The Scientific Activist

I see that Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science recently republished an interesting series of posts on animal rights and scientific ethics that originally came out around the same time I was writing about my experience at an animal rights protest. In light of that, we’ll keep this discussion going with the following post, which I wrote back in January as a follow-up to some of the comments on my post about the animal rights protest.

(16 January 2006) This post began as a response to a comment a friend left on my last post, “Caught in the Line of Fire”, but once I started I got carried away. Included in my friend’s comment was a link to the article “All Animals Are Equal” by the philosopher Peter Singer, which was an interesting read that appealed strongly to the humanitarian in me, and I would recommend taking a look at it. On the other hand, its foundation in science was shaky, and I found several problems, which I discuss below. I believe that humans have a responsibility to be humane, respectful, and caring to one another, to other animals, and to nature and the environment in general. At the same time, I believe that it does us all a disservice to ignore the basic cold hard facts of nature, something that Singer had to do to build his argument.

While I found Singer’s article well-written and skillfully argued, it felt contrived, particularly in his use of the term “speciesism.” Although I do not feel that the state of something in nature justifies it ethically, I was bothered by Singer was implying that “speciesism,” discrimination based on species, is a strictly human phenomenon (although he did not explicitly state this). One would have to go out of one’s way to ignore such a statement in a discussion like Singer’s, so at the very least he left out an inconvenient fact. Of course, every animal species practices “speciesism,” putting the survival of its own species above the survival of any other. In fact all lifeforms do this, acting primarily out of self interest, not just animals–plants, fungi, protozoa, and of course bacteria. Acting out of self interest does not require harming other species, and many species engage in mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but harming other species is never out of the question in the natural world. Nature is beautiful in its complexity and amazing in its ability to host life at all, but it is also exceedingly cruel. With that said, its ubiquitous presence in nature does not automatically justify “speciesism” (or any other type of violence, discrimination, or self-interest). Still, it is important to acknowledge that Singer’s article was misleading on this point.

The main argument against Singer follows from one he used himself, the difficult process of determining where we draw the line. The title of the article is “All Animals are Equal,” but I doubt he really means that. He lists many cute and furry animals, but he does not state a position on reptiles or amphibians, for example. They don’t seem that much like humans, but they share a large number of similarities to mammals in basic behaviors and structures. Okay, then what about fish? Sure, that’s pushing it, but why not? Then we should probably include insects and other invertebrates, which also animals. At that point there is no reason to stop with the animal kingdom, making everything is fair game. Why not? Each group has large similarities to another group related a step closer to humans. Even drawing the line at vertebrates, for example, is tricky, since the boundary is not always clear. Sea squirts, for example, live their early days as mobile animals with containing the precursor to a spinal cord, but they later settle down into a sedentary lifestyle more closely resembling that of a plant, or at least a sponge. It’s very clear that there are few distinct boundaries in nature (the boundaries between species can be distinct, as with the division between humans and their closest animal relatives, but not always), and Singer himself never states where he believes the boundary should exist.

Another question is that of whether with equal rights come equal responsibilities. It would be extremely difficult and absolutely unfair for humans to enforce our laws (or even very basic human values) on other animal societies, where sexism and violence, for example, are prevalent in everyday life. Of course I do not believe animals have to conform to such ideals to earn our respect, but then again it is difficult to consider them equals under such circumstances. Mammals more closely related to humans, such as chimpanzees, can approximate human behaviors and understanding in many ways, and that is something we should give a great deal of consideration. Is conducting any research on these mammals inhumane? It’s possible, and we should have a more open dialogue in our society about this. When animal rights activists call all animal research torture and Singer calls all animals “equals,” though, having this dialogue becomes much more difficult. This is what I meant in my last post, when I described the animal rights activists I met as having an “extreme ideology.” Refusing to recognize these basic differences between species is highly irrational.

I also had some additional minor criticisms of the article. Singer invokes the unattractive idea of a human society built on a hierarchy based on I.Q.s as similar to “discriminating” between different species. What he does not acknowledge is that while I.Q.s are a very poor measure of human ability, and no completely objective measure of human ability or worth exists, we can determine with 100% certainty whether an animal is a human, and this identification has an objective basis in science. Later in the article Singer even describes eating as a way “to satisfy trivial interests of our own,” but I doubt many people would agree that eating is trivial, since one will soon perish from not engaging in this activity. I do appreciate him mentioning the cruel treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and elsewhere in agriculture, though, which is an issue that deserves much more consideration from society.

In the end, while I found the article thoughtful and an interesting read, it is fundamentally flawed in the ways outlined above. I agree with animal rights activists insofar as the humaneness of animal research needs to be vigilantly maintained, and while I think we have great framework for this in our society, I see no reason why it can’t be improved, and I believe we should have a more open dialogue on this. However, demanding an end to all animal research, along with calling animals our equals, is counterproductive and will probably lead to none of these ends being accomplished.


