Monday, November 2, 2009

Our fear is special?

A few days ago, I posted a conversation between Richard Dawkins, the well-known bulldog of Darwinian evolution and Peter Singer, arguably the father of the modern animal rights movement. As I said then, it’s well worth listening to.

I want to comment on a couple of the things that were said. I will specify the time in the video where the section begins, but for some reason the counter seems glitchy, so I don’t promise that 3:55 is exactly 3:55 on your machine.

In any case, at approximately 3:55 Dawkins asks Singer what he thinks is special about humans – voicing the caveat that there are special things about every species.

Singer says that humans have a "biographical" life. That is, we, and only humans, have a sense or knowledge of our past and our possible future. Only humans have the capacity to plan their lives. Dawkins says that because other animals don’t think about their future, that killing them is “less bad” than killing humans – animals who do have a sense of their own future.

One of the irksome things about this conversation is that neither participant seems well informed. In the case of humans, we can ask, “Why are you doing that?” and can get an answer, “I’m storing food for the winter months ahead.” But many rodents and a number of birds who live in climates with hard winters store food.

Another case of thinking ahead is the story told by Jane Goodall about Mike, who discovered that the banging caused by pushing empty kerosene cans in front of him during his charging displays frightened the other chimpanzees. Goodall writes, “[I]t seemed that Mike actually planned his charging displays; almost, one might say in cold blood. Often when he got up to fetch his cans he showed no visible signs of frustration or excitement; that came afterward when, armed with his display props, he began to rock from side to side, raise his hair, and hoot.” [Emphasis in the original.](In the Shadow of Man. 1971. Houghton Mifflin. Paperback. p 114.)

There are many other examples of animals planning ahead. This is seen in wolves’ and dolphins’ cooperative hunting.

On a more mundane note, Millie, an old Chihuahua mix-breed dog who lived with us up until the time of her death, clearly remembered street food that she had found the day before that she had not been allowed to eat. On our walk the next day, she led us back to it, and if I was daydreaming, she would gobble it quickly before I realized that she had it again.

It’s hard to say whether or not Millie or Mike thought about what they would do the next day as they drifted off to sleep, but they behaved as if they did. This apparent similar look into the future means that we aren’t the only beings with a sense of a possible future and who might plan ahead to make it a future we prefer. Likewise, many animals remember things that occurred to them in the past, and in the obvious cases, avoid dangers they had encountered or, like Millie, use past knowledge to plan ahead.

We simply can’t know at this time whether other animals have thoughts about their long-term futures. Unfortunately, in the absence of this knowledge, both Singer and Dawkins are content to act as if our absence of knowledge is proof of absence.

Dawkins claims, and isn’t challenged by Singer, on his claim that killing someone (another animal) who doesn’t have our sense of the future is “less bad” than killing those of us who do have this awareness of the future.

This isn’t so clear.

One of the common themes of spiritualism (I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense) is mindfulness, of being here now, of being in the present moment and not thinking about what you need to do. The idea is that such experiential immediacy is a more authentic more spiritual mode of being. If killing someone is “less bad” when they have no thoughts of their potential future, then killing a spiritual person while they are in such a meditative state would be “less bad’ than killing someone who is plotting their future financial wealth.

Extending this idea, it would mean that it would be "less bad" to kill a poor destitute young child from the Third World than it would be to kill an affluent adult in, say, Madison Wisconsin.

At approximately 7:35, Dawkins and Singer more or less come to the consensus that oysters have rudimentary nervous systems which they feel means that they don’t feel pain like we (or other vertebrates do) and thus don’t matter too much. Singer seems to joke that people who eat oysters could still think of themselves as vegetarians or vegans.

Once again, their speculations are far from being fact-based. Singer seems to hang his concerns neatly on the vertebrates and Dawkins seems happy to go along with him. In fact, the vertebrate/invertebrate physiological difference doesn’t mean too awfully much. Oysters are mollusks. A relative, the scallop, is a highly alert and active being. Check out this short video of captive scollops.

Other mollusks, namely the octopi, squid, and cuttlefish, behave in complex ways. The intelligence of the octopi is more or less well-known.



Dawkins picks up again on this theme at approximately 9:45.

Paraphrasing, he says that our moral responsibility to an oyster is quantitatively less than our moral responsibility to a pig and that our moral responsibility to a pig is quantitatively less than our moral responsibility to a human for the reasons mentioned by Singer, to wit, that invertebrates don’t feel much pain and that humans have a "biographical" life.

But Singer’s position is based on simple and apparently only shallow conjecture. His belief that invertebrates must not be as sensitive to pain as he is has a familiar and arrogant ring to it. It was accepted as fact not long ago that blacks were similarly less sensitive to pain and misery than whites.

Later, at around 10:20, Dawkins says that the only justification of eating meat lies in the differences in animals' abilities to see what’s coming, the ability to feel fear, the ability to be bereaved, “and things like that.”

Singer lets this comment pass and politely takes Dawkins to task when he says that he doesn’t know too much about the way animals are raised on factory farms or slaughtered.

Individuals of many animal species have the ability to see and to guess what is and might be coming. Otherwise, rabbits wouldn’t run from predators. But most astounding and disturbing is Dawkin’s comment about fear. Apparently, he feels that other animals don’t feel fear like we do, and Singer let the statement go unchallenged.

Dawkin’s apparent belief is wildly inaccurate and profoundly ignorant. Fear may be the most widely shared of all emotions. Dawkins should review Seligman’s learned helplessness experiments with dogs, which I comment on here.

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