The Pain of Animals

» January 24th, 2014

In the most recent New York Review of Books (February 6, 2014), there’s an exchange in the “Letters” section worth highlighting. Christof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and a professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech, wrote a terse response to Jason Epstein’s review of Dana Goodyear’s book on extreme eating. Koch wrote, “I was appalled that in Jason Epstein’s review . . .not a single mention is made of the fact that the penises, brains, hearts, and whole embryos that are now de rigueur to consume by our haute cuisine establishment derive from sentient creatures.” Thank you, Professor.

The NYRB has a habit of choosing the same writers to cover the same topics. That’s typically fine because, in general, they tend to be brilliant thinkers and writers. I’ve therefore always been curious exactly how Epstein got the foodie beat at a publications with the high intellectual standards of NYRB. I say this not to be snarky, but rather to confirm my general impression, honestly developed over several years, that Epstein’s reviews were thin soup compared to what appeared throughout the journal. To wit, he once praised one of Michael Pollan’s toss-off post-Omnivore Dilemma books on the grounds that, in following some of Pollan’s suggestions, he’d lost a few pounds. I’m pleased that Epstein lost some weight (I guess), but I hardly see how his body fat bears on the book’s intellectual meat, something that NYRB readers purportedly care about.

This is a long way of getting to the point that I was not terribly surprised to read Epstein’s response to Professor Koch’s letter. He wrote: “We are omnivores. We eat everything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. . . I wish it were different but we are what we are.”* This is not made up, and it’s especially ironic that it appeared in a journal that first published Peter Singer’s work on speciesism in the 1970s. In any case , it does not take a great deal of mental elbow grease to realize that Epstein’s appeal to our innate omnivorism–”we are what we are”– totally evades the ethical implication of eating a goat’s phallus.

The fact that we are omnivores hardly means that “we are what we are.”  To the contrary, it means that we are what we want to be. We have a choice. We do not have to eat meat, and many of us choose not to. Just as men are, in evolutionary terms, sexual opportunists with a capacity to rape, we have deemed it wrong to rape. There’s plenty of evidence that even animals, predisposed to commit violent acts, choose to temper their vengeful and violent instincts with more cooperative actions. How sad if, at whatever point in time habitual male sexual aggression was “debated” by our forbears, a consensus emerged to say “well, yeah, rape is bad, but there just aren’t enough non-rapists for this behavioral change to happen. I wish it were otherwise but we are what we are.”

Mr. Epstein says that he wishes humans did not cause animal suffering. I don’t believe him. Because if he was sincere in this wish then he would have taken Professor Koch’s question seriously, considered the viable option of choosing not to eat animal brains, and, rather than hiding behind an essentialist platitude that might go over well with the foodie masses, questioned Dana Goodyear’s deceptively cruel book for celebrating a form of exploitation that we have every opportunity to end.

 

*The ellipses leave out a reference to Hitler which, frankly, I could not decipher the meaning of.”

 

14 Responses to The Pain of Animals

  1. Sounds like Jason Epstein is a Neanderthal.

    Loved this:
    “The fact that we are omnivores hardly means that “we are what we are.” To the contrary, it means that we are what we want to be. We have a choice. We do not have to eat meat, and many of us choose not to. Just as men are, in evolutionary terms, sexual opportunists with a capacity to rape, we have deemed it wrong to rape.”

    It amazes me when supposedly highly intelligent people throw their critical thinking skills out the window when talking about humans eating animals.

    • Mountain says:

      What is with the anti-Neanderthal slurs on this blog? Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans, they crafted and used advanced tools, they cared for their sick and buried their dead. Often thought to be carnivorous, they actually cooked and ate vegetables in addition to meat.

      They were sentient beings. Extend to them the same consideration you ask others to extend to all sentient beings.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      But to Teresa’s point, people are very quick to become conveniently ignorant or helpless when they don’t want to change their desired behavior. “I can’t stop eating animals – it’s who I am.”

      I thought there was this thing called freedom of choice.

      “But I don’t wannnnnna….” they sound like a bunch of whiny 3 year olds…

      ~Linda

  2. John T. Maher says:

    Bloody Trotskyite! No actually the turn of the Pitchfork towards confronting the deepest darkest issues is admirable. Keep at it. They shall know your greatness by your enemies and Forbes and Epstein are necessary ones.

  3. mynamefluffy says:

    “How sad if, at whatever point in time habitual male sexual aggression was “debated” by our forbears, a consensus emerged to say “well, yeah, rape is bad, but there just aren’t enough non-rapists for this behavioral change to happen.”

    In recent history as well as currently, three major institutions have dealt with sexual crimes: The Catholic church, the US military, and college campuses. And how did they respond? The church covered it up for decades, the military punished and threatened the victims, and some colleges STILL have an attitude “boys will be boys” or “she was drunk she asked for it.” So, sadly, this is one demon that I don’t believe we have conquered at a societal level.

    And as you point out regarding meat eating, the “we are what we are” mantra is a load of total ____ designed to provide a convenient excuse for not changing one’s behavior.

