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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

21 January 2012

Speciesism = Creationism; Treat It That Way

You may have noticed a distinct lack of animal rights talk on this blog last year. That wasn’t an accident, although it’s not really accurate to say it was deliberate, either.  The thing is, I have little patience for “philosophy,” particularly when it comes to explaining why I don’t eat animals.  To me, the foundation of veganism is self-evident; I noted last year that there’s good evidence to think that empathy for animals is simply a given of human nature.  As such, to my mind it requires no more philosophical justification than breathing or walking upright.  I thus treat the contrary position that it is wrong – or, some say, unnatural – to feel or act on empathy for nonhumans as akin to claims about the divinity of Hebrew zombies, or the healing powers of trigonal silicate structures.  That is to say, the burden of proof lies with the other side, not with mine.

But I’ve started noticing that a lot of other vegans don’t do this; we spend a lot of bandwidth and paper trying to convince the world that it’s OK to indulge such empathy; or worse, trying to convince the world that animal suffering really is similar enough to our own that animals deserve significantly more robust moral and ethical consideration than we currently give them.  Entire books have been written on the subject.  I’ve even read a few of them.

In short, we’ve been acting like the burden of proof lies with us.  But it doesn’t, and we really ought to start acting like it doesn’t.

I came to my veganism and support for animal rights/liberation/libertarianism not primarily through works of animal advocacy, philosophy or ethics, but through my interest in and study of biology and evolution.  Once I got a grasp on the concept of homology, the ethical implications followed naturally, and the ethical foundation seemed obvious to me: everything we know about brain evolution tells us – or ought to – that the capacity for suffering is conserved in all vertebrates.  So are consciousness, pain, emotion and most of the other supposedly unique human mental faculties whose alleged lack in animals are often cited as justification for exploiting them ruthlessly.

Biologist Gerhard Roth is clear on the evidence for this point (emphasis added) :
All tetrapod vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals) have brains that – despite enormous differences in outer appearance, overall size and relative size of major parts of the brain – are very similar in general organization and even in many details (Wullimann 2000).  More specifically, all tetrapod brains possess a median, medial and lateral reticular formation inside the medulla oblongata, pons and ventral mesencephalon, including a noradrenergic locus coeruleus, serotonergic raphe nuclei and a medial ascending reticular activating system.  There is a corpus striatum, a globus pallidus, a nucleus accumbens, a substantial nigra, a basal forebrain/septum and an amygdala within the ventral telencephalon, a lateral pallium, homologous to the olfactory cortex of mammals, and a medial pallium, homologous to the hippocampal formation (at least Ammon’s horn and subiculum).  This means that all structures required for declarative memory (or its equivalent in animals), emotions, motivation, guidance of voluntary actions and evaluation of actions are present in the tetrapod brain.  These structures essentially have the connectivity and distribution of transmitters, neuromodulators, and neuropeptides in the different groups of tetrapods.
That’s all just a fancy-schmancy way of pointing out that humans inherited our capacity for emotion, intellect and consciousness from a long line of pre-human, and even pre-mammalian, ancestors. The discovery of mirror neurons in birds ought to demonstrate to us that the capacity for empathy was likely present in the common ancestor of reptiles and mammals, and is thus an ancient trait in most modern terrestrial species.  Based on this evidence, I give amphibians and fish the benefit of the doubt, too.

I take it as a given that animals possess and are capable of all the mental traits that speciesists like to prop up as uniquely human, in order to justify our long tradition of exploiting nonhumans.  Any claim to the contrary – no matter how sophisticated and no matter how ancient the philosophical tradition in which it is rooted – is simply mistaken, and does not need to be taken seriously.  It’s just another kind of creationism.

And that’s the rub.  In light of evolution, we are under no obligation to take speciesist ideas seriously.  They are not entitled to any intellectual respect at all.  And we need not treat them like they are. Our position towards them should be one of conversational intolerance; claims about the uniqueness of human suffering or consciousness are as nonsensical as claims that Elvis still lives, or that the constellations influence human actions. In the words of Pauli, they are not even wrong.

Rather than being defensive about the foundation of our ethics, more vegans should be openly dismissive of the contrary position, and shift the burden of proof where it belongs: onto the creationists who claim animals can’t think, feel, or suffer.

All this is the reason I rarely write long posts on ethics or philosophy. In my day-to-day thinking and action, the claims of speciesists simply get ignored.  I don’t think about these ideas often, because they are a waste of time, just like the claims of Flat Earthers or crystal healers.  And in the relatively few instances where I am confronted by such claims, I either make fun of them, shift the burden of proof to the claimant, or simply ignore them altogether, depending on the situation.

I realize that it doesn’t make sense for all animal advocates to do this at all times and places, and there is an important role for dialogue and persuasion -- I just don't see it as my role. I can’t help think that if a few more average vegans adopted this attitude, we’d make some headway in the larger culture, the way skeptics of other parts of religion have been doing the last couple of years.

At the very least, it's a lot more fun than philosophizing with creationists.