Three scientists walked into a saloon . . .

A New York Times editorial last weekend by Johnathan Balcombe discussed his new book, “What a Fish Knows.” Balcombe’s book made the third instance that I have heard about recently of scientists publicizing their research about animals. All three books make the same observation: animals of all kinds are more intelligent, social, and emotional (more like “us”) than most people suppose. The other two are Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals are by Frans de Waal.

When I hear about these books, I first must ask: what is the point in proving that nonhuman animals have a greater intellectual and emotional life than one might have thought.  There is one whopping big use that can be made of that information, which is the only real valuable point of this research: if animals are “surprisingly” intelligent, social, emotional, empathetic, capable of thinking ahead, and making tools, etc., how, then, can we justify treating them as if they are so very different from humans and abuse, confine, kill, and consume them? If that question does not present itself with great urgency as the scientist’s conclusion, then his or her research has no value other than satisfying some idle curiosity and advancing his or her academic career.

In differentiating the three scientists making the most recent forays into this area of animal research, I can’t get out of my mind as particularly apt the title to the classic Clint Eastwood Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because such are the following scientists in that order.

Jonathan Balcombe reaches the conclusion that understanding nonhuman animals should lead to greater compassion for them, and he is a vegan. Interestingly, the article in The Times did not highlight his veganism, and I asked him by email to find out. Rather cryptically, he implied that he had to say less than he might have wanted on that topic, as he was subject to “filters” in getting the article into print.

The “bad” science-slinger is Carl Safina, who is enthusiastic about the wonderful inner life of animals, but, because he studies “wild” animals, can’t equate anything he has learned to domestic ones and hasn’t sorted out any cogent approach to eating them.  He eats and even catches and kills fish, and eats meat sometimes, and slaughtering animals to eat them does not bother him. He justifies all of the above because there is “predation” in nature, and he studies “nature.”  Although a discussion of “predators” looms large as well in discussing below our third man of science, I have to ask here: what difference does it make if there are predators among animals?  There are also a lot of non-predators.  Why would we feel obliged to be like one group of animals more than the other?  Some scientists have found that our digestive systems and teeth put us more in the herbivore than carnivore category, and, of course, we do know now that meat is not good for us.  In any event, what the lion must do to survive bears no similarity to the human experience in the grocery store. Further, what goes on in nature does not generally determine what we do: we don’t think that we have to live in a nest because birds do; we don’t think we have to drink from streams, although deer do. Maybe he is saying that having watched a lot of Wild Kingdom episodes he has become inured to watching animals die.  I would not like to watch nature in action “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote, but I could watch lions kill old antelopes, knowing that it is for those animals nature’s way and do or die, and not find that at all preparation for watching hundreds of kind, domestic animals forced in terror to the hell of a slaughter house.  Mr. Safina does not win last place in this line up, however, because he does acknowledge an element of the “wishy-washy” and “hypocritical” in his approach. Such hypocrisy is not acceptable, but in realizing the flaw in his approach to eating, there is some slight indication that he might feel compelled to give the matter greater thought someday.

