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.

Along the Appian Way

I believe that I saw my first crucifixion when I was ten, getting a pretty close look at the arresting spectacle as I rolled past in the family ox-drawn cart that was taking us from our villa in Apulia down the Apian Way to visit Uncle Antonius at olive picking season.  My first experience gave me a lot of bang for my buck because there had been a little slave revolt in a neighboring town and a hundred of the rascals were all nailed up along both sides of the road at intervals of about an arm’s length. One could hardly miss taking in every detail with the crosses lining the road at no more than a man’s height from the ground, but my gaze stayed the longest on the ones that were most alive. We did whip up the ox a bit to get through quickly because the flies were really annoying.   I asked my father how come I had never seen a crucifixion before, given that they were common; I heard all about them and had thought about practicing one for myself on a cat, but he got away and then I lost the nails.

“Well, figlio mio,” Pater explained, “crucifixions are for the vilest kinds of criminals, like slaves and traitors. So you wouldn’t see one every day.”

“But it seems like a waste when they could have gone to the Colosseum as entertainment.  I’m sure we would rather see them trying to run from a hungry lion and then get ripped apart one limb at a time rather than hanging there groaning and making faces.”

“I guess there is no shortage of folks for the games, and the Tribune needed to make a lingering example. For some reason slaves keep trying to revolt; they don’t get it that there will always be slaves and that is their lot in life.”

“Maybe a revolt will succeed one of these days and there will be no more slaves?”

“No, no, figlio, there have always been slaves; that is the way of the world.  It is human nature to take captives from a conquest. Look at the example of history.  Everyone has done it. I think it is in our genes as humans to subjugate other weaker individuals. Some day we might evolve to be able to take another creature’s perspective, but as of now our credo is, “If it’s good for me, then it’s good.”

“But slaves are sort of like us.”

“No they are of an entirely different sort—not Roman at all; so we can do whatever we please.”

Pater’s way of looking at things has stuck with me for a long time and has worked out all right as my approach to living.  However, there have been moments of doubt . . . when I think of our conversation I also remember the distorted bodies and anguished cries and at times I wonder at my feeling a vague sense of unease and dislike for crucifixions.  However, I just cannot get over the immutable truth that both slavery and severe punishment are part of our culture, that Rome’s culture is the best, and that such practices have gone on for thousands of years.  Who am I to question something that Pater and his pater and so on have done?  We couldn’t live without slaves and my needs are perfectly served by the suffering of other creatures. Well!  Glad I settled that.  I’m off to the games to for some rollicking good entertainment. Wild beasts are on the schedule today; then off to a pig roast.

The Cultural Animal

Here is one definition of culture I found on the internet that is more comprehensive than some because it includes the statement that culture is something that is accepted without thinking:

“A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

That element seems critical when one considers how different the definition would be if it were the opposite: “. . . behaviors, beliefs etc. that are accepted by each generation or person only after careful critical analysis.”  Culture would be predicated on a world of moral philosophers.

Culture and thinking are at odds with one another. Which should we endorse? For the pro-culture position, people who do not question culture enjoy the benefit of generally fitting in. For example, they have the affirmation of numbers in their religious practices, they have no trouble ordering in restaurants, or enjoying television.  They, on the whole are bothered less: they are not bothered by hunting, cruel practices to animals, and instances of hypocrisy. They have ready-made explanations for bad things: it has always been like this; it could not be different; we have not evolved to do otherwise; what would become of such and such industry, line of work, or institution without continuing such a practice; and God wants it this way. It might seem like the mainstream, predominate group in any society is more likely to be culture-content.  That is logical, but does not take into account that many people in the satisfied groups do still utilize the power of thinking sometimes and find themselves questioning something, even at times without knowing that they are trying to unite the strangle hold of culture. That little insurrection could be the result of education; if so, that is one giant endorsement for a liberal arts education.  How does education lead to a culture-challenging idea? The study of history, for example, will quickly reveal a sophisticated culture from another time which generally will exhibit several instances of bias, discrimination, and typically appalling cruelty that makes us cringe and feel so glad not to live back then.  The next step however is to wonder how any given individual during that time got up and went around his or her business with such atrocities going on or perpetrated them so callously; are we not made of the same stuff?  Are we not all of the same species?  When did we become so unlike the Romans who simply loved to see people torn apart by wild animals or set on fire as human torches, really just for the sake of entertainment? Are there not vestiges of the displays of animal combat from that time in the bull ring in Spain?  Could it be that the objective view of our own culture would reveal to a different group a similar conclusion? Oh no, we would say—we are not like that. However in the very short (and it is very short) history of the United States, we had slavery.  The mind struggles to comprehend how the enlightened free thinking American clung to this practice even after it was outlawed by England, the Great Oppressor. I find it ironic in a way that we fought the Revolution for the all-important cause of saving tax money so that we would be a free nation, allowed to continue with slavery after the mother country outlawed it. On that note, it is interesting that culture can corrupt a person who was not even raised from childhood in its miasma:  In the 19th Century, English immigrants, who of course lived in a non-slave culture, once in the United States owned slaves.  I was profoundly disappointed to read that the brother of the poet John Keats, when he came to America and settled in Kentucky, owned slaves.  When in Rome . . .

