective, he admits that part of him still cannot let go of the notion that his self is a thing. It does shake things up to try to think otherwise.

Speaking of shaking, I was dismayed to learn this week that several states have enacted or worked on making it illegal to expose animal cruelty at slaughterhouses with “ag-gag” laws. I thought that this was an issue that almost everyone agreed on: it’s just wrong to wantonly abuse farm animals. The corollary would be, it’s a good thing to expose and prevent such abuse. Videos and reports of such conduct are disturbing, to be sure, but they help correct the system. Why would we want to make that illegal?

There is, of course, an opposing argument, which posits that secret videos distort the truth, and those unused to the sight of ordinary animal killing may misinterpret what they see. That seems pretty weak — not entirely false, but not a justification for limiting free speech and insulating unspeakable behavior. In a brilliant little op ed piece in the Times, Jedidiah Purdy, a Duke law professor, agreed to take it at face value, and proposed a solution: let’s put webcams in all the slaughterhouses. This radical transparency approach would be educational and probably discourage some abuse.

Pine pollen

Pine pollen