Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Bruce McLeod on Environmental Stewardship

Environmental Stewardship
Healing Our Broken Relationship With Nature
By Bruce McLeod

The World Wildlife Fund’s mission is “To stop the degradation of the Earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature…”  In their Living Planet Report published in 2020 it is reported that global mammal, fish, bird and amphibian populations have declined by 68% in less than 50 years. Genetic degradation isn’t covered in the report.

People the world over donate billions of dollars to WWF each year. Despite which, the reality is that after 60 years at the forefront of conservation WWF (and professional conservation in general) have  entirely failed to achieve their stated objective. Degradation of the natural environment, together with declines in genetic integrity across all species, resulting directly from environmentally hostile and destructive human activities, is both ubiquitous and of such severity as to suggest the distinct possibility that animals in their natural habitats will be largely if not entirely wiped out within another one or two decades.                      

This is not to say that the position might not have been worse without the efforts of conservation agencies, or that their failure to stem the tide of destruction is not to some extent understandable. Human numbers in my lifetime have gone from 2.5 billion to a staggering 8 billion, and in 2020 alone (notwithstanding COVID-19) births exceeded deaths by 80 million.

And if you don’t recognize in all of this clear evidence of disease in the social organism, and get a glimpse of the joyless, polluted, dangerous and unsustainable world that will be occupied by our children, should they survive of course, then as lawyers are inclined to say, I rest my case.

It’s insane, and the approach to the unfolding catastrophe by conservation professionals appears to consist of what the medical profession might describe as symptomatic diagnosis and treatment. In other words, cause unknown and remedial treatment aimed at easing pain and symptoms – rather than eradicating underlying cause.

Carl Jung proposed that all human neurosis and psychosis stems from division from nature. And if Jung has it right, then does it not follow that in-depth understanding of the human condition that gives rise to environmental destruction, must precede and dictate remedial action? Neurosis doesn’t mean barking mad but rather a relatively mild altered state of reality. I’m not a psychologist but it would seem to me that division from Nature essentially triggers a loss of synchronicity between two distinct faculties of memory. The first of these being instinct and the second being reason.

Instinct can be defined as prenatal, genetic, evolutionary or ancestral memory function. Reason is postnatal, experiential or socially acquired memory function, and in Nature this dual memory function combines seamlessly to optimize survival prospects and transfer of advantageous genes. Division from Nature disrupts brain function synchronicity, resulting in suppression of instinct and elevated levels of dependence or dominance of reason. Homo sapiens sapiens or wise wise Man is how we see ourselves. IQ is measured by reasoning ability alone. Instinct is generally seen as primitive if not superfluous.          

What it amounts to is a muting of the guiding influence of an ancestral lineage that transcends species barriers – as a result of which we are disoriented and essentially lost. Domination of reason is also recognizable in the concept of dominion which in turn, is the soil in which the roots of private property lie buried, and out of which extends a spider’s web of dividing lines on maps that identify reason-based assumptions of superiority, and license to exploit and abuse our animal companions.

Nelson Mandela once said, “…love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” It is so – for the simple reason that love is innate and derives from immutable genetic hardwiring or instinct. Dominion is the polar opposite of love. It is a socially acquired and consequently mutable worldview that, in the absence of counterbalancing instinct amounts to a reprehensible idea, passed on through childhood conditioning from one generation to the next. With symptoms known variously as a contest between good and evil; love and hate; male and female energy, or as an imbalance between reason and instinct - what is beyond doubt and crystal clear is the deep fracturing of the human psyche that springs directly from the tail of division from Nature.   

Exacerbating this altered state of consciousness and loss of balance is a similarly debilitating condition that in the natural world promotes survival – but threatens survival when natural conditions are supplanted by artificial or virtual circumstances. What I’m alluding to is the inherently acquisitive nature of all primates. A monkey trap consists of a simple cage, baited with fruit and a hole in the top big enough to allow passage of the animals hand, but too small to allow withdrawal of hand clutching the fruit. Under such conditions greed overcomes reason and the monkey’s fate is sealed. And if a monkey  will choose life at the end of a chain or death for the sake of a banana – then what chance do we humans have of moderating or abandoning our desire for houses, cars and smartphones? Material possessions we would literally die for – and almost certainly will.  

