Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The evolutionary abattoir, or Getting to the meat of the subject

A piece in the NYTimes on Sunday has garnered much comment both on and off the NYT website. In "The Meat Eaters", Jeff McMahan, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, laments the cruelty of carnivory and says:
If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals.  I hope most other people would have done the same.
He also says that it's not possible to reconcile the fact that carnivores must kill to live with the idea of a benevolent god.  He muses about the possibility that all carnivores could be allowed (encouraged) to become extinct, or to become herbivores.
Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones.  Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it? 
In stark Darwinian terms, however, life is only about surviving to reproduce -- Darwin's dangerous idea, to quote Daniel Dennett. It doesn't matter how an organism survives, just that it does even if that involves murder and mayhemHappiness, pleasure, the right to die a natural death, none of that counts one wit in evolutionary terms.  Nor do good and evil, or selfishness or morality.  These are purely human conceits.

Indeed, in his Autobiography, as recorded by Randal Keynes in Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution, Darwin wrestled with whether there was 'more of misery or of happiness' in the life of all sentient beings, 'whether the world as a whole is a good or a bad one'.  His reply, writes Keynes, "was halting and flat, and eloquent in its weakness". 'According to my judgement," Darwin wrote, "happiness decidedly prevails, though this would be very difficult to prove.'

His reasoning was that unhappy people would be less likely to reproduce than happy people (he was thinking only of humans, not lions or crocodiles).  This is of course absolutely consistent with his view of life, which was that it is only about survival and reproduction.

Anything else that humans want to lay on to this, imbuing life with purpose or morality or laws or meaning, is a creation of the human mind.  It is we who give life meaning, not something we find in nature.  If Jeff McMahan wants to argue that it is our moral duty to eliminate carnivory, and he can convince science and society to go along with him, more power to him. 

Of course, by that reasoning we should let ourselves, as great a predatory carnivorous species as there is, go extinct.

All organisms die and mostly it's not pleasant.  If teeth and talons don't do the job from the outside, parasites do it from the inside.  The other ways organisms die are at least as nasty as being eaten alive.

But there is a lot of anthropocentric arrogance in McMahan's article, belying his non-evolutionary view. Why does he restrict his prescription to 'conscious' animals, and what does he mean by that.....and how does he think he even knows who's conscious?

Do fish or flies not fear?  Their behavior obviously suggests that they do, even if not in the same way we do. After all, to dismiss their protective/escape behaviors as just instinct or reflex misses the point that our behavior is just neural signaling and similar mechanical processes.  And for that matter, who says carrots like to be pulled up from the ground where they're just motoring along minding their own business, and then skinned and eaten (or boiled) alive.
It seems that Darwin has given everyone a license to invoke whatever arguments they want about the nature of nature. It's a problem for those who like actual science, whether or not we let ourselves believe no animal was killed in the making of that burger we had for lunch.

It won't be any better, in fact, when Monsanto actually does learn to synthesize steer muscle in a dish, because even individual cells struggle to stay alive.  Life is an abattoir, even if we choose to believe that empathy and humane-ness are good, for our own psyches if nothing else.


Ken Weiss said...

Another point in regard to human carnivory. We give life to chickens and cows only so that we can eat them. So they get the gift of life and a generally quick and mainly painless and fearless end. That alone is enough for many vegetarians to avoid eating meat, but like Darwin's feeling, if they're humanely raised then mainly we give them more good than the harm we do.

It's a little less clear with other similar situations, such as what we do to animals in research settings. We give mice etc life, too, but sometimes their lives aren't so idyllic.

Jennifer said...

with the emphasis on 'humanely raised'. Also, if we decided to all not eat meat forever after, what would we do with all the cattle, the chickens, the dairy animals, etc? Do we just allow them all to reproduce at will so that they overpopulate and starve to death? Do we sterilize them so they aren't allowed to reproduce and quietly die out? Do we allow ourselves one last feast after slaughtering the herds so that we don't need to deal with the species that humans have developed simply to help feed ourselves? What happens to the deer herds when they are left unchecked? Many of the animals raised for food in the 'factory farms' are not living lovely or healthy lives, either. I'm not sure why anyone would want to eat factory farmed animals, though, because they are not healthy animals, and how can eating an unhealthy animal be good for you?

And I agree about those carrots not wanting to be pulled up.

Anne Buchanan said...

There are a lot of practical issues, I agree, Jennifer. And yes about factory farmed animals.

As for the carrots, thanks to Ellen Q for this absolutely pertinent video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmK0bZl4ILM

Texbrit said...

I've become a Stage 3 Vegan: only eating plants that don't cast shadows.

Ken Weiss said...

Does that mean you think potatoes like being ripped up, scraped with a peeler by some oblivious army Private, quartered and boiled? Or baked (even if eaten with delicious sour cream and bacobits)?

Aeolus said...

"And for that matter, who says carrots like to be pulled up from the ground where they're just motoring along minding their own business, and then skinned and eaten (or boiled) alive."

Only someone lacking both common sense and an elementary science education would imagine that plants have desires or feelings. So I'll assume you're just pulling our collective leg. (The line about individual cells "struggl[ing] to stay alive" gives the joke away.) But the comments in the NYT following McMahan's essay show that a lot of people out there really are that foolish.

If it is the case, as Ken Weiss suggests, that giving creatures a humane life and a quick death justifies meat eating, I modestly propose that we help reduce the number of unwanted children in underdeveloped countries by importing them, fattening them up, and then consuming them at dinner parties. And if anyone objects to eating rational beings, let her stick to eating the severely mentally handicapped among the unwanted, of which there are many. Bon appetit!

Ken Weiss said...

I actually disagree, and think your response, Aeolus, is rather ethnocentric. As far as we know, plants have no 'consciousnes', and I and perhaps words like 'desires' or 'feelings' are too anthropomorphic, but you are assuming only our form of consciousness deserves consideration, as McMahan seems to say.

That doesn't imply that plants have no sense of self-awareness of some form we can't imagine. It is absolutely accurate to say that cells respond to the outside world, to maintain homeostasis (that is, to persist in staying alive).

One might say that life evolved through universal predation, and we can't really avoid eating other organisms that themselves evolved to persist. I happen to eat meat, and only hope that the victim suffered no fear or pain, and I try to eat animals that were treated humanely during their lives. And I also eat carrots!

Your idea about the excess children is of course an old one, and was what Jonathan Swift suggested in his 'Modest proposal'.

Bottom line for each person has to be his or her personal take on what is right to do, and what could be avoided in a better world.

Texbrit said...

Anyway, whether or not a being is sentient should be irrelevant to its "rights".