One of the great themes of post-Darwinian science is the inter-relatedness of life. From the perspective of our neurons, there is little difference between a human and a rat, or even a sea slug. All animals use the same ionic cells and the same neurotransmitters. Pain receptors in different species share a similar design. Blood and flesh and skin are always constructed of the same elemental stuff. We share 98 percent of our genome with chimps.
The distinctions are just as murky from the perspective of behavior. Ants exhibit altruism. Parrots use symbolic logic. Gorillas mourn the death of a family member. Humans exhibit all sorts of animal instincts. Most neuroscientists who study consciousness believe that it exists in a gradient, and that chimps are not unconscious, but simply less conscious. Attempts to draw some clear biological line between humans and every other animal species usually end up falling back on some murky references to enlarged prefrontal cortices, but that hardly strikes me as a rigorous demarcation.*
The most important election this November that you’ve never heard of is a referendum on animal rights in California, the vanguard state for social movements. Proposition 2 would ban factory farms from raising chickens, calves or hogs in small pens or cages.
Defining what is cruel is, of course, extraordinarily difficult. But penning pigs or veal calves so tightly that they cannot turn around seems to cross that line.
More broadly, the tide of history is moving toward the protection of animal rights, and the brutal conditions in which they are sometimes now raised will eventually be banned. Someday, vegetarianism may even be the norm.
Perhaps it seems like soggy sentimentality as well as hypocrisy to stand up for animal rights, particularly when I enjoy dining on these same animals. But my view was shaped by those days in the barn as a kid, scrambling after geese I gradually came to admire.
I completely agree. There is no excuse for animal cruelty, regardless of whether it’s perpetrated by an individual (in which case it’s a felony) or by a factory farm (in which case it benefits from federal agricultural subsidies). I’m not a vegetarian, but I am pretty strict about eating humanely raised meat. Prop 2 is an important step in the right direction.
*After all, prefrontal function varies widely in humans. Are people with low prefrontal function less worthy of basic rights?