Posts Tagged ‘ethics of eating meat’
To anthropomorphize is often deemed a soft way to think, an irrational after effect of cuddly animal domestication. The habit of anthropomorphizing, however, happens to be an ancient one. In fact, some evolutionary anthropologists posit that the formation of human-animal bonds over 40,000 years ago was precipitated by the freshly honed human ability to imagine what other persons–and by extension animals– were thinking and feeling. It’s origins had nothing to do with cuteness.
The idea here is that when humans finally realized, in the words of one animal psychologist, “that a ball of fur could be a friend rather than a meal,” they worked to infer the mental status of other animals and, in so doing, sharpened the human mind while opening the human heart. In essence, anthropomorphism may be tied up with nothing less significant than the foundation of human empathy. A prehistory unburdened with speciesism may very well have encouraged humans to understand humans through their ability to understand animals. Pet your companion animal and see how she reacts if you doubt this hypothesis.
I hope what I’m writing here isn’t overly abstract, as it bears directly on the way we talk about–and fight over– animals today. Many behavioral omnivores, for example, will argue that eating animals is an engrained activity that humans have always done and, as a result, will always do. It isn’t even a choice. It’s just the way it is. (Readers of Melanie Joy will recognize this attitude as central to her notion of “carnism.”) This extremely conservative reverence for tradition (more on this conservatism in a later post) leads to bizarre attempts to recreate hunting, gathering, and agricultural scenarios that were customary five, ten, forty thousand years ago, but have since been subsumed and monotonized by more modern models. The “it’s always been that way” idea remains as static as a brick wall, one that throws up barriers to any questions about animal thoughts, emotions, or rights. It justifies indifference and obscures the history of empathy.
But the history of human-animal relationships, as indicated, was about more than mere domination. As humans were killing animals throughout history, they were also working to understand them, to figure out what they were thinking and how they felt. As I research my book on human-animal bonds in pre-industrial America I’m stunned by how diligently (and relatively recently) farmers strove to gain this knowledge. It was an effort that demanded and rewarded anthropomorphizing. Even if this knowledge was sought to further explicit human interests, it was still sought, and thus the awareness of animal minds was omnipresent and normative, only to be squelched out by the rise of industrial arrangements and mass urbanization.
The quest to understand and empathize with animals–unlike the static quest to kill them for food, clothing, and tools–was an actively evolving endeavor that brought humans closer and closer to animals minds (and vice-versa), even as they killed them. The methods of killing animals may have changed over time, but throughout history killing animals was killing animals. It was what humans did, often out of necessity, often not. Just as they felled trees, dammed rivers, and cleared land, they killed animals. But here’s the thing: it was always more than that. Humans were also inveterate anthropomorphizers. And in that role they build a context around the “humans have always done it” justification–one that we conveniently forget. Yes, humans have always done it, but we have also, as a result of constant anthropomorphizing, always done something else: lent animals some degree of empathy. Killing and caring went hand in hand.
And now we are at a point in time where we have the technological capability to eat plants and plants alone. How arbitrary it is to cherry pick the past and argue that we’ve always killed and eaten animals and, as a result, we can continue to kill and eat animals. Hell, we’ve also always subjugated women, enslaved humans, engaged in ritualistic warfare, and exploited child labor. Thankfully, although these habits still persist, the basic tenets of civilization have deemed these practices barbarically cruel and unjust. Why should our tragic treatment of animals get a pass from this thankful upsurge in enlightenment? It’s time to smother the dangerous conservatism of the “always done it” argument in the liberating context of an enlightened impulse with an equally long and far more creative history: critical anthropomorphism.