Is there any hope? Probably not. But in the wake of COVID-19 coupled to increasing awareness of environmental destruction and climate change, is an emergent grassroots impulse to establish a new normal and in that resides a glimmer of hope. Some years ago CapeNature (Western Cape Government) launched a highly successful land acquisition programme called stewardship. It offers incentives to land owners to make land available for conservation. These Contract Nature Reserves are designed to establish areas and inter-linked corridors of land to promote conservation – and it works.

To be a steward means to look after something. It also has a theological definition which means roughly the same thing – taking care of God’s work. A slogan for stewardship is “partnerships make it happen.” What the CapeNature model lacks is a grassroots format, a united front whereby everyone (not just farmers) can become directly involved with conservation through various forms of collaboration.

This might include joint ownership of land for dual conservation and social purposes, with attendant recreational and residential (work from home) opportunities. A new normal where people can reconnect with Nature; partner with conservation professionals if necessary; work together to find ways of achieving harmony rather than conflict with Nature, and in doing so aspire to their true and full human potential. Healing the divisions of the past you might say – one barbed wire fence at a time.     

As co-founder of an independent stewardship initiative some 20 years ago, that preceded the CapeNature model and successfully converted a 700 hectare commercial farm in the Cederberg area of the Western Cape to social and conservation purposes, my observations with respect to the potential of grassroots stewardship stem from hands-on experience. It’s a concept that has enormous potential for growth and facilitation of positive change. Despite which, professional conservation entities, sadly, tend to also conserve a preference for a top-down, leave-it-to-us-we-know-best approach and are resistant to unconventional ideas from outside the ranks of their profession.

Humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. All primates are highly intelligent and, just like us, their first response to anxiety, fear and insecurity tends to be psychological denial. Held captive in a monkey trap a primate’s life is often forfeited through its inability to accept the reality of its predicament. In the human domain it is frequently suggested that our relationship with Nature is “complex,” and it’s important to recognize that what lies behind this suggestion is denial, arising from an unwillingness or inability to accept the inconvenient truth of selfishness and obsessive need for materialistic gratification.      

Grassroots stewardship might be described as the antithesis of the divide and conquer approach. It’s a holistic approach that seeks to unify the land and restore an ethical and respectful relationship between humans and all other life forms – in the context of ever-expanding farmlands, habitat destruction and genetic degradation that undermines the process of evolution itself.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for stewardship projects and it is also not possible to touch on more than a few salient features in this essay. The Cederberg initiative referred to above was registered as a trust. Objective of the trust was to acquire land for social and conservation purposes. The 700 hectare farm acquired was on two titles which, in terms of compliance with agricultural zoning regulations, allowed for construction of 12 dwellings.  

There were accordingly 12 beneficiaries who had access to the land as an undivided whole. Internal fencing was removed. Beneficiaries were allocated areas for their personal use and were entitled to build a house and establish a garden or practice micro farming if they chose to do so. Personal use could be recreational or permanent occupation at the entire discretion of the beneficiary.  

These “plots” did not have separate title and on resignation by a beneficiary, immovable assets could be sold on but not the land occupied. In short, a moderation in terms of profit incentive, but full investment security and access through the power of partnership to a magnificent property abutting a wilderness area for a very modest and fully refundable contribution.  

Obvious benefits to the natural environment aside, the participants in this project had few if any disadvantages in comparison to a more conventional “development” scheme. What they did have were several distinct and unique advantages – not least amongst which was becoming part of an exciting pioneering project, committed to positive social change and restoration of integrity with respect to humankind’s generally dysfunctional relationship with Nature.               

Retaining the land as one undivided whole is perhaps the most fundamental requirement in any grassroots stewardship project. It is also possible in the Western Cape (through CapeNature) to rezone land as a Contract Nature Reserve. This secures the same protection status as a national park. Such rezoning in perpetuity means that the land is permanently safeguarded against usage for anything other than conservation purposes and, in the event of abutment with another conservation area, it opens the door for further unification and expansion of conservation land.

The term “economics” is defined in my dictionary as “a branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.” Arising as it does from a mind divided on itself and being also a product of socially acquired knowledge, largely devoid of counterbalancing wisdom and empathy, it is equally true to say that the business of economics is an anthropomorphic, supremacist, morally challenged branch of knowledge that views Nature as a commodity, composed of “resources” and “game” serving no purpose greater than consumerism and monetary profit.

Shaking off the spell cast by denial related to the destruction of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary progress and development (or what might equally be called God’s creation) and our collective complicity in that event, requires a long hard look in the mirror and conscious application of reason – followed by immediate and appropriate corrective action.