    It’s the old Flip Wilson line in a different outfit. ~Linda

    • John T. Maher says:

      You are of course referencing Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene book here. He has done more damage to society through pop science nonsense than almost anyone in the academy. You are right but there should be a Carol Adams and a Dworkin reference here somewhere which I am not able to provide.

      • mynamefluffy says:

        “Oppression requires violence and implements of violence, and this violence usually involves three things: objectification of a being so that the being is seen as an object rather than as a living, breathing, suffering being; fragmentation, or butchering, so that the being’s existence as a complete being is destroyed one way or another; and then consumption — either literal consumption of the non-human animal or consumption of the fragmented woman through pornography, through prostitution, through rape, through battering. So I see a structure that creates entitlement to abuse because within the structure of the absent referent the states of objectification and fragmentation disappear and the consumed object is experienced without a past, without a history, without a biography, without individuality.”

        from an interview with Carol J. Adams http://www.caroljadams.com/interviews4.html

        makes my blood run cold. ~Linda

  4. Pauline says:

    “We are omnivores. We eat everything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. . . I wish it were different but we are what we are.”

    This is such well-worn and simplistic reasoning, usually expounded by someone who hasn’t ever given the matter more than two minutes’ thought, and is in fact just thinking about it for the first time. It’s pretty astonishing that it’s published in a “serious” journal. As you rightly point out, James, we make a free choice as to what we consume and can live a perfectly healthy and satisfied life without resorting to inflicting suffering and death on sentient beings. We have made many other adjustments to our activities over the millennia, further to conscious reasoning.

    Leaving aside the fact that the actual makeup of a Paleolithic human diet is still under debate among the scientific community, and whether animal flesh was regularly consumed by humans in large quantities (unlikely, as our bodies are not well-designed from a predatory or anatomical standpoint) – and who knows for sure that our historical diet did not align more with that of our cousins, the gorilla? Even if a solid scientific consensus was reached in regard to an understanding of the Paleolithic diet, such a diet may not be indicative of what is best for humanity moving forward, as we aren’t living in 100,000 BC. It’s 2014, with, in most developed countries, a wide range of nutritious and alternatives to animal products available. It would be good if people tried to learn more about how varied, tasty and healthy a vegan diet can be, and about the extensive ecological devastation that animal-based product consumption employed by a population of 7 billion humans is inflicting upon planetary life today and factory farming, in particular. And, certainly, about the ceaseless devastation, suffering and death unnecessarily inflicted on billions of our fellow sentient creatures across the globe.

    To say that “we *are*” immutably anything, in this context, is clearly ludicrous, as testified by the millions of people throughout the world who choose alternatives. True, there are some weak people, some who think other animals don’t matter, some thoughtless or selfish ones, those who don’t care enough to relinquish the brief and transitory pleasure gained from what they put in their mouths for the sake of others (a pleasure very soon forgotten). But that’s another matter.

    All animals are capable of suffering, to varying degrees. They possess emotions, including pleasure and pain, desire for companionship, fear, boredom, misery, loneliness and dejection; they have an interest in their lives and a will to live. In the end, as with the rest of us, it’s all they’ve got. Why cause any more suffering and death than we have to (there will always be some that’s unavoidable, regardless of our conscious efforts).

    The choice is ours. To deliberately harm, or not to deliberately harm. It’s not that complicated.

  5. Laura says:

    Very thoughtful article, thank you. Those haughty “happy” foodies we see so much of today are exemplified in one called Anthony Bourdain. There’s a new program called “The Taste” on network tv where contestants prepare theme dishes and are voted out till the last one wins the big prize. Last night there was a lovely lady contestant, the only vegetarian, who prepared a falafel dish as “street food” competition and was quickly and roundly criticized and booted off the show with a sympathetic pretense, as if, if only she’d get over that veggie thing and cook real food she might have had a chance. They referred to her “courage” in having prepared animal dishes in past episodes, including even foi gras, as if that made her one of the “good vegetarians” in their warped bloody view. She cried as she left the show and was looked at pityingly by the “real food” lovers… Poor little veggie fool, so misguided, seemed the overall message. It was thoroughly disgusting, as is anything containing Bourdain and “food.”
    When people bitch at vegans for being fools to think anyone else will join us, it is peculiarly vile, since they’re saying, “yeah, I’m the problem, so what of it?” And then they wonder why we don’t love or accept them, and they feign hurt feelings at anything we might say even if not addressing them but talking to others. Such mental/emotional derangement isn’t even possible on any other matter other than the animal issues. It brings out the stupidest cruelty even in otherwise brilliant minds. Sad, awful situation, and things have got to change. If not I sincerely hope this species gets wiped out and soon if not immediately.
    Dreamer, I am, but it helps with the stress and sadness. I stay focused and relatively peaceful & happy in my own world, despite being regularly told (anonymously, online only) to kill myself if I don’t like the way things are by grotesque morons who should’ve never been born. I believe they’ll sorely wish they’d listened to us after all is said and done.

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