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Humans, Animals, and the Human-Animal

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Matthew Scully.
Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.
St. Martin’s Press. 464 pages. $27.95

Typically, animal rights activists are hard to take seriously. Shortly after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, for example, one Karen Davis, president of an outfit called United Poultry Concerns, took to the pages of Vegan Voice to opine, “I think it is speciesist to think that the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center was a greater tragedy than what millions of chickens endured that day and what they endure every day because they cannot defend themselves against the concerted human appetites arrayed against them.” Indeed, “For 35 million chickens in the United States alone, every single night is a terrorist attack.” Lurking behind such comments one perceives a perverse hostility to human dignity, and the attitude expressed is so inhuman that the only appropriate response is contempt.

So it is understandable that sensible people often take some satisfaction in expressions of callousness toward animals. “Calves are adorable,” writes Slate columnist David Plotz. “But veal is delicious.” Food critic Digby Anderson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, maintains, “In a civilized society rabbits are shot (or snared or ferreted) and eaten. They are not shot grudgingly, as vermin, and eaten grudgingly, to use up what had to be shot. They are to be eaten enthusiastically with mustard sauce.” Given the animal lobby’s own unconscionableness (“Six million Jews died in concentration camps,” peta founder Ingrid Newkirk once told the Washington Post, “but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses”), these seem like measured ripostes, and many otherwise animal-loving people relish the angst that such comments doubtless produce among the zoolatrous.

And who, really, can blame them? The animal rights crowd is, by and large, a contemptible bunch — people who belittle human life not only in their rhetoric, but also increasingly through arson and physical attacks. (The fbi counts the Earth Liberation Front among the nation’s largest terrorist groups.) And then there’s animal liberation scholar Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, who — though he is really a more serious thinker than his critics are willing to admit — is still one who champions such practices as infanticide and bestiality.

Into this mix steps Mathew Scully, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and National Review editor, with Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. To a general audience, Scully appears as out of place among the peta crowd as Nixon did in China — and it seems he has opened some doors as well. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes gave Dominion, and its cause, a glowing review in the Wall Street Journal. And Dominion appeared on the cover of the American Conservative, and in National Review, and in the Weekly Standard, and received praise from the likes of G. Gordon Liddy and Joseph Sobran. Suddenly, animal rights is an important topic among conservatives, which was Scully’s intent. His primary audience is conservatives, and especially religious conservatives: “More than anything else, I hope with this book to speak to those people.”

In Dominion, Scully introduces us to folks just as objectionable as the animal activists. He visits Safari Club International, where he finds people who hunt sheep by helicopter, or practice “canned hunting” (shooting exotic wildlife while they’re trapped and helpless), or watch videos like Double-Barreled Zambezi Adventure (“You’re right there to see four dramatic brain shots!”). Most shocking is Scully’s look at a modern factory farm, where pigs are kept immobile in tiny cages, never to step outdoors, and subjected to treatment so brutal even to watch that all 5,000 farm employees quit — and need to be replaced — every year.

What distinguishes Dominion, however, is Scully’s determination to distance himself from the more intemperate animal liberation advocates, who deny any essential difference between people and animals and insist on the legal enforcement of animal rights. Scully isn’t interested, he says, in elaborating a formal doctrine of animal rights, finding that “the rights cause with its more extravagant claims has become a convenient foil, a pretext for disregarding the subject of animal welfare altogether.” Nor does he deny the singular dignity of the human being. Rather, Scully wants to make the case for animals based on an older, and more readily agreeable, concept — mercy. As he writes in the book’s introduction, “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

The vision is appealing, and probably captures the mainstream thinking about animal welfare. We are often horrified not by an actual wrong done to animals — after all, animals harm each other all the time, and we don’t find that behavior problematic — but by the sort of person who would intentionally torture an innocent sentient being. When we act out of what Scully calls “a spirit of kindness and clemency” toward our fellow creatures, we exhibit the best elements of human character. “There are moments,” says Scully, “when life demands some basic response of fellow-feeling and mercy and love.” When we make jokes about veal calves or otherwise display indifference to suffering, it turns out that we’ve lost touch with some salutary impulse in our nature. Laws prohibiting cruelty to animals, by this logic, would rank with laws against other practices — dueling, for example — that don’t really involve a victim but are too gruesome to occur in a decent society.

Scully has received much praise for rescuing the cause of animal welfare from the extremism of the animal rights movement and for sounding a call to mercy rather than to litigation. The problem, however, is that he doesn’t actually do that. In the end, Scully comes around to the animal rights position. “If a man beats, neglects, starves, or abandons a dog, and the dog belongs to him, there are no grounds to punish that man except by recognizing some independent moral claim of the dog,” he argues. Scully claims that by enacting laws against animal cruelty, we have already conceded that animals have rights, and the only question left is how far those rights extend. “Once it is granted that humans can act wrongfully in our power over animals,” Scully asks rhetorically, “what grounds are left for denying that animals have a right not to be treated wrongfully at our hands?”

