02 February 2010


Last Saturday's link roundup included this link about a move in China to oppose the practice (long-established there) of using dogs and cats as food. This prompted Rita to ask why we should feel more concern about some animals than about others.

To me it boils down to intelligence, and degree of similarity to humans (intelligence itself being one of the most important criteria of similarity). How intelligent an animal is pretty much determines its emotional sophistication, its ability to suffer, its ability to understand and fear its fate, and so on.

Most Western people are uncomfortable with the idea of eating dogs (or killing them for other reasons) because they have some exposure to dogs and know about their intelligence, emotions, personalities, and other human-like traits. They are much less uncomfortable about doing the same with, say, cattle or sheep because those animals are much less mentally sophisticated in those ways, and thus much less human-like. The same is even more true of chickens or turkeys, and most people have very little discomfort at the thought of killing insects, because as far as we can tell, they're essentially mindless.

For some time now, research has been showing that pigs are much more intelligent than other common farm animals are, at least as intelligent as dogs, and that their emotional sophistication and social interaction (under natural conditions, not on farms) reflects that. I myself gave up eating any kind of food derived from pigs over a year ago, because the idea made me too uncomfortable.

The more we study animals (other mammals, at least), the more it turns out that their intelligence, emotions, and other mental traits are closer to ours than we thought. Humans are obviously the most intelligent animal by a wide margin, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. Most scientists who spend long periods of their lives working with apes, for example, very firmly come to think of them as persons, not creatures.

(Intelligence worthy of the name may not even be confined to mammals. I've heard of some interesting claims about intelligent behavior in parrots and octopuses, though I don't know enough about those animals to evaluate this.)

There is a great deal of psychological resistance among humans to recognizing this, as is often the case with new scientific discoveries that challenge old ways of thinking (especially when those ways of thinking concern humanity's relationship with the natural world). For millennia, religions taught us that we were specially created in God's image, that we had souls, etc. The discovery by Darwin and others that we actually share a common ancestry with all other animals came as such a shock that many people, even 150 years later, still refuse to accept it. The resistance to recognizing animal intelligence and emotional development and its implications, I think, has similar roots.

The idea that humans are qualitatively different from other animals, instead of one extreme of a continuum, is a mystical concept, derived from religions that were formed before we had real knowledge to work with. Lumping all animals (arbitrarily excluding only humans) together into a single category, as if a chimpanzee had no different moral status than a lizard, is simply an attitude that continues through inertia from a time of earlier ignorance, like the belief in evil spirits or creationism.

If intelligence and its implications make no difference to the moral status of an animal or of the act of killing it, and killing a whale or a pig or a dog is not morally different from killing a lizard, then killing a human is not morally different from killing a lizard, either.

Humans do matter more than other species -- we stand at one extreme of the continuum. I accept medical experimentation on animals, even primates, as a tragic necessity when we need to do it to develop treatments which prevent the suffering and death of humans. But I don't accept inflicting suffering and death on semi-intelligent animals just because we prefer them as a protein source over other equally-healthy alternatives.

Looking back into history, we are often horrified to see how people in earlier centuries accepted practices like slavery and human sacrifice which would be considered totally intolerable today. I've often wondered what common practices in our own time will similarly shock people in the future. The way humans treat animals, especially in situations like factory farming, is a good candidate.

I essentially don't eat meat any more at all. That way I don't have to split hairs about exactly which kinds of mistreatment of which animals are acceptable and which are not. I know that my own choice not to eat meat will not, in itself, save any animals. It's a matter of personal abhorrence.

Of course, if I were starving and there was nothing to eat but a pig, I would kill it and eat it. If I were starving and there was nothing to eat but another human, I might well kill and eat that human, too. But modern people, except in vanishingly-rare freak situations, don't face those kinds of dilemmas. In modern times eating meat is no longer necessary. Other, and healthier, sources of protein are available.


Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Ranch Greeting's Mr.Infidel!