Prevailing economic models are neither ethical, immutable, nor sacrosanct. Stewardship represents a viable and immediate means of expanding conservation areas. It affords the opportunity for people, at their own pace and discretion, to adopt simpler, less materialistic lifestyles and to acquire more responsible attitudes and values. It represents a starting point for progressive social restructuring and a means of healing our broken relationship with Nature.       

Grassroots stewardship is not only viable but offers ordinary people an extraordinary opportunity to “Be the change you want to see in the world” as Gandhi once proposed. It’s the right thing to do. It provides sanctuary for our animal companions. It makes you feel good about yourself; makes the ancestors happy and it’s a giant leap forward with respect to transcending good intentions, and actually accomplishing a world in which humans live in harmony with Nature. It can be done and if ever there was a time to engage our allegedly superior faculties of reason and partner for change then that time is now!    

- Bruce McLeod co-founded a pioneering stewardship initiative some 20 years ago that successfully converted a 700 hectare commercial farm in the Cederberg area of the Western Cape for dual conservation and social purposes.

Text Copyright© 2021 by Bruce McLeod. All Rights Reserved.
Image Copyright© 2021 by Dr. Jack. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Animal Pain and Suffering - by Athena Milios

Pain and Suffering:
Moral Concerns Surrounding Human Consumption of Animals

By Athena Milios

In “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace provides a comprehensive overview of the Maine Lobster festival, then presents historical and cultural context for the practice of lobster consumption. Finally, he tackles important dilemmas surrounding the ethics of lobster killing, such as whether lobsters are able to feel pain considering the anatomy of their nervous systems, and whether certain means of killing lobsters are perhaps more ethical than others (Wallace 63). Wallace contrasts the neurological experience of pain with “actual suffering, which seems crucially to involve an emotional component, an awareness of pain as unpleasant, as something to fear/dislike/want to avoid” (63). Wallace provides several compelling arguments as to why killing lobsters is morally inappropriate, which extend to other sentient beings that humans consume. Overall, I believe that eating any animal is morally inappropriate, and will use lobsters, cows, pigs, and chickens as my main examples to build a case for why humans ought not to eat animals since it is morally unjustifiable.

Humans have a tendency to look for ways to morally justify to themselves the consumption of animals, because this justification is easier than having to change their behavior by omitting animals from their diet. One way many people do this is by telling themselves that animals are “less morally important than human beings” (64). However even Wallace acknowledges that he has “not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which this belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient” (64). The two main criteria that ethicists use when considering suffering are the physiological capacity of the animal to feel pain and whether the animal acts as though it is in pain (63). In the case of mammals that humans kill, both of these criteria are clearly met, since pigs, cows, and chickens all have central and peripheral nervous systems, meaning they have mechanisms to register pain including nociceptors (pain-receptors), prostaglandins, and neuronal opioid receptors (63). In addition, they can make sounds that denote suffering when they are in distress/pain, such as whimpering, squealing, and moaning.

There are other behaviors associated with pain exhibited by mammals that are also present in lobsters, such as struggling and thrashing. In terms of the physiological mechanisms of pain, lobsters have an extremely refined tactile sense, partly due to the fact that they are covered in tiny hairs that penetrate their outer shells (63). What this means is that “although encased in what seems like a solid, impenetrable armor, the lobster can receive stimuli and impressions from without as readily as if it possessed a soft and delicate skin” (63). Even though they are invertebrates, they do possess “nociceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters via which our own brains register pain” (63).  Furthermore, lobsters do not have an endogenous opioid system, which is the body’s way of decreasing pain intensity, and is present in many other animals. This lack of natural painkillers means that lobsters’ perception of pain may actually be heightened (63).

Given that the animals that humans kill for consumption have the capacity to feel pain and to suffer, I believe that they do have moral status, meaning that humans should not have the right to inflict pain and suffering on them simply for their culinary experience. Inflicting pain on animals in order to kill them for human consumption is morally wrong because this killing is currently unnecessary for human survival, and therefore avoidable. Although society is more removed from the killing of mammal livestock, which are killed in slaughterhouses and factory farms instead of in people’s kitchens as lobsters are, the former death is not more justifiable or any less cruel than the latter. Due to the way cows, pigs, and chickens are killed and sold, it is easier for people to eat these animals “without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done” (62).

