Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Short Treatise on Speciesism

Stilgar from the sietch got me thinking about this one - how do we get to decide which animals we can kill, legally and uncontroversially. The Bulgarian Law for the Protection of Animals(in Bulgarian, translation) was soon posted, exposing flagrant speciesism deeply rooted into the bulgarian legal system.

Now it's clear that such legislation raises more questions than it answers and it's bound to have critics. Humanity should be allowed to kill certain animals e.g. ones transmit diseases but on the other hand some are creepily similar to us to be used for cruel entertainment. There has to be a line somewhere - but how do we define it?

The classical school of thought here, advocated by luminaries like Douglas Hostadter, dictates that we should rate animals by intelligence and the most intelligent should be deemed closer to us, and thus - not eaten. This has also a lot of anecdotal support - quite a few vegetarians eat fish for example, for plenty of reasons, with "because they don't think" being one of them. Indeed, the more sophisticated nervous system an animal has - the closer to our experience of pain and distress it should be able to experience. Some problems arise though with the lack of reliable measure of intelligence - no one has managed to have a chimp and a dolphin play a game of chess yet, so we get to choose from the different sets of superficial criteria that give us different results. And of course the line has to be arbitrary - there is no such thing as universal maximum edible intelligence (this would make old people legal).

There is also the competing measure - cuteness. Kids nowadays grow up with children's books and films with super cool talking farm animals that don't stink even the slightest bit; kids can more easily imagine them being friends rather than source of food and stench. And with the rise of the internet with its feline obsession and vigilantism, cats became a no-no (sorry Alf). So, by natural selection optimizing for the cuteness factor some animals have found a new evolutional niche. This makes good sense - they live off the human society, which is profoundly stratified by physical appearance in many ways - better looking people of all sexes get a disproportionate amount of all the benefits, why should we then not discriminate against animals in the same way?

What we are seeing now is actually an evolutionary arms race for a part of humanity's waste resources between stray dogs and our anti-cuteness defence mechanism - the cutest of dogs have better chances to survive and produce progeny, thus cutifying their kind. If they do well maybe one day they'll achieve the level of protection that cats now enjoy and survive.


  1. The problems you have in drawing an “arbitrary” line bewteen animals humans can kill and those they cannot illustrates beautfiully the vegan view that there _is_ no line. All animals are of equal worth regardless of intelligence/cuteness/smell and none should be killed or abused by Homo sapiens.

  2. Thanks for voicing your feedback Wendy, it's always a good thing to engage in an informed discussion with the opposing camp, and a difficult one as is often the case :-)

    In my view that's also kind arbitrary - you choose to not harm animals because they are similar to you and declare plants and mushrooms worthy of eating. Indeed, the division between kingdoms is much sharper than the one between species in the animal kingdom but it is still self-centered - you decide that it's OK to kill organisms sufficiently different from you in order to survive.
    You just have to put a line somewhere, and it's up to personal choice exactly where.
    Or do you?

    Following this logic, if you don't want to harm any living being you should only consume artificially produced food, which nowadays is becoming possible. That's something like an extreme form of veganism, one step further than frutarianism, and to the best of my knowledge it hasn't even been named yet. If that's indeed the case then maybe I should have the honour to coin the term for this trend?

    Let's call it nonaturalism!