The Frontal Cortex

Proposition Two

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.*

I bring this up in the context of Proposition Two, an initiative on the ballot in California. Nicholas Kristof summarizes what’s at stake:

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?


  1. #1 Anibal
    August 7, 2008

    Amen!, Jonah.

  2. #2 gabe
    August 7, 2008

    Great post today, Jonah. The consciousness debate is continually finding it’s way into every day issues.

    I’m a big meat eater and animal lover – it’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance.

  3. #3 Paul Shapiro
    August 7, 2008

    Proposition 2 is a moderate measure that stops cruel and inhumane treatment of animals — ending the practice of cramming farm animals into cages so small the animals can’t even turn around or stretch their limbs. It’s supported by the Humane Society of the United States, Center for Food Safety, and the California Veterinary Medical Association.

    Voting YES on Proposition 2 prevents animal cruelty, promotes food safety, supports family farmers, and protects the environment.

  4. #4 Neda
    August 7, 2008

    Agree with all of the above. VOTE YES on PROP2!!!!!!!!!!

  5. #5 Lee Pirozzi
    August 7, 2008

    How could we not consider that animals are still evolving and changing as we are? I am haunted by photos I recently took at a zoo – the eyes of the cats and monkeys carry a knowledge in their stare. Their behavior shows it, and we ignore it with the same indifference that we frequently ignore our own behavior when it is uncomfortable to resist change.

    I quit taking pictures because the look I got gave me an overwhelming feeling of intruding on their limited space. My children would ask me to take pictures and I did until I just couldn’t anymore. My oldest son recognized the look on my face as sad and asked what was the matter. I explained that while I was glad that he could see the animals, the zoo still made me sad. When I got home and looked at the photography sequence, I realized that at the end of the trip I had begun to take partial pictures leaving out the animals’ faces.

  6. #6 Jeffrey Kittay
    August 8, 2008

    Mention of low prefrontal function and basic rights goes to the heart of the question of the rights of the cognitively disabled. Most philosophers of morality and ethics have in fact not thought through sufficiently the status of those with mental retardation, alzheimer’s, etc. And the presence of animals with often high functioning cognition complicates matters.

    A ground-breaking conference, sponsored by Stony Brook University, is finally looking squarely at the question in the broadest terms, with speakers like Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Ian Hacking, Michael Berube, and so on. It’s in Manhattan, September 18-20.

    Here’s a short intro:
    The realities of cognitive disability pose a significant challenge to certain key conceptions philosophers have held. Philosophers have conceived of the mark of humanity as the possession of rational cognitive capacities. They have traditionally extended the mantles of equality, dignity, justice, responsibility, and moral fellowship to those with these abilities, whom they speak of as “persons.” What then should we say about those with severe cognitive disabilities? How should we treat these individuals and what sorts of entitlements can they claim? Should we grant the arguments of some philosophers who want to parse our moral universe in ways that depend on degrees of cognitive capacity, not on being human? How do claims for the moral consideration of animals bear on the question? Is it morally acceptable to consign some human beings to the status of “non-persons”? Philosophers have rarely faced these questions squarely and systematically.

    For more info:

  7. #7 David Baird
    August 10, 2008

    While I can’t remember who it was, I recollect that in the earliest days of vivisection one proponent claimed that the cries of distress of the animals was no different to the mechanical noise created by water rushing through a channel.
    Then, after Descartes, there was distinction made between animals as mere biological machines and humans who possessed this magical extra faculty of rationality .
    Even though I was quite young when I read it, it struck me as a very self-serving rationalisation. Intuitively I felt it was bogus and horrific.
    While intuition doesn’t serve well when it comes to realms outside of human experience as in the quantum world, it seems that when it comes to living creatures it’s more trustworthy.

  8. #8 Lizzie
    August 11, 2008

    Thank you.

  9. #9 eddie
    August 12, 2008

    Prop2 seems so sensible, and yet would cost the farming/food industry a bomb or two.

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