In conclusion, pain is a complex experience involving a neurological component as well as a subjective component, which is manifested externally through behaviors indicating extreme discomfort and a clear desire to avoid the painful stimulus (63). The subjective experience and feeling of pain is unique to every individual, whether it be an animal or a human, and is a critical determinant of sentience. As a general premise, killing animals for human consumption is morally unjustified because they are subjected to unnecessary, avoidable pain and suffering, whether that be in a factory farm, a slaughterhouse, or in a pot of boiling water. Furthermore, given that the reasons humans have for consuming animals are primarily selfish in nature (63), humans continuing to kill animals for consumption is not truly necessary, therefore it is unethical and unjustified.

Works Cited

Foster Wallace, David. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet, August 2004, pp. 50–64. 

- Athena Milios is a Greek-Canadian psychiatric researcher and writer based in Nova Scotia, Canada. She holds an undergraduate Degree in Medical Science and a Master’s in Psychiatry Research, both from Dalhousie University. She is passionate about psychology and mental health. Athena has been living with mental illness since the age of fifteen. She strongly advocates for mental health in her community. She is the author of several psychiatric publications as well as some creative writing pieces, including poetry and short stories.

Copyright©2021 by Athena Milios. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Chimpanzee Chronicles

Debra Rosenman, ed. The Chimpanzee Chronicles: Stories of Heartbreak and Hope from Behind the Bars. Santa Fe, NM: Wild Soul Press, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-7324651-0-7. $28U.S. paper. 378 pages. Illustrated.

“It’s a difficult and complicated relationship on both sides of the cage.” Diana Goodrich (194).

Debra Rosenman’s The Chimpanzee Chronicles presents a totally unvarnished, often gripping, and deeply emotional survey of primate persecution and some salvation at the hands of humans. In part, the word chronicle points to an accurate, historical accounting of factual details. These are stories of suffering and, in some cases, redemption – for humans as well as apes. The collection consists of twenty-five contributor essays, including a Foreword by renowned ecologist Marc Bekoff with an Introduction and Afterword by Rosenman. The book includes one hundred and thirteen exquisite black-and-white photographs that capture the glittering essence of some of the chimpanzees.

I didn’t know what to expect before reading this book, and I’ve been reared for at least a decade on scientific papers and monographs by primatologists and anthropologists, including field narratives like those by Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and Shirley Strum. I was not prepared for the words in these pages. Why? Although many of the contributors to the volume are qualified professional researchers, veterinarians, psychologists, primatologists, and anthropologists, the narratives offer a much needed qualitative and not merely a quantitative perspective. By the time I finished the book, I had gained intimate knowledge not only of the characters of the authors but also of the ape persons they cared for. For anyone interested in animal studies or ethics, particularly of great apes, this book is necessary reading. For anyone interested in human-ape communication, using that word broadly, this is an impressive book. While there is indeed some joy and hope in these pages, I must admit you’d have to possess an ironclad emotional constitution to get to the end without having shed tears of sadness.

Drawing from Rosenman’s overview in her introduction, the book reveals the physical, psychological, and emotional lives of captive chimpanzees, whether in the U.S. space program, biomedical labs, the entertainment industry, or as part of trafficking to become pets or zoo spectacles. In one instance, we learn that a lab in Texas housed three thousand baboons and hundreds of chimpanzees at once, staggering numbers. The historical arc of the book is excellent. Many of the contributors offer for the uninitiated a timeline of how chimps were used, and where, across facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Moreover, the chronicling continues with the lives of particular apes after their persecution as lab subjects or humiliation as circus performers to their experiences in sanctuaries. The book reinforces how each ape person has an individual personality and temperament with his or her own quirky needs and desires. Contrary to the flawed philosophy of seeing “animals” as automatons without souls, this book demonstrates qualitatively (and quantitatively) that great apes are indeed persons in the full sense of that word.

