Our Cruel Conquest of Animals
It was probably sometime after we settled down and began raising crops that we humans began to deliberately think of ourselves as separate from other animals.
No, not just separate. Dominant.
It was probably sometime after we settled down and began raising crops that we humans began to deliberately thinking of ourselves as separate from other animals.
No, not just separate. Dominant.
These early agricultural yields must have been better in some places than others, because from these surpluses the people who lived in the Mesopotamian cities of Ur and Babylon and Sumer developed economies and systems of currency.
This led naturally enough to the creation of kingdoms and armies to support them as well as plenty of other new things like (maybe) developing a bicameral mind and spicing their food all of which added more and more rungs between humans and animals on the Great Ladder of Living Things on Earth.
Mesopotamians must have been aware of their place in history as the first who could lay claim to the title of “civilized” humans.
They certainly seem to have had some hang-ups about it, at least. The very first narrative story anyone ever wrote down (another rung), the Epic of Gilgamesh, concerns itself with the overarching theme of city versus the wild - with city coming out on top. It shows how anxious the Mesopotamians were to be counted among civilized humans.
Part and parcel of this is the sentiment that humans reign supreme at the top of the hierarchy of Animalia. Anthropocentrism demands that the other animals on Earth belong to us humans. We can do whatever we like with them.
Silver Denariur, Roman, 42 BC credit
And for many, many millennia we have done just that, with civilizations coming and going, their treatment of animals consigned to a footnote except for the very worst of the bunch.
The pre-classical Romans are a flagrant low point. The Coliseum was frequently the site of utter bloodbaths, with lions and bears and other captured animals pitted against one another to the death. Sometimes, perhaps treading a little too metaphorically close to our animalian roots, animals were pitted against humans.
But sporting types haven’t been the only ones to systematically torture animals. Science – perhaps the most important rung on the Great Ladder- has a long, disturbing history of grossly mistreating animals.
But it’s for furthering human understanding of the universe, say scientists, not just for the entertainment of before-common-era Roman hicks. At least the Romans never obfuscated the suffering of animals.
Rene Descartes famously proclaimed that animals have no internal experience, as he nailed the paws of dogs to a board to hold them still while he vivisected them. Lacking an inner experience, animals cannot experience pain or suffering. They are mere automata. Disregard the writhing and howls you hear; they are not signs of suffering, they are merely reactions to the external stimulus of me driving nails through their paws. Stop anthropomorphizing, fool.
Being a philosopher as well as a scientist, Descartes was in a position to be listened to. And he set the tone for science’s relationship with animals for centuries to come: They may be tortured mercilessly so long as 1) it is in the name of science and 2) we go ahead and ignore their agony.
Even today, students of disciplines that engage in animal experimentation are still taught that the animals they torture are incapable of suffering. If you listen closely you can still hear the echoes of Descartes’ hammering.
While experimenting with rats, a group of Dutch scientists, humans all, learned that the brain continues to experience consciousness for around four seconds following decapitation. They were looking for the most humane way to euthanize the rats they no longer needed for their experiments. Perhaps we can call this progress.
We are being treated to a moment in history where science is engaged in a long, slow turning back on itself.
The cover Descartes provided, flimsy as it was, is being undermined by science itself. The same experiments that end with rats’ heads being cut off are also revealing that a great many of their test subjects have all the equipment needed to experience consciousness, and hence suffering
Philosophers, so long both the champions and enemies of the cause of animal rights, have taken up these initial findings and concluded that animals can want to not suffer. If an animal can reflect on its own life, which it increasingly seems many species are capable of doing, then an animal can value its life.
At this point, the animal’s life has value in and of itself, because the animal’s life is valuable to itself. Regardless of whether it has value to anyone else, it has value.
This places us humans at a very prickly point in the history of our species. We can no longer pretend that our position at the top of this hierarchy doesn’t come at great and unjustifiable cost to all other animals.
It seems we didn’t so much climb the Great Ladder of All Living Things on Earth so much as build it on the broken backs of our fellow sufferers.
Josh Clark is one half of Stuff You Should Know
, the award-winning podcast hosted by Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark and produced by the venerable website HowStuffWorks. Subscribe here.