Summary: Sharing the world with animals; Hunter gatherers and animals; Domestication of some animals; The idea that the human world is separate from the animal world; Animals and extinction; Chimps and humans- the ability to predict what another being might do; Friendly foxes; Animal welfare or animal rights; Biotechnology and animals.
Sharing the world with animals
Human beings have always been fascinated by the animals. All human communities have admired the beauty and skill of animals. Animals feature in every story our communities have told about how the world was created. Animals stir our imaginations. We have always imagined what it would be like to fly like the birds. We have imitated animals in our dance and, from the earliest times of our history, we have drawn them in our art.
We have always feared wild animals that can harm us and admired, or even loved, those animals that we have trained to help us with work, transport, to guard over us, or to keep as pets. We have used animals to feed us with meat, milk and eggs and to provide us with clothing. In later times scientific research on animals has helped us discover secrets about how our own bodies work.
Animals have often been used to represent the “spirit” of a people. In Britain the bulldog came to be seen as a symbol of British determination or bravery. The eagle is a symbol for many countries including USA, Afghanistan, Egypt, Mexico, Panama, Poland and Romania. Remarkably, the lion is symbol for many countries where the lion does not exist. These include England, Holland, Iran, Macedonia, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Denmark. But often a country will be represented by its native animals. The emu and kangaroo represent Australia on its coat of arms. The kiwi is New Zealand’s national bird and its people are often referred to as “Kiwis”.
It is hard to imagine a world without animals. Such a world would be a far less fascinating place. Our history and the history of animals are interlinked.
Hunter gatherers and animals
Although hunter-gather societies killed animals for food they appear to have had great admiration for them.
Hunter-gathers saw themselves as part of the animal world. Animals were often involved in their stories about how the world was created. For example, a rock that looked like the shape of an animal might have been thought to contain an animal spirit within it. It was common to believe that animals could turn into human beings or spirits and that human beings or spirits could become animals. This is an early subject of art. A human dancer, disguised as a bison, appears in cave painting that is 20,000 year old. Spiritual leaders within a tribe were often decorated to look like animals. And many cultures had a myth of an earlier golden age when people could talk to the animals.
Hunter gather societies typically developed lots of rituals around hunting. In part, this may have been because hunting was dangerous and required courage from the hunters. But it may also stem from the respect that hunter-gathers had for the animals they hunted. Some historians believe that hunting rituals were a way for tribes-people to deal with the emotions they felt from killing animals in the hunt. Nowadays, in developed countries we buy meat from a shop and have no need think about the animal we are eating. This was impossible for hunters who could see the animals fear and hear their cries of pain as the animals died after being speared. Christopher Hitchens has put forward the view that the reason why Judaism and Islam forbid the eating of pork may be because the sound a pig makes when slaughtered resembles the sound of a human cry.
Domestication of some animals
The first animal to be domesticated by human beings was the dog.
Even hunter-gather societies kept dogs. Dogs originally evolved from wolves. It seems likely that they hung around hunter-gather campsites to eat food scraps and eventually began interacting with people. They were pack animals that followed leaders. They could be trained from puppies to see human beings as the leaders of their pack. Human beings soon realised that dogs could help with hunting and as guards against predators.
Within about 500 years after farming of wheat and barley began, the farming societies began to keep goats and sheep in small herds. Sheep and goats were easily tamed and were not dangerous to humans. The sheep and goats were smaller then than they are now. This was because human knowledge of breeding was just beginning. Later human beings learned how to breed bigger animals. In South America the Incas farmed llamas that were also easily tamed.
Only thirteen large mammals (over 45 kilos) have ever allowed themselves to be domesticated. The most important five are sheep, goats, horses, cows and pigs. The other eight are two kinds of camel, donkeys, llamas, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks and Bali cattle.
Cats were first domesticated in Africa. They were used to guard granaries from mice. The Egyptians were known to worship cats whose bodies were mummified with those of their owners.
The idea that the human world is separate from the animal world
At some point in history, perhaps soon after the development of farming, views about the relationship between animals and humans changed. We began to see our world and the world of animals as more separate. In particular the view developed that only humans were made to look like god and that only humans possess a soul.
Aristotle developed the view that human beings were superior to plants and animals. He also believed that free human beings were superior to slaves. Aristotle made a close study of animals. But he thought that the nature of each species was fixed.
Another ancient Greek, Anaximander, reasoned that because human infants are helpless in their early years, if the first human appeared as an infant it would not have survived. Anaximander thought this meant humans must have developed from other creatures whose young were stronger from an earlier age. In this, he was correct. But this idea, known as evolution, was still a long way off from being scientifically proven or widely accepted.