I have read Ms.Rita's post on her sight and comment's. I didnt actually know how to comment on that one, looking at everyone else's ... because it seemed to be a very sensitive and in depth topic, nonetheless interesting as far as individual's think on these issue's. In other word's I dont know where to draw the "line". I am a meat eater myself, been since I can remember. I have known folk's who been vegetarian's for year's .... and they never got any harm from not eating meat at all, so I know it can be done with success, as you pointed out I believe also in Ms.Rita's blog about it isnt really necessary anymore to eat meat. As far as pig, I rarely ever eat pig ... I mean it's alright ... but not one of my favourite's ... I am a beef, chicken, and salmon man mostly .... and probably eat more salmon than anything else. It doesnt have to do with what animal's I favour or anything ... just what I like. The way you describe our affection and sensitivity with dog's and cat's for instance make's alot of sense ... just never gave it much thought before. I dont think I ate either ... I ate some questionable meat in Mexico before though, but never found out what it was ... twice actually. But NO .... I never even think about wanting to eat dog or cat, I mean ... maybe Chinese folk's got a taste for that(?). I done quite a bit of hunting when I was younger and a kid, I stopped hunting in my mid 20's after a deer kill that I got sensitive over because of the manner of the kill .... and never hunted since, another animal .... and dont want to. But I honestly dont know where the line should be drawn .... I think many animal's that we are not aware of are actually intelligent in some way. When I was incarcerated in my younger year's, for 15 month's I worked on agricultural and industrial unit's, and was assigned to "squad duty" on a chicken and pig farm, and it was not a pretty job as far as treatment to animal's .... but the reality of what I was "forced" to do. But just wanted to add a couple buck's here. I learned something.

Another thing .... I do view ape's as "human", even though most of society I reckon dont (or pretty damn close) and DO strongly believe in their entitlement for right's as well, and their right to government protected sanctuary and community on a global level (especially in some corrupt African nation's) .... but that's just me.

Thanx Guy ......

02 February, 2010 06:14  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I used to quite like stuff like bacon and sausages. I think now I could hardly eat it any more. A lot of how we react to food is psychological.

02 February, 2010 07:41  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

About thirty years ago a Denver columnist wrote about the high intelligence of pigs. Of course, there were the expected funny/sarcastic letters but mostly the public seemed interested and willing to accept it.

Red meat is out - can't even stand the smell of it. Some chicken and seafood, especially salmon, but I can't afford the latter and am tired of the fowl - although I substitute both in tacos and such.
Too many beans can be hard on a person's system!

Sadly - and I'm ashamed to admit it - I love pork and lamb (if it's not mutton). I don't eat bacon but use it for flavoring in some things - like beans. But since these remain in my freezer for far too long, I sense a movement away from consuming them.

Your excellent article serves to reinforce this decline in meat consumption. Just wish I could find veggie recipes that don't call for 35 ingredients and take three hours to prepare.

02 February, 2010 08:11  
Anonymous Ross said...

The thing about eating cats and dogs, aside from any ethical questions, is that it really is an incredibly inefficient means of obtaining sustenance- as they are carnivores. So it's hard to work out why any culture starts eating them in the first place.

02 February, 2010 08:24  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNLib: Thanks. Sarcasm, ridicule, and dismissal are common reactions, unfortunately. I suspect they concel a nervousness about facing the issue.

Just wish I could find veggie recipes that don't call for 35 ingredients and take three hours to prepare.

I haven't really looked at this blog much, but it might be relevant.

Ross: This is a good point. You need to grow 1,000 calories of plants to get 100 calories of herbivore meat to get 10 calories of carnivore meat. Of course, one could argue that even the plants-to-herbivore-meat step is a needless inefficiency.

02 February, 2010 08:36  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Thanks for the link. She even has "lazy recipes." That's for me.

02 February, 2010 09:54  
Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

The problem with protecting critters, at least in the United States, can be traced back to that nutty collection of fables and fantasy known as THE HOLY BIBLE. You see there was this guy by the name of Leviticus who said some nonsense, and I paraphrase, like this:

"Man shall hold dominion over all of the beasts on the land and the creatures of the sea....."

This load of crap is held to be truth by a huge majority of America's Krazy Kristians, many holding high public office. As a result any attempt to afford protection or to recognize intelligence among our creatures will be met with fierce resistance from Jesus himself.

02 February, 2010 13:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNLib: Glad if it's helpful. I don't cook myself, but I can see that complicated recipes would be time-consuming.

MadMike: That Leviticus was quite a one for nonsense, wasn't he? I'd hate to have to explain to a Martian why, in a society as technologically advanced as ours, millions of people think the final answers to ethical and scientific questions are to be found in a collection of garbled bronze-age mythology.

02 February, 2010 13:38  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

I recall attending the St Louis Zoo several years ago and almost crying because of a male gorilla sitting with his forehead against the glass looking lost and forlorn. It was upsetting almost as if he knew he was too live out his life as an amusement.

I've cut animal meat back significantly over the years and perhaps I should consider working on removing it completely...

04 February, 2010 14:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I get the same feeling from the chimpanzees at the Portland zoo sometimes. They have a large enclosure but generally look bored.

There are a lot of vegetarian meat substitutes available these days. Worth looking into if it's a serious interest. Thanks for visiting.

04 February, 2010 14:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots of good reading here, thanks! I was browsing on yahoo when I found your article, I’m going to add your feed to Google Reader, I look forward to a lot more from you.

28 April, 2011 10:22  

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