Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Of Human Design

Mike recently directed me to a blog by a mutual vegetarian friend from college, Adam. The language is harsh: eating meat is oppression and so forth. What lovely serendipity that we covered prehistory in my development class today.

The roots of human civilization lie in what Jared Diamond calls "farmer power," or the development of food stuffs so other people can specialize in non-farming professions (soldiers, inventors, traders, etc). Critical to this was the domestication of animals for purposes of food and labor (the aforementioned oppression). Over generations brain power and survival techniques (such as good eyesight) were severely diminished. In other words, they are not natural in any normal sense of the word. Indeed they are less natural than a wooden table, since at least the wood retains original DNA. Domesticated animals are a new species.

Adam posted a few videos from Waking Life, an independent philosophical film. One character argues "the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human," a rather strange claim given history. The average human purposefully domesticated plant and animal species, something no other animal has done. That's an astonishingly large leap from a chimpanzee.

A great departure from their wild ancestors, modern farm animals are basically bags of meat with scarcely a glimmer of intellect. They were bred to be property, and non-sentient at that (save for the most encompassing definition of sentient). Even by their cousin's standards they are stupid. Of all the oppressions of the world, meat-eating hardly seems like a worthy one to fight.


Adam said...

Hey David,
I appreciate your unsolicited invitation to another dispute. I have several comments to make in response to your post:

1. You obviously spent very little time around farmed animals (if any). After working with farmed animals all summer, I can honestly say you couldn't be more wrong about animal sentience and intelligence. Just because they don't sniff our asses, doesn't make them any less sentient or intelligent than dogs. You sound much like a Northerner in the 19th century who didn't bother to get to know Afro-Americans before he judged them to be dimmer and less sensitive than white men; and similarly, judged women's qualification for politics without ever giving them an opportunity to succeed. It's easy to judge an Other when one is hardheaded.
(Cheney and Weston 1999
(CIWF - Sentience of Farm Animals

2. First of all, can you define "natural" without constructing a dualism between nature and culture? Nonetheless, whether something or someone is natural doesn't reduce their moral standing. On diminished health: dogs have worse eye site than wolves, just as well as humans. Humans are just as much a product of domestication as "animals." Some feminists think men selected women to be less intelligent and weaker, while Sociobiologists believe women are more passive and emotionally stronger because of our ancestors mass rapes on other tribes. Slaves were also bred to be property. (P.S. If you know what a species is, you'll know that they are not "new species"... Actually, Dawkins believes we are the same species as Chimps and Diamond considers us a "third chimpanzee"--what does that say about our differentiation from "animals")
(Dawkins -
(Diamond -

Even so, if you are opposed to arbitrary prejudice such as sexism and racism because appearance, genetics, lifestyle, and intelligence are morally arbitrary (or would "euthanizing" infants and mentally handicap people be acceptable if it promoted the greater good), then out of consistency you should be opposed to prejudice against one's taxonomical grouping. The evidence that nonhuman mammals and birds are sentient is solid. If an individual from a different species has the same interest as us, they ought to be given equal consideration.
(you should read this in full... Singer -
(and this... Francione -

3. You claim that meat-eating and the oppression of animals are not a worthy cause. First, no sane person can claim 99.99% of the animals the world eats live without unnecessary suffering, in fact 99% are inflected with suffering of the greatest degree. that alone is an imperative to end our support of the practice.

Further, the head of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC just recommended that people reduce their meat to reduce GHG emissions. This is because livestock produce 18% of GHGs, 40% more than the transportation sector! In addition it raises gas prices and food prices because 1/3 of all world grain is fed to livestock and 1/2 of all fishmeal. 70% of deforestation in the Amazon is due to grazing alone. Cows and pigs also use up tremendous amount of our clean fresh water.
(FAO 2006 - http://ftp//
(Water -

Not to mention, animals are ecologically/economically inefficient producers of protein to feed a world of 6.5 billion. Eating meat is *overconsumption*! It's also partly responsible for the high rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes that faces our country, thus costing tax payers $100 millions every year in healthcare. On top of that, our government subsidizes this food! If you really believe in justice and economic efficiency, you ought to be a vegan.
(Campbell -