On to Frans de Waal, the “ugly” and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.  On the Diane Rehm radio show, where I first heard of him, he came across as a very great proponent of the view that animals of all kinds are possessed of qualities that have in the past been reserved for humans—they use tools, they plan, they have empathy. It was quite heartwarming.  He gushed in response to callers’ anecdotes about their hyper-smart animals. However, before we get to his gross inconsistencies, I must first pillory him to the best of my ability for studying animals in zoos and laboratories. One of his favorite chimps, whom he studied, died recently—in a zoo. He was sad.  How touching that he was moved by her passing; he should have been moved by her life of incarceration. This brings me back momentarily to my first point—what use will be made of the research. It is particularly unacceptable to do this research on caged animals and do it only for personal aggrandizement. The logical conclusion to be made of his findings eludes de Waal. This man of science has no qualms about eating any animal at all.  He does think that knowing about the intellect and emotions of animals has helped fuel movements to treat them better in circuses and Sea World—not that any such effect was his goal. So how does he square eating the very creatures that he acknowledges are not so very different from the exalted human being? He is a scientist, and in science “organisms eat organisms.”  I charge him with reckless and irrelevant use of a scientific term, devoid of any attempt at intellectual honesty or thought, much less compassion. The statement doesn’t even make sense on its face. The term organism includes plants—plants do not eat plants or animals, except for the anomaly of a Venus flytrap, and being anomalous has no relevance to the understanding and use of the term “organism.”  Is he suggesting that we consider plants as predators? What he is trying to invoke with his pseudo-scientific air is, in the vein of Carl Safina, that there is predation in nature. Then he moves on to consider raising and killing animals for food, which we don’t need in the least need to survive or thrive, as “part of the circle of life.” Oh Rafiki! “The circle, the circle of life.” He is characterizing a very much man-made machine as “natural” and equating what we do to torment and kill needlessly with what goes on in nature among some species. By the way, the circle of life is living and dying and doesn’t necessarily include killing at all. Even knowing that, for some animals the circle involves being eaten, does that mean that we want to design such a circle? Is this a good circle of life: forcefully impregnated, crammed in a cage, bred to abnormal proportions, deprived of natural behaviors, young and social interactions, and hauled away to a terrifying death? Don’t say that there is some natural process captured in that machine. Next, de Waal, abandoning science and Disney, punts–eating animals is a “cultural choice.” Giving content to that buzz phrase, he must mean that despite what science can teach us and what we can learn, we cannot think through layers of ignorance to come up with a kind and sensible way of living. What use are you as a scientist if it all comes down to not thinking, but taking what was handed down. Oh, our organism professor! You are ugly above all because you revel in making such pathetic and self-serving use of your knowledge and influence.

In Praise of Sherry F. Colb, Cornell Law Professor

Here is an excerpt from one of the best things I have ever read, “Decoding ‘Never Again,’” by Professor Sherry F. Colb. The cite to the complete essay follows.

“The solution to “might makes right,” then, is not for victims to become perpetrators. Instead of protecting ourselves by identifying with the oppressor, we serve justice when victims instead identify with other victims and extend the compassion and justice that should rightly have been extended to them, to the rest of sentient creation.”

I wish I was taking a class with this professor; I wish I was her friend. She is compassionate and brilliant and my only criticism is that she has not been pushy enough to hit the radio talk shows and get a book touted by a big name in order to bless the main stream public with her presence.  She is too good to be relegated to academia, but maybe she is too good for most of us.


“Decoding ‘Never Again’”

Sherry F. Colb* Cornell Law School Myron Taylor Hall Ithaca, NY 14853-4901 Cornell Law School research paper No. 15-27

This paper can be downloaded without charge from: The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection:

Most Influential Books

What books have had the greatest influence on your life?  That sounds like a prompt for a college admission essay. Many long years away from college applications, I can now easily answer that there are two books.  The first is The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine, which then led to another, The Essays and Letters of Seneca. (I might more correctly say I have three influential works, except those two I take together as responsible for revealing Stoicism to me).  The second is also in the philosophical genre: Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

What the two have in common and what makes them truly influential is that they caused me to question an entire way of living and to make me change for the better. They both also put together in a cogent and rational scheme disparate ideas that I had formed on my own, but which I did not fully understand or trust.  In particular, with regard to Stoicism, I discovered, as I had partly surmised, that no one was responsible for anyone else’s tranquility.  We are each responsible for our own state of mind and we can influence our outlook by resorting to reason over emotion.  Hence, I had, even pre-Stoicism, suspected that taking your troubles to a therapist or counselor, that complaining generally to others, that extolling and indulging your emotions, including the vaunted ones of joy and romantic love, were detrimental to my state of mind. I had wondered about the point of worrying and hoping—and indeed, discovered the Stoic view that nothing is more pointless or aggravating than ruminating over things beyond one’s control and that hoping causes us to live a life in suspense.  I had often thought that if any given day was my last, I should not want to live it differently than any other day –and right I was; Stoicism would counsel to live each day as your last because it could be your last.  Also, I had learned on my own the hard way how foolish and empty it is to seek notoriety or the good opinion of others, which Stoicism affirmed.  Last, in this cursory summary, I found in Stoicism a context for two axioms I had developed on my own: regret nothing because, if what you did was reasonable, you would do it again; and everything is an end in itself.  Culture, perpetuated mass ignorance, and the media had rendered such ideas the objects of a meandering, scavenger hunt in the dark.