No doubt, those who find themselves oppressed by cultural practices are the ones to give it more thought and, if in a position to do so, take steps to change it. Which segues into the proposition that not all cultural practices must be challenged or even questioned; only those that are self-serving to one group and detrimental to another—that is the test.  Innocuous cultural practices keep the machinery of life turning. If each couple had to invent a ritual for pledging their troths, if every grave memorial had to be original, if every greeting invited yet another way of extending hands, we would expend way too much thought on the trivial, and certainly the last thing we need to do is occupy our minds with more trivial questions.

What is my main point of contention?  The largest and most firmly entrenched aspect of culture, even more than religion — food. What is more defining or central to a culture?  I want us to question what we eat because after all, that stuff is not just going on around us it is going into our mouths and stomachs, and there is something evil lurking behind the curtain—we all know that.  How does the touchstone question for determining if a practice should be challenged apply in this instance, i.e. is one group serving its own interests to the detriment of another? The self- serving is interest is stunningly clear (businesses making a lot of money, convenience, money, oh! and did I mention financial gain, profits, and money) and the harm is tremendous, although it is not a detriment suffered by our species. There’s the rub, but does only human suffering count?  Obviously not—not really to anyone (consider your dog, cat, horse, canary).  Going even further to what may be even more than a cultural question, although heavily informed by culture: why must we feel so elevated and separate from other species when we are all animals? Academics who study a species always become amazed at the “animals’” abilities, feelings, interests, practices, and habits, and they wind up overcoming that feeling of separateness. Some people who are not scientists in the field attain such a realization and are simply called animal lovers. I guess the definition of “lover” there is someone who is unwilling to inflict suffering, fear, and death on another creature and is deeply disturbed at that reality.

Giving consideration to the suffering we inflict on animals under the aegis of culture is a paradigm of the combat waged between accepting and thinking.  Every statement (I would say argument but that connotes more worth than is due) that anyone has ever marshalled to defend a bad cultural practice comes into play: we have always done this; everyone does this; it would be hard to do without this; what would happen to certain businesses. Culture gives a way out, whew! That’s easy. I can roll over and get a good’s night sleep because the suffering of other creatures does not have to concern me. Where does thinking get us?  Initially, into a state of near despair in facing the tremendous, grinding ugliness and cruelty  of a factory farm and slaughterhouse death; then into the ranks of the petty activist, at odds with culture, writing blog posts that nobody will read; at the same time in the company of those who understand Morality. A benign aspect of culture itself and liberal thought has taught that notions of morality make the world a better place, so that we may understand that  might does not make right and that inflicting suffering is wrong. Morality issues its categorical imperative to live the daily struggle against the cultural behemoth, remembering that one doesn’t need hope to start out or success to persevere.

The Practice of Not Thinking

I heard on the radio that there is a movie coming out about David Foster Wallace. I have read very little by him, but I always take notice of the name because he was my brother’s favorite writer. I am not drawn to his style of writing, but my opinion will stop there pending better acquaintance with his work. I am, however, very drawn to his essay “Consider the Lobster.”  I can relate to his experience at a lobster festival, having had to endure a Maine lobster dinner on a large scale at Bowdoin College.  It was impossible to look away; the boiled creatures were everywhere. How do we engage in such cruelty?  We simply don’t think, just as Wallace points out in this excerpt I have reprinted below. How many of the ills of the world can we attribute to a lack of thought and a reliance on that self-serving substitute for thinking, culture? Countless, no doubt. I would be curious to know if Wallace’s depression arose, to any extent, from a sad disgust with the practices of human beings such as the one he describes here. I also wonder if anyone did shy away from eating lobster after reading his essay in “Gourmet Magazine” or elsewhere.

“However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into a steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster is fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little light-weight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole purpose of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”

Your Cultural Heritage—Question it!