Commercial deforestation deprives chimpanzees of essential foods and habitats. Families are slaughtered so babies can be sold into captivity, and then the dead apes become bushmeat for someone’s meal. In the early twentieth century, Rosenman goes on, there were about one million chimpanzees in the wild; today, a high estimate puts them at about three hundred thousand. Human encroachment devastating chimpanzee lands spreads disease, and yet, not without irony, the chimps in labs had been used for decades as test subjects for drugs to treat a range of human ailments, from HIV and AIDS to Hepatitis. As I write, primates are being used as subjects for a Covid-19 vaccine. One dreadful facility that comes up repeatedly is the now shuttered Coulston Foundation lab in New Mexico, where maltreatment of chimps occurred routinely. Another facility, also closed, that pops up across contributors is the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, N.Y., which in 1988 had nearly one thousand primates and about three hundred chimps. The name alone gives you an idea of the Frankenstein torment that transpired behind those concrete, cellblock walls. Early on, when chimps became test subjects, there were no care or welfare protocols – experimenters had free reign, separating babies from mothers, engaging primates in painful and intrusive operations, subjecting each of them to hundreds of rounds of anesthesia, and forcing all of them to endure a solitary life in a small cage with little or no mental stimulation or psychological nourishment. In one account, a chimp was under anesthesia for seventeen consecutive days. As Rosenman rightly says, clearly the researchers were totally unaware of how the apes lived, their wants, or simply did not care. If chimps and other apes were the subjects of medical experimentation because they are so like us, to paraphrase a paradox of primatologist Frederick King, then wouldn’t that likeness be a reason not to experiment on them?

I cannot offer a synopsis of the many contributors to this remarkable, award-winning book – my scribbled notes amount to twelve pages, and I did not even record as much detail as I could have. Besides, I don’t want to give away any “plots” but, instead, encourage readers to purchase the book and read for themselves. Part of the proceeds go to chimpanzee causes. This is a substantial contribution to our understanding of ape lives in captivity. While there is some overlap across the contributors, I think that was a strategic approach by the editor. Certain ideas and themes are effectively repeated, but from different angles depending on the perspective of the writer. To my reading, there is a lot of wisdom in this book about interspecies communication and caring. Captivity comes up often, including guilt by the caregivers for confining chimps who know humans are free. Individuality is also a recurring theme. As for ideas, there’s an underlying assumption in these pages that “animals” (a horrid word) are not on earth for human convenience or exploitation. Another theme that repeats strongly is how incredibly forgiving of their human captors apes tend to be; there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

As you read, it becomes clear that the apes were victims of abuse. In one story (Gloria Grow), Jeannie had been experimented on for fifteen years and suffered a breakdown. In this broken condition, the facility she was in decided to euthanize her, but she was rescued to live her remaining years in the comfort of a sanctuary. A filmmaker (Allison Argo) tells about her trip to the infamous Coulston lab after its 2002 bankruptcy. Carole Noon, a primatologist who was then in control, literally broke down walls so the inmate chimps could roam freely and socialize instead of facing persistent confinement in very small cages. The film would document the chimpanzee transfers out of the facility to sanctuaries witnessing, even in the aftermath, overwhelming injustice.  

Some of these narratives (Debby Cox) understate the immense amount of physical strain and emotional stress these exceptional humans endured in rescuing or relocating chimps. Readers cannot help but feel heartened that there are indeed courageous and virtuous people among us working for the benefit of all living creatures. One of the authors (Jenny Desmond) tells the harrowing story of the sixty six chimps literally abandoned, by the N.Y. Blood Center, on an island off the coast of Liberia. This was big news at the time, and keep in mind that in addition to facing starvation and dehydration, these chimp persons had been subject to years of experimentation, like countless liver biopsies. One writer (Mark Bodamer) says that the director at one lab facility viewed the inmate primates as little more than “hairy test tubes” (232). The cruelty is almost beyond comprehension, salved only by the stories of restoration.

In many of the stories, we learn that female chimps were used as “breeders,” and their babies would be taken from them soon after birth. In the wild, great ape infants, like humans, require a prolonged span of caring years. As Jenny Desmond is correct to say, “grief and sorrow transcend all differences between species...” (80). One contributor using a pseudonym is a whistleblower having worked at a biomedical lab where there was such insensitivity that part or all of a chimp’s organ would be removed. This facility provided no enrichment for the primates and those running the lab exhibited a total lack of empathy. Male macaques who protected their young were disciplined. Baby monkeys were taken from their mothers at birth, put in black boxes, and used in eye research – nearsightedness, for which we have corrective lenses! While not explicitly stated through the book, but certainly touched on from time to time, funding dollars were important to facilities for experiments that likely duplicated research already done or for studies with no proven purpose.

