03 October 2008

An epiphany of swine

A personal decision I've recently reached is to stop consuming pork, bacon, or any other form of food made from the flesh of pigs.

No, this is not a harbinger of imminent conversion to Judaism or (Satan forbid) Islam. Let me explain.

Most people are naturally repulsed when they hear about the new practice among wealthy Africans of eating the meat of gorillas and chimpanzees ("bushmeat") because they intuitively realize that it's only a millimeter removed from cannibalism. Those creatures are our closest relatives, their flesh and blood being biochemically practically indistinguishable from ours. To those of us who know how much the mental and emotional lives of the other great apes resemble our own, the thought is even more appalling, since no one who is truly familiar with the ways of these beings could deny that they manifest personhood, as much as we do.

Similarly, most Westerners are disgusted at the thought of eating dogs. While the intelligence of dogs cannot be compared with that of apes, their complex repertoire of feelings and interactions with humans makes it quite natural for people who know them well to think of them as persons of a sort.

The dog is not the only non-primate species in which exceptional intelligence and emotional sophistication has evolved. Most of us are at least vaguely aware that the elephant and the dolphin, too, stand on at least a similar level -- as best we can tell with beings so different from ourselves. People knowledgeable about those species wouldn't be comfortable eating their flesh either.

Humans have domesticated several large mammal species for food. What if it turned out that we had included among them yet another highly-intelligent and sensitive creature, without most of us realizing it?

It's increasingly obvious that we have.

Pigs are not cattle or sheep. Farmers have long noticed that they are smart enough to figure out how the latches of the gates of their pens work, and sometimes manage to escape and even to release others of their kind. They can be taught to identify and manipulate images on computer screens. In the wild they form groups with complex social interaction, including the ability to intentionally deceive each other (and also to take precautions against being deceived), in a way reminiscent of the interaction seen in primate social groups; at least twenty distinct noises that they make have identifiable meanings; and (contrary to their reputation) they maintain fairly high standards of cleanliness. They are at least as intelligent as dogs and show a similar range of feelings and ability to interact with humans.

In treating the pig as if it were just another nearly-mindless beast fit only to serve as a source of protein for our own dinner tables, we are making a horrific mistake, at least as much so as are those cultures where the dog is treated the same way.

It's a mistake in which I no longer wish to participate.

Here's one man who came to the same conclusion, in a far more meaningful way.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Joshua Minton said...

This is very interesting--I always knew that pigs were smart in an abstract bookish way (I never grew up around them). I am going to have to give this some thought and weight against my conscience.

03 October, 2008 06:47  
Blogger Christy said...

I'm not sure intelligent beings have more of a right to life than less intelligent beings.

But that is a moral stance.

Maybe even religious.

I think everyone should have to personally kill whatever animal they want to eat, ideally.

Yes, though, pigs are smart. And somewhat dangerous on the farm......

03 October, 2008 09:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'm really reacting to personal discomfiture here rather than taking a moral stance. The more similar an animal seems to be to myself, the more repulsion I feel at the thought of eating it.

My personally decision not to eat pork will not save or improve the life of a single pig, anywhere. Since it has no practical effect, it has no moral significance.

03 October, 2008 10:08  
Anonymous handmaiden said...

I grew up on a farm & we raised pigs, because everything on a pig can be eaten. It's all about getting enough to eat. If the economy keeps going south we all might be raising pigs.

03 October, 2008 10:46  
Blogger Christy said...

True, I guess....but I bet there are some genius cows and sheep out there.

There has to be a Bell Curve of mammal animal intelligence just like people.

But you would have less of a chance eating a potential Scrabble partner if you eat a hamburger or lambchop, I guess.

03 October, 2008 11:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'm not sure intelligent beings have more of a right to life than less intelligent beings.

Greater intelligence roughly correlates with greater sensitivity and ability to suffer. It's generally recognized that killing or hurting a human is more serious than killing or hurting a dog, which in turn is more serious than killing or hurting an insect. So the basic principle seems to be accepted.

Yes, though, pigs are smart. And somewhat dangerous on the farm......

It's often observed that the most intelligent animals are especially dangerous in captivity. That's not surprising if you think about it. If I were being held captive by some other species, I'd certainly be "dangerous" to them.

It's all about getting enough to eat. If the economy keeps going south we all might be raising pigs.

Obviously one's personal situation makes a difference. If I were desperate enough, I might even eat human flesh if nothing else were available. Luckily we (Americans) today are nowhere near that point. We have a ways to go before the economic crisis even puts a dent in the obesity epidemic, never mind threatening us with hunger. :-)

There has to be a Bell Curve of mammal animal intelligence just like people.

Within each species, yes, I doubt there's any overlap between species in the cases I'm talking about (the human and cow bell curves wouldn't overlap at all, for example, except in the case of severely-retarded humans).

Thanks for commenting, all.

03 October, 2008 11:50  
Anonymous handmaiden said...

That is true. :)

Christy is right about pigs being dangerous. I remember we were always instructed to stay away from the sows with piglets. I seem to hearing remember horror stories about pigs eating children to reinforce the point. :)

03 October, 2008 12:07  
Blogger Christy said...

True, Infidel! I just wrote that, ignorant, specious (as usual!!) and I looked it up. There is SOME evidence that the intelligence curve of most mammals has a much smaller deviation....i.e., dogs might only deviate a few points up or down from about human IQ 30, say.

But.....in theory.....there could be a dog with a low normal human IQ.

(Oh, this has nothing to do with eating the pigs. I just liked reading about it.)

Being raised in the country, I've had to struggle to understand when people put animals even near the same level as humans.

So I hope I didn't come across as a PETA person. I'm not.

I'm not cruel or reckless about animals, either.

And I'd eat a human too. Although I'd worry about the prions I was getting.....I know I'll look it up later, but, you know, the human version of Mad Cow that cannibals get?

But I'm guessing it wouldn't be after a day of not eating.....so I might do it anyway.

I'll probably be the first eaten anyway.

I'm small and juicy. (And mouthy and irritating.....)

03 October, 2008 12:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I seem to hearing remember horror stories about pigs eating children to reinforce the point. :)

It wouldn't surprise me if pigs have very occasionally eaten humans -- but the eater-to-eaten ratio is still heavily skewed in our species's favor. :-)

Being raised in the country, I've had to struggle to understand when people put animals even near the same level as humans.

Probably depends on which animals you're familiar with. Aside from pigs and dogs, most animals you'd meet on a farm are pretty dumb, as far as I know.

The intelligence gap between humans and apes is probably smaller than the gap between apes and other animals, even monkeys. I've come to think of apes as basically surviving forms of primitive man, and not "lower animals" at all. But of course you wouldn't have apes on a farm. :-)

03 October, 2008 13:06  

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