  1. #1 JN
    June 14, 2006

    Are all animals equal? They can be, if we construct a consensus around the notion.

    Are all humans equal? They can be, if we construct a consensus around the notion.

    “Equality,” in the moral sense we’re using here, is not a quantity that can be observed without having first been imagined.

    Morality is not relative so much as it is absent among the “cold, hard facts of nature.”

    So, why not consider all animals as equal? Sounds good to me.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    June 14, 2006

    Did you read the post?

  3. #3 Melissa
    June 14, 2006

    Nicely written post.

    I was surprised to read in an interview ( I think it was the one in Salon) that according to Singer, eating Oysters is OK. All animals equal? I think not. He can be just as arbitray about equal as regular meat eaters.

    I’m quite glad he said that, so that now I can inform horrified vegan friends who think of Singer is a sort of God, that my fried oysters are Singer approved.

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    June 14, 2006

    I think this is the quote (found here) from pp.171-174 of Animal Liberation (1990):

    “Oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, and the like are mollusks, and mollusks are in general very simple organisms. (There is an exception: the octopus is a mollusk, but far more developed, and presumably more sentient, than its distant mollusk relatives.) With creatures like oysters, doubts about a capacity for pain are considerable; and in the first edition of this book I suggested that somewhere between shrimp and an oyster seems as good a place to draw the line as any. Accordingly, I continued occasionally to eat oysters, scallops, and mussels for some time after I became in every other respect, a vegetarian. But while one cannot with any confidence say that these creatures do feel pain, so one can equally have little confidence in saying that they do not feel pain. Moreover, if they do feel pain, a meal of oysters or mussels would inflict pain on a considerable number of creatures. Since it is so easy to avoid eating them, I now think it better to do so.”

    So, it looks like he’s changed his mind somewhat, but he seems to go out of his way to avoid admitting that this issue is not completely black and white.

  5. #5 Julia
    June 14, 2006

    Of course, every animal species practices “speciesism,” putting the survival of its own species above the survival of any other.

    I’m not understanding this. Are you saying that an animal individual is somehow aware of and valuing the existence of the species it belongs to? That seems to be saying much more than just the fact that an animal searching for a mate recognizes its own species or that in some species a female after giving birth recognizes and protects her own young.

    Yes, some animals form herds or family groups for companionship and protection, but is this the same as putting the survival of their species above the survival of other species? I’ve known of cats and dogs who were protective of specific animals of other species. Certainly my own dog on several occasions attacked other dogs in the defense of me, an animal of a different species. I’ve read of animals in zoos and even in the wild forming attachments to animals of other species.

    The males of some species protect or ignore young, but in many species, I think, sometimes kill the young of their own species especially if the female is away or vulnerable. The males of many species also attempt to kill or at least injure each other in protection of territory or mates. Wouldn’t, for example, a mature male lion be more, rather than less, likely to seek out deliberately and attack another such lion male moving in nearby than, say, a male hyena that moved into the neighborhood? I’ve seen a wild ‘possum in my neighborhood actually share a food bowl with a feral cat but not with another ‘possum.

    I’ve recently begun reading science blogs to learn, as I have no background in science. The impression I’ve gotten so far is that animals of a species compete for resources with other species but also directly with members of their own species, with the most successful individuals leaving the most descendants. I don’t get how this fits in with the idea that an animal normally somehow considers the survival of its own species rather than simply considering its own survival and, perhaps, the survival of its young.

  6. #6 Mouth of the Yellow River
    June 14, 2006

    Ni hao! Konnichi Wa!

    Melissa: Please don’t ruin those oysters by frying them, take them on the half shell au natur and while they are still fresh and alive with reverence as their sacred life becomes integrated with yours.

    To repeat part of a comment over at AIES:

    On average research animals are treated orders of magnitude more humanely than humans worldwide and companion animals (pets). This same hypocritical crowd (animal protection extremist) should rise up in arms over pet owners who keep suffering lives under their dominion in cramped urban environments, breed them to all sorts of obscene sideshow sensations (slobbering bulldogs, hairless shivering chihuahuas, achondroplastic dachhunds, bobtail cats, etc.) and keep them suffering to decrepit states far beyond their lifespan just to satisfy their slave mentality egos to subjugate and be licked in the face.

    These poor beasts are most often overlooked compared to research and farm food source animals (although where I come the line between the latter and pets is sometimes thin).


  7. #7 Nick Anthis
    June 14, 2006


    Thanks for your question. It’s a good one, and although I can’t give as comprehensive answer as an evolutionary biologist could, I’ll give it a shot. When we hear the term evolution, the phrase “survival of the fittest” is probably one of the first things to come to mind. Evolution is often portrayed as such a competition between individuals, but it’s much more complicated than that.