More than a few of the contributors who started sanctuaries did not work from a blueprint. Their commitment to animal welfare or rescue eventually blossomed into new directions, sometimes haphazardly, but always with noble intentions and good outcomes. In one turnaround (Lesley Day), the writer who had bought a baby primate started shopping for an infant chimp when the monkey died. This led her to a breeder, and utterly dismayed at the living conditions of the apes, many in states of depression, she decided on a rescue mission to start her own sanctuary. Importantly, the best sanctuaries are set up so that chimps can make choices about socializing and enrichment for themselves. Some of the accounts involve those who went into biomedical labs with the sole purpose of helping care for babies separated from their mothers or setting up enrichment programs for the chimps while training the technicians. Painfully, it’s not clear how much of these efforts lasted after the interventions absent stringent legislative guidelines to enforce.

These stories of physical abuse and mental trauma are difficult to read but necessary as part of the historical record, to ensure that we try to eliminate whatever remnants of this experimentation still exists and prevent it from ever happening again. Across many of these authors one reads how the chimps and other primates spend decades upon decades – their entire lives – in cramped cages behind cinder block walls. Nevertheless, there are also buds of color in the stories of rescue and integration into sanctuaries where many of the authors make meaningful connections with our primate cousins. Some of the more painful accounts to read are those involving apes who learned how to use sign language. They could communicate not only their thoughts but their innermost feelings, and quite often we read how they ask an interlocutor to unlock the cage and set them free. Their lives of captivity deprive them of many natural tendencies, like roaming and foraging, and experiences, like socializing with conspecifics. However, reading what apes have to say and how they feel will be a breakthrough moment for many readers unfamiliar with primate intelligence.

I cannot but marvel at the moral integrity of this editor and these authors, many of whom made (and continue to make) great sacrifices as they work to provide care for sentient and sapient beings. This is an important book since it questions our ethical obligations after having captured or bred apes without their consent. We are not powerless. In the words of contributor Rosa Garriga: “One person cannot change the world, but small gestures from many people can go a long way” (131). So in some respects this book is also a call to action. Work on behalf of our fellow creatures; speak out; enlist the help of others; donate what you can, either money or time; lend moral support to causes for animal welfare; consider a vegan ethos.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., Professor of English/Interdisciplinary Studies and founder of The Evolutionary Studies Collaborative, St. Francis College. Author, most recently, of An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood (2020).

Copyright©2020 by Gregory F. Tague. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Moral Sense Colloquium IV

Moral Sense Colloquium IV, Saturday, 28 September 2019, St. Francis College

Details HERE 


Vegan Lunch

Songs of Story Men performers
Vaneshran Arumugam (left) and Emmanuel Castis (right)

Opening Remarks by the President of St. Francis College,
Dr. Miguel Martinez-Saenz

Grad Student Panel One on Cross-Cultural Morality,
with Dr. SungHun Kim and Dr. Kristy Biolsi (not pictured)

Panel Two: Clayton Shoppa (far left), Carlo Alvaro (left),
and Jeff Sebo (far right)

Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis in performance

Dinner at Eight post Performance

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Can Animals Be Persons? - Book Review by Carlo Alvaro

Review of Mark Rowlands, Can Animals Be Persons? Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0190846039. Hardcover, $29.95 U.S. 232 pages.

Seven years after the provocative Can Animals Be Moral?, Mark Rowlands comes back with another unorthodox position: many animals are persons. In Can Animals Be Persons? Rowlands does a great job showing that whether animals can be persons is no more puzzling a question than whether humans are persons. What is a person anyway? “What is a person?” is not the sort of question that can be answered by simply appealing to a dictionary definition of the terms in question. Nor can one appeal to common sense. While the book presents highly sophisticated and dense argumentation, Rowlands manages to make the reader comfortable and enjoy the ride. One thing that is evident is that Rowlands had lots of fun writing this book. No doubt, Can Animal Be Persons? advances our understanding of animal minds and gives new life to the field of animal ethics. If this book does not make you see that animals are persons, I do not know what will.

In the first chapter, Rowlands begins by showing the ambiguities regarding the notion of personhood. The first ambiguity has to do with the fact that the term ‘person’ has at least three senses: legal, moral, and metaphysical. As Rowlands notes, legally speaking, corporations, organizations, and various objects are recognized as persons. Yet, the law does not consider animals as persons. In fact, the prevalent view among philosophers and scientists is that animals are not persons. In the past, women, slaves, children, Native Americans, and others were not regarded as persons. Nowadays, they are, and the debate has shifted toward animals. Typically, the argument that excluded animals from being legal persons can be expressed with the slogan, “no rights without responsibilities.” However, many individuals, such as marginal cases (the senile, infants, individuals with severe mental disabilities), are recognized as legal persons despite their not being able to think about legal principles and without their having legal responsibilities. It would seem a double standard, therefore, to exclude animals forthright on the basis of the no-rights-without-responsibilities argument.