Finally, all oppression is interconnected. the same logic that justifies dominating one group is used against another group. Just read the discourse used to justify exterminating Jews, slavery, going to war, etc. People are always said to be more animal than human. But dehumanization isn't itself the problem; it is our dominating ideologies that are. Donna Haraway explores speciesism and colonization in her work, and there are plenty of other books that establish the conceptual connection between dominating animals and Other humans. Just take a look at what the aristocrats had to say about farmers and laborers throughout Western culture.
(Warren 2000 -,M1)

*. I recommend reading through some of the publications I have posted links to on my site, as well as watching videos on how animals are actually treated before you come to a hasty judgment. I encourage you to apply both your reasoning and compassion harder to get beyond your prejudice and defensive, unsupported assumptions.


Adam said...

A few last minute corrections:

- "On diminished health: dogs have worse eye site than wolves, just as well as humans."
What I mean is that Western human populations have as much "degeneration" in our genes as do other domesticates from our own inbreeding and "enlightened" sexual selection.

- First, humans didn't intentionally "domesticate" animals. It happened more or less unintentionally. they didn't know of evolution and gene expression and inheritance. If it were intentional, they could have fully domesticated those animals within several generations, not thousands of years. More likely, animals were with humans because of their spiritual and cultural value rather than the other way around (Buliet 2004 -,M1)

- Secondly, most human cultures *never* "domesticated" animals and aren't included in your definition of "civilization." Are these people less human, inferior, or just ignorant. That would seem extraordinarily racist and ethnocentric if so.

- Third, other species do domesticate other species, such as this one ant that farms its own fungi. Perhaps we are more like ants than apes. Even fish have been seen to do likewise with algae.

- Again, none of this ought to matter morally. These are just empirical facts that prove human exceptionalism otherwise. We should treat other individuals as individuals and not discriminate against them based on their categorical identities.

Put your reason to work...

David said...


First thank you for your response. I always appreciate new arguments.

First, the obvious: noting how much more energy/work it takes to get meat is not an argument that it's inefficient. If people are willing to shoulder that additional cost (and yes, the subsidies are distortionary, but no so much it invalids the argument) then that cost is well worth it. A pen costs much less than a computer but that is not grounds that a pen is more efficient than a computer.

Now, glancing at the sources you sent me reiterates my point. Only the most encompassing definitions of sentient (organisms that suffer, one's whose feelings "matter") back your point. If we accept those very vague or reaching definitions, then I agree; eating meat is morally reprehensible. But I don't accept those definitions.

Humans feel strongly with anything that shows emotion, likely a byproduct of our social natures. It seems this is the motivation behind wanting to call all animals sentient. A computer program can emulate human emotions and we will respond to them in kind. But it is no more sentient than its stoic counterpart. Our brains are fooling us.

Sentience is in all likelihood a spectrum, not a dichotomy. But morality is a dichotomy so we clearly have a problem--we need a good threshold. Having grown up in Iowa and spent time around farm animals, I know they fall below that threshold. Humans are above it. Some animals waver near it (elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees) so I call them sentient as a precaution. But I continue to search for a better definition.

This post is one leg of that search. I'm aware of the algae planting of ants and I'm sure they've influenced the evolution of algae as a result. But I think they lack the awareness to know that they are influencing the species through their actions. Humans, with or without knowledge of genes, do.

From an evolutionary stand point, domestication of plants and animals underwent a massive change in a short amount of time. Wild corn cobs are barely a few inches long; domesticated ones are over a foot. Are there similar divergences in algae species? Possibly (I'm not the one to ask), but I'd be surprised if there were.

Adam said...

David, thanks for taking the time to reply. My (relatively) quick responses.

1. Ecologically nearly ALL animals we eat for consumption is inherently inefficient. Except in regions, like the arctic or Gobi desert, not only is eating lowest on the food chain more efficient in terms of energy but also land usage and water. Even purchasing local beef and cheese will result in more GHG effect than consuming imported fruit from NZ. Eating a vegan diet can cut caloric loss in half (in terms of mutant chicken and the most efficient fish farm) to 1/25 (in the case of feedlot beef and sheep). Water loss can also be cut in half to 1/10.