Even after the farming societies developed, an important part of their religious rituals still involved animal sacrifice. This seems cruel to us now. But the practice preserved the old hunting ceremonies of the hunter gathering communities which seem to have been seen as a way of honouring the beasts whose lives were taken to benefit human beings.
Far crueller were the practices that developed during the Roman Empire. The Romans forced wild animals to fight to the death with each other, or with humans, as a form of entertainment. Ancient texts describe the deaths, very torturous and cruel by today’s standards, of thousands of bears, bulls, lions, tigers, elephants, and other animals. Often the animals were chained together or tormented with burning irons and darts to make the fighting fiercer. The Romans were equally cruel to human beings. It has been estimated that up to half a million people died violent deaths to provide “entertainment” for the Romans.
Cruel practices towards animals are still common today. Bullfighting and cock fighting are both activities where animals are still put to a slow and painful death for human entertainment. But even today, supporters of bullfighting will insist that the practice somehow demonstrates “honour” towards the bull. Canned hunting is a fast-growing business in South Africa, where thousands of lions are being bred on farms to be shot by wealthy foreign trophy-hunters. Yet it is the production of animals for food, especially factory farming, that is the most widespread from of cruelty.
The Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions all believe that God created human beings in God’s own image or to look like God. These religions usually believe that only human beings possess souls that can continue to exist after death. The holy texts of these religions teach that worship of animals, as practiced by some hunter gatherer and early farming societies, is a sin. This is because such worship is seen as disrespectful to the one true God who made humans in his image.
Religions originating from India- Hinduism and Jainism- hold a different view. These religions, or at least some followers of these religions, believe in various forms of reincarnation- that an animal or human spirit may be reborn as an animal or as another human being. For Hindus the cow is particularly sacred. Jains religious beliefs mean that they take care not kill any living thing even including insects. Jains and some Hindu sects practice strict vegetarianism.
Animals and extinction
There are different ways of thinking about whether one species is superior to another. Intelligence is the most obvious measure, longevity of survival may be another. But however one views “superiority”, it cannot seriously be doubted that human beings are now the most dominant creature on Earth. As a result, the survival of many other animals now completely depends on how human societies decide to use the Earth’s resources, particularly its land and seas.
Many animals now face the possibility of extinction in the wild. This partly because of hunting. But it is mainly because increased human population and settlement has used up so much of the land that these wild animals used to inhabit.
Rapid extinctions of animals have happened before. There have been at least five rapid extinctions. The most recent ones were 250 million and then 60 million years ago. Indeed, it is estimated that only 1-10% of species that have ever existed survive today. Many scientists believe humans are perpetuating a sixth major extinction of other animals.
Only about 5-7,000 tigers survive in the wild. Since 1970 the world rhinoceros population has declined by 90 percent, with five species remaining in the world today, all of which are endangered. It has therefore been necessary for human beings to set aside special reservations, where animals to can continue to live in the wild.
On the other hand, those animals that depend upon human beings- dogs, cats, and herd animals that we use for food or recreation- have increased in number.
According to Israeli historian Yuval Harari, if we were to weigh all domesticated animals in the world their total weight would be around 700 million tonnes. If we weighed every human being the total would be 300 million tonnes. Yet the combined mass of surviving wild animals, including elephants and whales, is just 100 million tonnes.
Many domesticated animals would not exist at all if not for human breeding programs. This is the case with many breeds of dogs and cats. And in the late 1600’s human beings began breeding the modern racehorse, known as the thoroughbred. Other types of wild horses were the earlier ancestors of the thoroughbred. But the thoroughbred itself is a creation of a breeding program by humans to produce the type of horse best suited to racing.
The effects of extinction cannot always be predicted. Animals and plants, in fact all living organisms, have a relationship with each other. The study of this relationship is known as ecology. The extinction of certain species of animals or plants can affect the survival, or well being of others, including humans.
For example the honey bee has been disappearing in certain states of the USA because of the effect of parasites, pesticides and habitat loss. Yet bees play a crucial role in pollinating plants that human beings eat.
Chimps and humans- the ability to predict what another being might do
Chimpanzees are the closest relatives to human beings among the animals. There are two main types of chimpanzee- the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. The bonobo, which used to be known as the pygmy chimpanzee, now only survives in the wild in one country- the Congo, in Africa. The bonobo shares 98.7 of genetic material (DNA) with human beings.