Reading Irvine and Seneca transformed my outlook. I rethought a status quo that was not doing me any favors. Ditto for the second influential work, Animal Liberation. Another part of the indoctrination I received from culture, the media, and big business interests was eating animals and the attendant notion that the human species is somehow not an animal species like the others, but rather something special and above the rest. First, as for the eating of animals, I think children would have a natural revulsion to eating the flesh of an animal, but we trick them out of it by disguising what they eat in sight and name. Therefore, I ate cheeseburgers and bacon and poultry. Nonetheless, hints of what I was really doing crept up from time to time.  I decided, one type of animal at a time, not to be part of an animal’s slaughterhouse experience and began to see the animal not just the dish.  I was confused, however. Was there any justification to eating some animals based on their lower intelligence, on how they live and die, or on my own sense of necessity? How did we get to the point that practices that most people would recoil from in horror were commonplace and accepted?  I read Singer’s book, and all of those questions were answered.  The revelations had an impact on my daily life and outlook because the concept of speciesism made perfect, rational sense. An anti-speciesist attitude gave a daily voice to the basic moral axiom that disregarding the interests of others to serve your own interests at their great expense is not the moral or good way to exist.

The Stoic and the non-speciesist attitudes that I have acquired from reading do intersect. For one, Stoics denigrate affairs of the palate.  I had (even pre-enlightenment) felt that the momentary taste of bacon could not be worth an animal’s suffering or life; a momentary taste should not be accorded much importance. Stoics are not slaves to appetites. Epictetus, by the way, considered meat as appropriate for wild animals and not for humans. A Stoic outlook also encourages thinking and not accepting or following the mentality of the herd.  Seneca abhorred the slaughter of men and beasts in the Circus, although the “games” were considered a necessity for the Roman mob.  He thought that watching the shows constituted punishment. I would say the same for visiting a factory farm or slaughterhouse. Come to think of it, we might consider it as an alternative to jail for all but the brutally-minded (murderers and such who might find it right up their alley).

The Stoic attitude comes in very handy in facing the shortcomings of existence, and the knowledge of speciesism does underscore a vast human shortcoming.  To deal with that reality, I remind myself to do what I can within my control and to not torment myself with matters beyond my control. I can no more stop the suffering today than Seneca could in his time and my ruminating on it into the wee hours of night is pointless thinking. Ruminating can best be offset by some action in the daylight however small—a letter written, a petition signed, an animal not eaten. Another Stoic approach to achieving tranquility is to realize how good your life is by reckoning how much worse it could easily be; just by the subtraction of one hundred years, current daily life is an entirely pleasant prospect. I enjoy unimaginable comforts and privileges that make my life seem like an Eden compared to the typical or even upper class life of past centuries.  By the same token, if I include the existence of other species, my troubles are indeed trivial. How could I not feel tranquil in comparison? I am not crammed into a cage, at the mercy of strange other beings, cut off from my own kind, my young taken away prematurely, deprived of doing anything that comes naturally, and doomed to a frightful death. The insipid triviality of human affairs as compared to the suffering of other species strikes me forcibly all the time. The government can take my phone records; the price of something is going up – all the fodder of mundane human life is as nothing in comparison. Last, in the realization department, if I needed yet another proof of the non-existence of anything approaching a compassionate supreme being . . . but I don’t and no one really does.

I would not have written about these books on my college application essay. I would have had dinner with a friend to complain and eat some animal parts in a sauce. Better late than never and maybe even more to come.