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.

What Humans Don’t Think or Feel

Scientists are busy proving that nonhumans have intelligence, sentiments, and sociability and publishing their “discoveries.” A few months ago, Carl Safina came out with Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, and today I heard on The Diane Rehm Show an interview with a biologist, Frans de Waal, who has published Are We Smart Enough To know How Smart Animals Are. I have a bone to pick with these studies for two reasons: the nonhuman animals are yet again at our disposal and the scientists pull up short of stating the only really valuable conclusion their research provides.

First, aside from Jane Goodall and maybe a few others who go into natural habitats, scientists are conducting their “research” on animals in captivity. Frans de Waal mentioned having a close relationship with a chimpanzee he was studying who recently died in a zoo.  Nice existence, living in a cage and performing tasks for Professor de Meer. Where were the elephants kept that proved to him that elephants have large intellects and human qualities like recognizing themselves in a mirror? By the way, I might ask who cares if an elephant can or cannot recognize himself in a mirror. Leave it to the most egocentric species on the planet to think it is vitally important to know if an elephant can use a mirror just like we can. Aside from the obvious element of coercion, to what end is all this research? There is one really important result: if animals are, as established through all these lab tests, intelligent, social, resourceful and emotional, then how can we justify treating them like objects—putting them in what is a human’s worst nightmare: living in confinement in order to be fattened up for someone’s dinner. That is the stuff of grim  fairy tales of the brothers Grimm.  However, scientists who marvel at the intellect of the nonhuman drop the exercise of reason when it comes to concluding that cruelty to such beings might be wrong. At that point, good old mindless cultural norms do just fine. Here is an example. Dr. de Meer asserts that eating meat is okay because nature is comprised of organisms eating other organisms. Certainly a scientist knows the three categories—animal, vegetable, and mineral—and that the vegetable does not include sentient beings, so that including plants in the discussion is irrelevant. Yes, animals eat plants, and I suggest he do so as well.  As for the fact that animals eat animals, of course only some do and many don’t, and humans thrive without eating flesh. What relevance is there between a lion that must kill to eat to and a human ordering dinner? If such an example of another species does count, then why take our culinary cue from the lion more than the elephant who eats only plants?  Professor de Meer is not alone in not seeing what is right in front of his eyes. Carl Safina spent all that time wondering what animals “think and feel,” yet he can’t think about what they think and feel when they are being confined and slaughtered?  When Dr. Safina’s book came out, I wrote him to ask if his familiarity with animals had caused him to think twice about eating them.  Although he professed to not be a big fan of flesh, he also had not formed any connection between the rich natural lives of animals and our depriving them of that life.

None of this research is at all necessary. Who could really be around animals and not see that they have their own interests and live social lives; most importnalty, intellect aside, whether they enjoy mirrors or finding grapes under cups in the lab, they all suffer. Any kind of instinctive compassion and the most fundamental notion of morality get you exactly to the right conclusion—we are all animals. There are distinctions among the species, but so what.  If we have any “special” gift it is, as Seneca says, the ability to reason, which I wish we would not abdicate so readily in the face of culture and error.