One of the ways that human beings appear to be different from other animals is that we have a greater capacity to understand what other human beings or animals are thinking. We do this from listening to what they say or watching what they do, or from our experience of knowing what others normally do in a particular situation.
Our ability to predict what another human being or animal might do means that we can think ahead and modify our own behaviour to achieve the result we prefer. In a game of chess for example, two good chess players will plan a number of moves ahead. No other animal can understand chess, let alone plan moves that far ahead.
But some other animals do have some ability to work out what we, or their fellow animals, are thinking.
Scientists have conducted experiments where they take food away from chimps just before the chimps can grab the food to eat it. This has resulted in the chimps modifying their behaviour by pretending not to be interested in the food. They then try to find ways to sneak off with the food, thinking that they have fooled the scientists, so that the scientists cannot see them. In other words, chimps are capable of planning to deceive the scientists. Similarly, within their own group, low ranking chimps will always try and sneak off with food when they think higher ranking chimps in their group have not seen them, rather than trying to take the food from a higher ranked chimp from right under its nose.
Yet if a scientist hides food under one of two cups, and then points to the cup that the food is under, the chimp is usually not able to work out that the pointing means that the food is under that cup.
Interestingly though a dog can interpret the pointing sign from humans to work out the correct cup under which the food is hidden. Even young puppies can find food in this way. This is surprising as we generally consider chimps to be more intelligent than dogs- so what is the explanation?
Scientists believe that the reason why dogs are better than chimps at interpreting gestures of human beings is that they have had a far longer period of close interaction with us and have therefore evolved a better ability than chimps to understand human signs.
In Russia scientists did an experiment with silver foxes allowing those that appeared friendlier towards human beings to breed. Within just forty generations of breeding, the foxes became incredibly friendly towards human beings, wagging their tails and licking the faces of human beings, just like a domesticated dog will do. These foxes were also able to read human signs like domesticated dogs can.
These experiments indicate that tolerance and interaction are important factors in the evolution of species, as well as intelligence.
Animal welfare or animal rights
Modern debates about how humans should treat animals can be traced to the ancient world.
Aristotle thought that human beings were superior to other animals because only human beings are capable of reasoning. Jewish, Christian and Islamic teaching is that that God gave human beings dominion over other animals.
Rene Descartes (1596–1650) agreed with this basic approach holding that animals had no soul or capacity to reason. He believed that the human mind was something separate from the human body and linked human beings to God, a link that other animals did not have.
But the belief that human beings are superior to animals does not necessarily result in support for unnecessary cruelty to animals. Superiority, in the sense of being more able or intelligent, can imply that one should look after the welfare of beings that are less able or intelligent.
For this reason some philosophers came to emphasize that cruelty to animals was undesirable. They thought that even if animals could not reason they could obviously feel and suffer. The British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham said of animals “the question is not, Can they reason?, nor, Can they talk? but, can they suffer?’.
Two ideas arose from the view that animals can suffer.
The first idea was that, even if it is true that human beings are more intelligent than animals, unnecessary cruelty by human beings towards animals reflects poorly on human beings. Worse still, unnecessary human cruelty towards animals might be more likely to lead to human beings being unnecessarily cruel to each other. The Romans’ public displays of cruelty to animals and humans alike supported this view. On the other hand, Nazi Germany had strong animal welfare laws which did not prevent immense cruelty towards human beings.
The second idea was that if ability to reason, rather than ability to suffer, was the only measure of superiority, then cruelty to a human being who cannot reason, babies, or people with severe intellectual disabilities, for example, might be justifiable.
Nevertheless the idea that animals should not be subject to unnecessary cruelty by humans still fell short of the more recent idea that animals have “rights”, or even equal rights, with human beings. The idea that animals should not be subject to unnecessary cruelty, did not lead those supporting animal welfare policies to necessarily conclude that human beings should not eat meat, use animals to make clothing, or use animals for scientific experiments to improve medical treatments for people.
At least in the West, it was not until the 1970’s, that the ideas of animal liberation or animal rights became more widespread. But even among supporters of animal liberation there are often fundamental differences in philosophical approach.
Some animal liberation supporters argue that because the rights of humans are based on their possession of ability to think, and because some of the more intelligent animals can also think, these more intelligent animals must have some rights. This view may end up adopting a different approach towards the killing or suffering of more intelligent animals such as whales, dolphins or chimpanzees than it does towards less intelligent animals such as fish or insects. Animals like horses and cows might fall somewhere in between. One difficulty with this argument is that it requires different lines to be drawn based upon relative intelligence of different animals. This is far from a straightforward exercise. There are likely to be different opinions on how to measure intelligence and also in relation to the appropriate allocation of “rights” based upon that assessment of intelligence.