This is simply mistaken. We also have laws against damaging historical buildings and landmarks, or forests and streams, even when they are privately owned, but that doesn’t mean we invest houses and trees with any legal rights.

Throughout Dominion, Scully oscillates between an appeal to mercy and forbearance for the animals and an invocation of animal rights. (Ultimately, in his recommendations for public policy and legal reform, he sides with the animal rights approach: people “can worry about their own souls.”) There is a similar tension when Scully berates Peter Singer for his “attack on the sanctity of human life” and then also criticizes science writer Stephen Budiansky for working “to kill any sense of kinship we feel even with primates.” Surveying scientific and anecdotal data regarding animal intelligence, Scully concludes that we share “thought and feeling” with nonhuman animals, having an advantage only in our possession of verbal language and more highly developed “abstract concepts.” The difference between humans and animals, then, appears to be one of degree rather than kind. Compared to human consciousness, animal consciousness is “a humbler version of the same thing,” as Scully puts it — which is precisely Singer’s position.

 

It turns out that there are really two Matthew Scullys in Dominion, with two divergent attitudes toward animals. On the one hand, there is the humanist Scully, who acknowledges human superiority but encourages mercy for inferior creation. In this account, humans are marked by a “spiritual grandeur” that animals lack, a vision that accommodates the Christian view that humans, created in the image of God, possess a special dignity. Humans stand above and apart from the animal world, which “we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike.” In short, humans are God to the animals. Scully makes this analogy explicit in commenting on a British law to ban fur:

I find the language of the bill very touching, the full majesty of the law here reaching down even to those afflicted creatures huddled in their cages, just as the merciful judgment that every human being will need must come in a way and from a place as far from our understanding as the halls of Westminster are to them.

Such a relationship leaves no room for animal rights, it would seem. “Only before one another do we ourselves even have a right to life,” Scully admits. “Before our Maker we are rightless, our very existence an act of divine generosity.” If humans really are as gods to the animals, claims on behalf of animals can’t constrain people in the way Scully intends. The animals’ fates would rest with human generosity — which is not, it turns out, reliable enough.

On the other hand, there is a second, naturalist Scully, for whom animals are our “fellow creatures,” sharing thought and emotion as well as instinct and appetite:

It is easy to look down upon the animals as utterly alien to us, driven on by need and instinct in their grubbier, less rational way, slavering for food and attention like our pets, jostling at the trough on our farms, battling one another in the wild over mates and territory and status in the group. But the person who thinks himself entirely above and apart from this world need only take a closer look at his or her own daily existence, at the struggles and hurts and yearnings of body that still mark each and every human life. We do our share of grubbing and jostling and competing for mates, too, and for good reason do we say of people hurt or humiliated that they are “licking their wounds.” There is a kinship in this, for all our loftier capacities, a fellowship with the creatures.

For Scully the naturalist, man stands within rather than outside nature, and humans and animals are subject to the same God.

Scully invokes each vision according to the needs of his argument, deploying the humanist conception when he wants to urge us to rise above the law of the jungle (by, say, abstaining from meat in favor of soybeans) and the naturalist account when he wants to deflate human arrogance.

Our most arrogant presumptions center on the concept of Dominion, the authority God gives man over the animals in Genesis, which Scully finds invoked time and again by rather unsavory people to justify rather unsavory practices. Today, Dominion is taken to be justification for the humanist view, for our godlike powers over the animals. But that’s not at all what the Bible says. After all, at the same moment God gives man Dominion over the creatures, He also instructs man to eat plants rather than animals (Gen. 1:29).

And there’s more: Animals, along with man, are given the Sabbath as a day of rest (Ex. 23:12, 20:10). God establishes a covenant not only with man, but with “every living creature of all flesh” (Gen. 9:15). And the Bible includes a host of animal cruelty statutes — only a few of which Scully mentions — that require humane conduct, such as the prohibition on muzzling an ox while it threshes (Deut. 25:4). It’s not until after the Flood that man is permitted to eat meat, and even then the practice is surrounded by regulations that provide for humane treatment and the least painful slaughter practicable.