It is the common view that the culture of a society or group is special, valuable, and worth preserving. The term culture is vast, encompassing all aspects of daily life, as well as history and beliefs touching the larger issues of law, morality, and an afterlife. Given the breadth of what constitutes culture, in considering our culture as valuable we pave the way to affirm a host of behaviors and beliefs in one fell swoop without giving them any thought.

That common view might well be erroneous, so that, to the contrary, the culture of any given society (or large chunks of it) might not be in the least necessarily or inherently special, valuable, or worth preserving. Why should the practices from a long time ago, in more ignorant times, hold sway over a thinking individual years later in a different time and even a different  place?  The even more insidious role of culture it to circumvent the use of reason –when one can’t muster a good and non-self-serving reason for some act or idea, he or she resorts to the safety blanket of culture. I should give examples here, but then I would seem biased against one set of cultural values over the other, so I will say generally, any cultural practices that perpetuate oppression or cruelty, subjugation of one group over the other, or defy any rational explanation need to be questioned and not accepted.

Two examples of culture have come up lately in the news that exemplify my contention that we should step back and stop waving the banner of our culture like it was a grand accomplishment and consider it for what it is: a load of ideas from other people, who might have gotten things very wrong. First, the story in the New York Times about the Chinese eating dogs illustrates the way we use culture without thought to obfuscate an unfathomable amount of suffering and a practice that could easily be considered repulsive.  The Chinese find it culturally acceptable to eat dogs; Americans find that abhorrent because in our culture we have an affinity for dogs.  In that difference of views, one might contest that the Chinese are not wrong in eating them, why? Here it comes: “ it’s their culture.”  I would say, “so what;” of course it is, but that does not make it right. However, are we right, and is our cultural practice of not eating dogs better?    It is better that we don’t eat dogs, not because we culturally find them non-edible, but because not eating them shows a side of compassion and empathy that any society would want to encourage, since those are two good and non-self-serving qualities that make the world a better place.

However, another story in the New York Times flips the scenario between American and foreign culture, putting the empathy and compassion on the other side.  The article lends a critical tone to the cultural practice of Hindus not being able to kill cows. American culture is all for killing cows. I must acknowledge that the reason Hindus do not kill cows might not comport with my ideas of reasonableness, being (I suspect) a religious practice adopted without question. However, if Hindus were to question the received practice, the conclusion to not kill them could be the same. By the same token, our predilection for cow-killing needs to be questioned. Eating dogs strikes us as horrible, but cows are sentient creatures, not as dumb as we like to think, that have interests and affections and that most importantly fear death and can suffer (and of course do suffer at the hands of dog-loving Americans by the millions).

Maybe eating dogs makes as much sense as eating cows or not eating cows.  The point is all three cultural groups need to question the practice and not trot out the old excuse—it’s our culture. Cultural examination should, like charity, begin at home; let’s consider our practices of not eating dogs, but eating cows and pigs and birds.  Food is one of the most central aspects of culture, to the extent that people say they have enjoyed a visit to a foreign land (or not) because of the food.  People commonly choose a travel destination for the food.  I find all of that a bit silly.  Elevating food to a passion does not comport in the least with my Stoic side, but I realize that I am the odd man out on the topic of feeding oneself. Hence given the importance of food and its centrality to culture, let’s take a look at what we are doing under the blanket of culture. One way of questioning the acceptability of animal consumption is to imagine a school field trip to a factory farm or slaughter house. “Children, we visited the bakery and the fire station last year.  This semester, as part of our nutrition unit, we will visit the factory farm and its associated slaughter house to see where our meat comes from. We will need chaperones and are having a hard time finding parents who want to make this trip, so please encourage one of your parents to come along with us.”

How can we defend a part of our culture that we have to keep hidden away? Culture dumbs us down and suffocates our own faulty of reason. Reason (of the sort that embraces the value of compassion over self-serving interest) might dictate a few conclusions along the following lines: if something is so horrible that I could not stomach seeing it, then it is not something that should be tolerated; if what I am doing in eating meat necessitates the suffering of millions of sentient creatures then that is not compassionate, but supremely selfish and I should stop it; if there are so many good things to eat that do not inflict suffering, that reduce greenhouse gasses, and that support good health then I should eat those things and not animals; if I can be compassionate rather than cruel and self-serving, I should do that because a world based on compassion creates a better place to live.

Someone’s beloved culture at one time whole-heartedly supported human sacrifice, gladiatorial games, the subjugation of women, slavery, racism, anti-homosexuality, bull-fighting, bear baiting.  Reason taught the wrongness of those practices. Consider giving reason a chance against culture to subvert the most pervasive of non-compassionate and bloody of practices at work in America today.