Whether animals can be moral persons is a question analogous to the legal question. Namely, the argument against it is that to be a moral person, one must understand morality, must be capable of making moral judgments, and have moral responsibilities. Here Rowlands points out that many humans lack those capabilities and yet we do not want to say that they are not moral persons. If this is not good enough, you may take a copy of Can Animals Be Moral? And see for yourself how Rowlands defends this thesis.

The most challenging question, thus, is whether animals can be metaphysical persons. By metaphysical person, Rowlands simply means an individual who has intentionality, is self-conscious, has a language, has emotion, and many other characteristics that are taken to describe a person. Rowlands’ strategy is to try to identify certain mental characteristics that only persons possess and then determine whether animals possess such characteristics by virtue of which they qualify as persons in the metaphysical sense.

Drawing from different philosophers, Rowlands comes up with four conditions that one must satisfy to be a person:

1. Being conscious.
2. Being able to learn, solve problems, and reason.
3. Being self conscious or self-aware.
4. Being able to recognize other persons as such.

The first condition is the easiest to satisfy. Rowlands points out that besides being commonsensical that animals are conscious, there is an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that such is the case. The second is not difficult to satisfy either. For, many animals learn, reason, and solve problems. Rowlands discusses the ways in which animals can engage in causal and logical reasoning in chapter 5. Self-awareness is a tricky one, which is discussed in chapter 6.

The fourth requirement is discussed in terms of having the capacity to communicate, which many animals possess. Thus the question of whether animals can be persons is broken down into four questions: (1) Can animals be conscious? (2) Can animals engage in reasoning? (3) Can animals be self-aware, and (4) Can animals recognize others as persons?

The question of animal personhood, then, hinges on the (old) question of mind. The assumption is that minds are hidden from us. Thus, if we want to determine whether there are minds, the way that scientists and philosophers go about figuring this out is in terms of an inferentialist approach. One can infer other minds by using an analogical inference, that is, I have a mind, and since others are like me in many respects, it follows that others have minds. This is a non-starter for Rowlands, who suggests that an analogical inference is not a very helpful method for determining other human minds, and by the same token it must also be unhelpful for determining other animal minds. Another inference is to the best explanation. According to this type of inference, I can legitimately infer from the behavior of other humans that they have a mind. However, even if this type of inference works for other human minds, then it would have to work for other animal minds. The best explanation of animals’ behavior, language, and social life, is that they have a mind. Ultimately, Rowlands argues that the inferentialist solution of the problem of human minds does not work. 

We have, according to Rowlands, a direct experience of other human minds and a complete certainty of this fact, and our empirical evidence of other human minds is more certain than our inferences. The position that Rowlands endorses with respect to other minds is a direct perception view, something he borrows from Wittgenstein, who believed that “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (Philosophical Investigations, Part II, p. 178). The direct perception view that Rowlands employs is a very interesting one and has three steps. First he introduces a distinction between seeing and seeing that; second is a distinction between formal and functional descriptions of behavior; third he argues that functional descriptions of behavior are disguised psychological descriptions. These three steps combined lead to the conclusion that “we can often see the mental states of animals” (p. 38).

Rowlands illustrates the distinction between seeing and seeing that by giving an example of a tornado. Typically one might say that he has seen a tornado. To be precise, it is not the tornado itself that is being seen, but rather its effects, i.e., rotating objects, dirt, water, and so on. Regarding behavior, it is not always possible to tell the nature of a behavior simply by looking at it; nevertheless, the behavior is visible, just like a tornado is visible. In other words, a behavior can be functionally described.