    What’s instructive here is to instead of thinking about evolution from the point of view of the organism, think of it from the point of view of the individual gene (i.e. Richard Dawkins’ idea of the “selfish gene”). Any gene in any organism has one primary function: to replicate. If a gene fails to replicate, it will cease to exist. It helps its chances of replication by making sure its host organism stays alive and is able to reproduce. Therefore, a gene that codes for a protein that has an important role in metabolism, for example, has a strong incentive to perform that role as well, since if its host organism’s metabolic pathways break down, the organism will die, and the gene won’t be passed on to future generations.

    That’s why genes have to work together to ensure their mutual survival. If they all do their jobs, they will all hopefully be passed on to their host organism’s offspring. The same logic holds for why organisms form communities or societies to ensure their mutual survival. Within that structure, though, there is a tendency for an animal to work together with individuals that are more closely related to it, because they share more of the same genes. This even extends to the entire species, since two given members of the same species will have almost identical genomes.

    The system isn’t perfect. Just as selfish genes can sometimes hijack a cell and replicate uncontrolably, forming a tumor, animals might attack members of their own species for personal gain. In the end, though, they have a vested interest in the survival of their peers.

  8. #8 Melissa
    June 14, 2006

    It’s funny, because in recent interviews I’ve read, it seems like Singer is less black and white now.

    In this one:

    he advocates eating at Chipolte because their pork is more humanely raised (more delicious too, from my experience). One thing I will say is that he is not the typical hippy tree hugger vegan, a la the Salon interview

    ” What if it were possible to genetically engineer a brainless bird, grown strictly for its meat? Do you feel that this would be ethically acceptable?

    It would be an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling. That’s the huge plus to me. ”

    After all, he is a utilitarian, which is the philosophy of such stereotypically cold hearted disciplines as economics. In that I do side with him, as I am willing to consider “widing the circle” in my own little way and paying a couple of dollars more for Chipolte rather than Taco Bell. Better for the pigs, better tasting for me= net gain.

  9. #9 Stephen Uitti
    June 20, 2006

    We are preditors. One could use that to justify the killing (and any lesser use) of any animal on Earth, perhaps beyond. We’re also omnivores, which allows justification of all uses of plants (and probably dirt). We’re Eukaryots. Just like the plants.

    Vegetarianism has been shown feasible. With a little effort, we could convert to entirely synthetic food. From recycled waste.

    But really. In addition to not having the right to mess up the Earth, it’s also where we live. Mamma’s advice was Don’t piss in your own bed.

  10. #10 Caledonian
    June 22, 2006

    Are all animals equal? They can be, if we construct a consensus around the notion.

    Are all humans equal? They can be, if we construct a consensus around the notion.

    Reality cannot be determined by consensus.

  11. #11 Travis
    November 20, 2006

    I think the author of the article is very misled in his interpretation of Singer’s piece.
    1) Singer advocates the consideration of animals where applicable. Equality is not the same as identical treatment. This is a very important PHILOSOPHICAL point to understand when interpreting this work. The author also says that all animals are speciesists, and humans just do the same thing (which is natural). The problem with this is that, in nature, animals are speciesists out of necessity, not for taste preference. We eat, test, and otherwise commodify and trivialize the lives of animals to make our lives more enjoyable, not livable. Most, if not all who have a computer to read this post, have plenty of plant based options for food, but choose meat as a trivial preference. That’s what Singer means when he calls eating “trivial”.
    2) The author also exaggerates the problem of drawing the line with animals. Anything that feels pleasure and pain are included. Though some species may be harder to identify, cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and all other animals slaughtered in mass numbers around the world are no brainers. Invertebrates are basically not relevant.
    3) In a survival situation all moral standards come into question, even the relationship between humans and other humans (think of war to prove this point). Thus, to consider animals equally one does not have to kill one?s self. The questions for Singer point are: Do we have other options to give us moral prerogative and Can the animals we eat suffer? Singer has a very solid argument and the author has to stretch (and completely misinterpret) Singer to touch his argument. Seems the critique is flawed, not Singer.

  12. #12 Nick Anthis
    November 20, 2006

    Read the article again, if you need to. I just carried out Singer’s arguments to their natural ends, which, as you point out, start to look a little ridiculous after awhile.

  13. #13 sonia
    November 24, 2006

    i don’t know if this is the right place for this, but i wanted to throw this to you Nick and see what you think…

  14. #14 Courtney
    October 18, 2011

    Hey just a comment for some clarification. You wrote: “Later in the article Singer even describes eating as a way “to satisfy trivial interests of our own,” but I doubt many people would agree that eating is trivial, since one will soon perish from not engaging in this activity.”
    Isn’t he just saying that we eat specifically meat for the taste, and this is a trivial reason? He is not saying that eating is trivial; I think he’s saying that eating meat because we like the taste is a poor reason to kill an animal when we could survive and prosper without eating meat.

  15. #15 v-pills
    January 19, 2012

    Isn’t he just saying that we eat specifically meat for the taste, and this is a trivial reason?

  16. #16 afrika mangosu
    February 7, 2012

    i don’t know if this is the right place for this, but i wanted to throw this to you Nick and see what you think…

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