This also does not include the externalities of land erosion (55% of US land is over-exploited from grazing and around 25% of grazing land world wide), deforestation, climate change, the health problems induced on workers in processing facilities and in the community, etc. If the real costs of a cheeseburger were internalized, I've heard of price estimates up to $10.

Even if people "shouldered the cost" of the market for "meat' and dairy that is expected to *double* by 2050 when these industries are already occupy 1/3 of all arable land on the planet and responsible for a significant slice of GHG emissions and topsoil erosion and water squandering (in a world where clean fresh water is scarce), all the "environmental costs" create high hurtles for future generations and people living in the most marginal climates and states. With the 70% of deforestation attributed to livestock already, we have lost tremendous and irreplaceable, *invaluable*, biodiversity. So I'm not quite sure how your comparison between a pen and a computer plays in here. Even so, I can't help but wonder how a pen would not be ecologically more efficient to produce than a computer (if that's what you are suggesting).

2. ""Sentience is in all likelihood a spectrum, not a dichotomy. But morality is a dichotomy so we clearly have a problem--we need a good threshold. Having grown up in Iowa and spent time around farm animals, I know they fall below that threshold.""

I agree with you that sentience is a spectrum, but I haven't a clue how you reached your conclusion that morality is a "dichotomy." Can you back that up with a sound argument or is that just an intuition you wish not to challenge? What is a "good threshold" and why do we "need" one? How do you "know" farmed animals "fall below" the threshold? Again, please offer a sound argument for your conclusion.

Peter Singer (the infamous ethicist from Princeton), who I agree with in most cases, also acknowledges a spectrum of sentience. His argument for "equal consideration" is based not in the fact that we are all equal in our capacities, but that those capacities we share.

I think you'll agree that cows, chickens, and pigs can suffer: they suffer from actions such as castration, dehorning, tail docking, debeaking (all without anesthetics), extreme confinement, inability to flee from an opponent, immediate separation from mother/children, fed and bred to grow so fast their legs cripple when they are still children, being scalded while conscious, being skinned and dismembered alive, journeys of up to thousands of miles in open trucks in the dead of winter, being electric prodded in the eyes, etc...

This is the byproduct of commodifying animals in a society in which there is a dichotomy. I really don't believe that you are indifferent to this suffering (or at least I really hope to). Surely, you think that such suffering is wrong. Why? probably because of its intensity and because it is "unnecessary." From this follows, 1) suffering is bad, especially when unnecessary; 2) bad things should be prevented, all things being equal; C1) suffering should be prevented, especially if unnecessary; 3)animals can suffer, although not always as much as humans; 4) animals actually suffer tremendously; 5) animals suffering on these farms is unnecessary; C2) the suffering of these animals ought to be prevented because it is an unnecessary bad; 6) we should avoid financing unnecessary suffering, especially when it requires little of us; 7) all of this suffering can be prevented by going vegan, or reduced by adopting a plant-based diet; 8) these diets require no more money, time, etc and require only willpower; C3) one should adopt a vegan diet because it eliminates the financing of suffering and only requires our willpower.

Say you still don't agree. By your logic infants and the mentally challenged also do not rise "above the threshold." Again, I don't assume you accept infanticide nor the enslavement of the intellectually challenged. they do not experience the full range of "human" emotions and existential angst. Say an orphaned infant is no more sentient (in your words) than a pig (who have the intellectual abilities of 3 year olds), would it be acceptable to use him as a plaything, a scientific tool, or a piece of meat? Probably not. So why is there a difference? Is it because the infant is a member of our "species." If so, we are basing his consideration on his genetic lineage. If we considered one human infant above another based purely on their lineage, we would cal this racism.

Ultimately, our discrimination against other individuals based upon their appearance, genetic lineage, intelligence, or lifestyle
are arbitrary. We ought to consider individuals on their own basis, not by the standard of their human constructed groups.

If you haven't yet, I encourage you again to read and watch the following (Francione and Singer articulate the case much better than I and "Meet Your Meat" documents the commonplace suffering in animal ag today). You need not give up your libertarian views to be vegan/an AR advocate--after all, Singer's argument comes out of liberalism (via Bentham and Mills):

Adam said...

Actually, instead of (or in addition to) watching the video you can just take a look at my slide show:

*** You may have to put the photos on 10-second intervals, though, to read the captions.