Monday, March 27, 2006

Animal-rights terrorism

Here’s some good news. Within a generation or so, people could be eating people in fancy restaurants. More exactly, they could be eating “cultured” human flesh, meat grown from human cells. This would give a whole new meaning to “eating Chinese”, “eating Greek” – or “baby food”. This is no joke. It will happen. Research on developing cultured meat is well under way, and the economic and culinary prospects are awesome, not to mention disgusting. Best of all, though, is the prospect of beginning to put an end to the barbaric practice of factory-farming sentient animals.

Why is the mass torture and slaughter of animals apparently impossible to eradicate, despite the damage it does to human health and to the environment? The answer is not simply economic. Here’s the real scoop: torturing, slaughtering, and consuming animals is all about domination and salvation. It’s all about who we humans are and what our ultimate fate is. Just saying, “No, thanks, I don’t eat meat” at a dinner party is enough to induce existential terror in many people, and is the basis of the snide remarks that can follow. Of course, these people are not likely to recognize themselves as suffering existential terror, since the whole response mechanism (“I think I’ll go out and butcher a cabbage”, “Paul’s music sucks”, “These wackos are against scientific progress”, etc., depending on the particular issue at hand) is designed to normalize the situation and push the ontological and moral issues back out of sight.

It’s instructive to note the frequency with which it is asserted that ascribing rights to animals is unacceptable because it would reduce human beings to a brutish, dog-eat-dog level, and in effect mean the end of human rights. This is nonsense: showing respect for animals (or women, or black people, or whomever) does not require or imply showing less respect for humans (or men, or white people, or whomever). The real fear here is that if our destiny is one with the other living creatures of this world, then we have been abandoned by God or Fate and there is no eternal salvation for us – for surely God cares little or nothing for individual animal lives, from all the evidence around us, including our own treatment of those lives.

This is the real terrorism of animal rights: the terror induced in those who feel a threat to their privileged place in the grand scheme of existence.

It is not only those who long to be saved by God who can feel threatened by the idea that humans and non-humans are in the same boat, morally speaking (even if there may be good reasons to prefer humans when the boat springs a leak), but also those who see evolution as certifying human moral superiority (“We’ve clawed our way to the top of the heap”). I’ve noted before how, for those who want to believe that God has conferred a special status on human beings, Darwinism threatens the doctrine of human exceptionalism. But the desire to be assured that humans occupy a special place in the universe runs deep, and is not limited to religious believers. Ostensible devotion to science can mask an arrogant dismissal of the non-human world and those who would speak for it.

Conversely, as Rod Preece makes clear in his important book Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution, those who have defended animals on the basis of their kinship with humans have often, at least in the past, been motivated less by the idea of biological evolution than by a religious, and specifically a Christian, belief in the unity of God’s creation. This was especially true of the nineteenth-century debate in Britain over vivisection. As for Darwin himself, he wrote that the subject of vivisection made him “sick with horror”, yet he refused to condemn the practice insofar as it might advance scientific knowledge. By contrast, Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator of the theory of natural selection, condemned it entirely. In making a case for some animal experimentation, proponents might at least have the decency to be “sick with horror” at the necessity, if such it be. Unfortunately, too few display Darwin’s decency.

Happily, vivisection of non-humans may one day be replaced by experimentation upon living human bodies and organs, grown in vats for the purpose. Not only would the “models” yield more reliable information (because they would be the real thing), but waste would be minimized: any unused surplus could be donated to food banks.

So imagine a Thanksgiving dinner in 2056. Out of the oven comes the roast baby, perhaps with an apple in its mouth. Will Father carve the baby, or is that tradition a bit sexist? Yum! Baby meat! “Reminds me of veal”, says Grandma. Mother scowls. “What’s veal?” asks little Timmy. “Not something we talk about in polite company,” says Mother, “not something that people eat any more. Here, let me give you a hand.”

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