It turns out that the Old Testament, despite its granting of Dominion, takes a rather grim view of hunting. The only people who are identified as hunters — Nimrod and Esau — are depicted as evil. And Scully observes that it is Moses’s kindness toward a lamb that qualifies him as a leader: “You who have compassion for a lamb shall now be the shepherd of My people Israel.” The New Testament’s recurrent metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd also points toward the biblical vision of leadership. The role of the shepherd seems to be what the God of Genesis has in mind for humankind when He gives us Dominion: We are to be caretakers and stewards, not ruthless pillagers of nature.

Such a conception does not evade the explicit language of Genesis, but merely recognizes that our understanding of Dominion in the Bible has been clouded by more modern ideas. And this is not an understanding of Dominion that is alien to our experience. Indeed, as others have noted, the queen of England is said to have “dominion” over her subjects, but she neither eats them nor hunts them down in game parks.

Scully, a Christian, expresses some dismay that the New Testament doesn’t have much to say about our duties to animals. “I have often wished [Jesus] had been more explicit on this score,” he writes, “somewhere along the way encountering a four-footed equivalent of the woman about to be stoned, fleeing its persecutors, finding refuge beside him, prompting some saying for the ages about laying hands off the innocent creature and dealing mercifully with them all.” One notes, however, that Scully has left out some inconvenient verses in scripture, such as Peter’s vision in Acts, when he is shown a procession of animals and hears a heavenly voice exclaim, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” It’s not exactly the saying for the ages that Scully hoped for.

Nevertheless, Scully appeals to a solid Christian tradition of mercy toward animals, which includes Saint Francis of Assisi and C.S. Lewis, among others. And it is true that if you take seriously the symbolism of the lamb as the Agnus Dei, you must endure a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance in order to tolerate the treatment of lambs under modern factory farming techniques.

 

In a review of Dominion in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Hitchens charges that the justifications for commercial hunting and factory farming Scully hears are “the disconcerting sounds of his own politics being played back to him.” But Scully does not agree. “I find nothing in the conservative moral tradition remotely resembling this sacrifice of every creature in sight before the almighty dollar. It is a different spirit entirely,” he writes. “It isn’t rooted in conservatism, or Christianity, or Judaism, or classic capitalism, or any other tradition of honorable origin. It is much closer to what, in conservative big-think circles, they call ‘the modern spirit.’ ”

The animal rights agenda has lately been associated with left-wing politics, and some conservatives will be inclined to dismiss Scully’s talk about a sense of kinship with the animals as the sentimental mush of political correctness. Interestingly, however, the kinship Scully commends leads him naturally to a conservative view of politics: Scully’s ultimate appeal is to the tradition of “natural law.” “Every being has a nature, and that nature defines the ends and ultimate good for which it exists,” he writes. “Suddenly all is not arbitrary and we have a fixed point of reference, an intelligent basis for calling one thing good and another bad.”

It’s the modern left that believes people stand outside and above nature, peering down on the rest of creation with a godlike power to manipulate it for our own purposes. Feminists and gender theorists argue that institutions like marriage and the family — and, indeed, gender itself — are “social constructs” that can be uprooted and rearranged through education and social engineering. Karl Marx advanced a materialist theory of history that ruled out a fixed human nature; “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual,” he wrote, “it is the ensemble of the social relations.” And Marx’s descendants have gone about the project of manipulating human nature according to some rational plan for social harmony.

Throughout these adventures, conservatives have counterpoised a belief in the permanent truths of human nature to the liberal faith in the perfectibility of man. Traditionally, this critique was made out of a religious understanding of man’s fallen nature or a philosophic insight into human character. Increasingly, however, conservatives are appealing to modern science. In her The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Christina Hoff Sommers appealed to advances in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and endocrinology to establish, against the gender theorists, that gender really is hardwired into our biological selves. James Q. Wilson has identified a “natural moral sense” that leads, among other things, to marriage being a universal characteristic of all human societies.

Francis Fukuyama explains the failure of Marxism by reference to a universal human nature: “Marx argued that man is a species-being, that is, that human beings have altruistic feelings toward the human species as a whole. The policies and institutions of real-world communist states — like the abolition of private property, the subordination of the family to the party-state, and commitment to universal worker solidarity — were all predicated on this belief.” As we learn from modern kin selection theory, however, Marx’s premise is simply untrue; altruism emerges from the need of individuals to pass on their genes. And as we know even from common experience, any political system that denies such moral inclinations as parental care or familial bonding stands against human nature. Perhaps such a view explains the relative lack of success of socialist dictatorships compared to liberal democracy — and economist Paul Rubin, in his Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers University Press, 2002), makes just that claim.