Other animal liberation supporters argue that because both animals and human beings can suffer there is no good reason to regard animal suffering as any more or less significant than human suffering. This may lead to the view that, irrespective of intelligence, no animal should be allowed to suffer more than any other animal. But is the extent that an animal suffers affected by its level of intelligence? For example, does a human mother suffer more if her child is eaten by a shark than a fish suffers if its offspring is eaten by a shark? The answer appears to be “yes”. And even if other animals suffer, we do not therefore expect the cat to cease cruelly toying with the mouse before killing it. We accept that this cruelty is in the cat’s nature. So what do we make of the fact that it is only the human mind that appears capable of contemplating abstract arguments about animal suffering and animal rights? Are we drawn back again to the intelligence argument?
There are significant arguments against the idea that animals should be regarded as having rights in the same way as we commonly regard human beings as having them. These arguments include the following:
- The basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. Accordingly they also possess consciousness and a “self”. But the other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours and this is the important difference with the human brain. Our richer cerebral cortex results in our having a far stronger sense of self, or an “autobiographical self”, because it is built on a larger base of past memories.
- To be meaningful a right must always involve a responsibility to respect the rights of others. Animals can and do demonstrate empathy to other animals, particularly to their young and other members of their species. But unlike human beings, animals do not, and cannot, recognize or respect “rights” in others and therefore it makes no sense to think animals have “rights”, let alone equal rights with human beings. In the natural world animals do not recognize the rights of other animals. Animals eat each other and even engage in cruelty towards each other both within their own species or towards other species.
- Because animals have no language or no sophisticated language, it may be impossible, or at least more difficult, to measure the extent of their suffering.
- Eating meat may have been of importance in human evolution. Our closest living relative the chimpanzee eats meat (although not very often) and increased consumption of meat by human beings is a possible reason for growth in the size of the human brain because meat is generally a more intense source of protein than fruit or vegetables. (This is not to assert that human beings should eat as much meat is typically consumed in developed societies. Apart from health issues associated with over consumption of meat, mass meat production raises environmental concerns).
- While it is not justified to inflict pain on an animal without justification our intuition, or natural moral sense, tells us that we should give preference to our own species over other species. Most people given the choice between killing an unknown animal and an unknown human being would be expected to choose to kill the animal.
None of these arguments detract from the view that it is legitimate to have concern for the welfare of animals and the avoidance of unnecessary cruelty to animals. There is also something disturbingly self-centred, or arrogant about the conclusion that animals should be regarded as nothing more than mere instruments to be used for any purpose human beings invent. And new technologies are emerging that, once again, raise very deep moral and ethical issues about the uses human beings make of other animals.
Biotechnology and animals
Biotechnology is technology that can change the make up or performance of human beings, animals or plants. It includes cloning and the use of stem cells. Biotechnology is already increasing human life span and quality of life. But biotechnology also represents a new stage in evolution where human beings can design and alter the physiology of ourselves and other animals.
Biotechnology raises new issues regarding the relationship between human beings and animals. Scientists have already created new species of animals through genetic engineering. This includes animals that are half goat and half sheep or half camel and half llama, half tiger and half lion and half zebra and half horse. Scientists have also created genetically engineered salmon which are able to grow much larger eating less feed. Cloning technology has been used to create sheep, rats, cattle, wolves, cats, dogs, horses and pigs.
Biotechnology has also led to computers being built into animals so that their actions can be controlled by human beings. Monkeys have been wired to computers which can read the monkey’s brain waves, enabling the monkey to move an artificial arm which is not attached to its body just by the monkey having the thought that it wants the artificial arm to move. Computer chips have been made out of living organisms. Scientists have managed to keep alive an eel’s brain alive in a solution independent of the eel’s body.
On the other hand, in 2013, biotechnology was used to produce a meat patty in a lab from cattle stem cells. Development of this technology offers potential benefits to the environment (requiring only 1 per cent of the land and 4 per cent of the water used in conventional livestock farming) as well as potentially removing the need to kill cattle to produce meat. Philosopher, vegetarian, and long time animal rights advocate Peter Singer commented that he would be prepared to eat a meat patty made from stem cells.
Whether one supports animal rights or liberation, or believes that we human beings are entitled to prefer our own species ahead of other species, biotechnology throws up huge new ethical challenges. And because this technology is capable of also being applied to human beings, once again the implications of how we treat other animal species may have significant implications for how we end up treating other human beings.