But the idea of human malleability is nowhere more vividly refuted than in the descriptions of kinship between man and animal contained in Dominion. Animals form hierarchical social relationships and observe norms of reciprocity and taboos against incest. Some, like wolves and quail, form pair bonds (like marriages) that last a lifetime. And animals, like humans, form special bonds with their kin that involve special obligations of care. Scully observes that elephant hunters cannot kill just one member of a herd; “you have to kill them all,” as one hunter put it. This is because of family relationships within the herd. Orphaned elephant calves, for example, become violent, asocial juveniles. It doesn’t take a great mental leap for humans to identify with these creatures.

The study of animals, in fact, has had important implications for understanding human nature. It sounds silly today, but a half-century ago psychologists discouraged affection between parents and children; overt displays of love, they argued, could damage a child’s character, making him self-centered and needy. As journalist Deborah Blum records in her recent Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (Perseus, 2002), it was studies of neglected primates that led to the recognition of what is today conventional wisdom: Early love and affection improve the child’s future health, social relationships, and even intelligence. Those who insist on an unbridgeable gap between humanity and nature actually miss something important about ourselves. “If any person thinks the examination of the rest of the animal kingdom an unworthy task,” Aristotle wrote, “he must hold in disesteem the study of man.”

Aristotle, of course, didn’t regard humans and animals as moral or intellectual equals. For him, humans were political animals, capable of speech and social activity that nonhuman animals cannot approach. But he recognized a kinship with them, even if humans are ultimately a different sort of animal destined for a higher purpose. It is a more recent thinker, René Descartes, whom Scully charges with callous indifference to the animals. Descartes regarded animals as unthinking machines and their cries of pain when suffering as nothing more than the sounds of “broken machinery.” Man alone was capable of consciousness, thought, and self-creation.

Scully wonders why people find it so threatening to human dignity to regard animals as our fellow creatures, with a dignity (albeit a lesser one) of their own. But this is not such a mystery. Descartes’s project was for people, through science, to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” To acknowledge our ties to animals would be to recognize some power that constrains human endeavor: nature, or nature’s God. That’s a distinctly conservative vision, of course. To be sure, it’s not the only conservative vision (libertarians, for example, have little use for human nature). But Scully is mostly right when he chastises conservatives who instinctively write off animal welfare — they are guilty of the same inconsistent attitudes toward nature that Scully himself reveals in Dominion.

 

Yet here, too, is a cautionary note for the left. Those Marxists who advocate animal liberation, after all, exhibit the same inconsistencies. You can’t argue that there is no moral difference between humans and animals and then claim that humans possess a unique capacity to escape and change their nature — that is quite a moral difference.

Peter Singer, who has combined liberal politics with animal advocacy, concedes that his “is a sharply deflated vision of the Left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved.” In his A Darwinian Left (Yale University Press, 1999), Singer argues that the left needs to accept that some facts about human society — gender differences, social hierarchy, attachment to kin — are rooted in human nature and cannot be altered through the right social policies. (Strangely, he abandons this principle when, say, he advocates putting aside our natural parental affection in the case of infanticide.) Singer writes that the left needs to give up on the possibility of ending conflict between human beings and must concede that not all inequalities are the result of discrimination or social conditioning. A deflated left indeed.

Ultimately, our kinship with animals presents a serious challenge to egalitarianism. Once it is conceded that there is a hierarchy of rights or of moral worth in the animal kingdom — a schema of higher and lesser beings in accordance with their natural capacities — equality within the human species appears at risk. Egalitarians who advocate animal rights (save the most radical “pig is a dog is a man is a boy” types) need to think through the implications of establishing a biological hierarchy as the basis of our legal rights.

Fukuyama, who identifies nature as the basis of political rights in his Our Posthuman Future (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002), tries to square the circle by imbuing each human individual with a mysterious “Factor x” that is the source of his unique dignity compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Fukuyama acknowledges that animals have rights, based on their more limited capacities, but cautions against excessive precision in establishing a rights hierarchy. Fukuyama urges us to focus on “species-typical” behavior, and, barring the appearance of the Missing Link, this seems both sensible and practicable — especially as the advance of science and technology continues to imperil the idea of human equality.

Of course, the best and most distinctive behavior we exhibit is the political deliberation that led us to egalitarianism in the first place. Liberal democracy doesn’t just work; people actually believe in it. In a relatively short period — insignificant in evolutionary time — humanity has traded in despotism for a world in which global politics is conducted in the language of human rights and equality. We may exhibit instinctual behavior in our communities and families, but when we sit down to make our laws no one seriously proposes feudalism or aristocracy. These ideas have been discredited. We consider ourselves equal and want to treat others equally. Humans are capable of a reflection that distinguishes us from the animals, whether it’s a difference in kind or of a very large degree. When we extend our political concern to animals, we act out of our most honorable instincts and even form a healthier society. But animals don’t demand such treatment, and wouldn’t give it to us if they could.