Functionalism is a theory of mind that argues that the mind can be explained in terms of its function regardless of the shape, form, or material composition of a being. (This is the best I can do in a sentence. For more information see the article “Functionalism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  Rowlands employs functionalism to explain the behavior of animals, arguing that functional descriptions are none other than “disguised mental or psychological descriptions” (p. 41). It is the way we take the world to be that explains our behavior. In other words, the functional descriptions of the behavior of animals are not psychologically neutral; rather, they reveal cognitive attitudes of a being, in this case animals. Using Rowlands’ example, when a dog performs a play bow to initiate play, we cannot see that the dog is initiating play but we can see the dog doing it – that is, we see psychological states of the dog. As Rowlands puts it, then, “If we want any sort of illuminating science of animal behavior, we should acknowledge that our primary access to the minds of animals is not through inference but through perception” (p. 46). This, Rowlands makes clear, is not a solution to other human or animal minds, but rather dissolution.

Still the skeptic may object that while humans are conscious, animals are not. Rowlands explains that there are three strong arguments to establish the existence of phenomenal consciousness in animals. One is an evolutionary argument that considering the enormous evolutionary continuity between humans and animals, it would be very unlikely that only humans were phenomenally conscious. The second is that animals exhibit an acceptable behavioral index of phenomenal consciousness. In other words, the behavior of animals clearly indicates that they have mental contents. The third is that animals have the same neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substances as humans required for having conscious experience.  

Rowlands proffers some interesting arguments and illustrations to show that observing the behavior makes it plain that “animals have beliefs, desires, and other content-involving states” (p. 82). We know this because explanations of their behaviors typically work. Rowlands here presents an argument to counter the Davidson-Stich objection that mental contents are, as it were, anchored to us. Rowlands shows that even though we may not know the specific contents of an animal’s desires and beliefs, we can explain the behavior of an animal in terms of beliefs and desires. The point is that we can explain the behavior of animals using mental contents that they may not entertain as long as such contents are related to the contents that they do entertain. To give Rowlands’ example, when his son was only two years old, he would light up at the sight of a squirrel, or squirrel activities, by uttering the word “squirrel!” However, at that age, a child does not have an accurate notion of squirrels as warm-blooded mammals that eat nuts, and so on. We have no precise idea of what a two-year-old child believes about squirrels and seeing squirrel activities.

Nevertheless, we can explain such a behavior by saying that the child believes that there is a squirrel, up in the tree for example. Explaining the behavior of a child (or an animal) by attributing a mental content that the child (or animal) cannot have is legitimate, Rowland explains, as long as the explanation satisfies two requirements: (1) the truth of the content used in the explanation guarantees the truth of the content he entertains; and (2) the content used in the explanation shares narrow content with the content that the child (or animal) entertains.

Rowlands continues whittling away the notion that only human beings are persons by discussing the capacity of animals for causal and logical reasoning. He gives many examples of animals that understand causal relations. It is interesting to note that these animals are not only the good ole and oft-cited great apes. Even smaller animals such as birds are capable of causal reasoning. Rowlands mentions crows understanding that if they drop pebbles into a container with water, the water rises as more pebbles are dropped into the container, and understand that it is not the same for containers of sand or sawdust. Also, birds and other animals are capable of creating and using tools. I can think of beavers building a dams – beat that! Furthermore, he considers logical reasoning. I do not think that these are distinct, though Rowlands presents them as such. I don’t think they are because in order to reason causally, one, by definition, reasons logically. Perhaps the distinction here should be between inductive reasoning (A will lead or cause B) and deductive reasoning (B necessarily follows from A). I found this chapter disappointing, not because the chapter is bad or uninformative, but rather because, in my view, it is necessary to give arguments to show that animals can reason logically and causally – they clearly are. Now this does not mean, and Rowlands makes it clear, that animals can be logicians. In other words, it is not necessary that animals understand Aristotle, Venn Diagrams, the law of excluded middle, and other formal rules of logic in order to reason logically. The fact is that they do and they show it.

So far, Rowlands has shown that animals are conscious and engage in causal and logical reasoning. In the remaining chapters he argues that animals are self-aware, and that they recognize others as persons. The issue of self-awareness is central to Rowlands’ overall argument. In fact he devotes five chapters to it. The argument looks something like an extension of Locke’s conception of personhood. Essentially Locke argues that a person is a thinking being that considers itself the same being enduring in time and in different places. Following this rationale, Rowlands makes a distinction between two forms of self-awareness: one is intentional and the other non-intentional or, as Rowlands labels it, pre-intentional (p. 125). What’s the difference? In a nutshell, functional, adult human beings possess intentional self-awareness. This form of self-awareness requires metacognition, i.e., thinking about thinking or, “when I perceive, I am aware of perceiving” (p. 117). Rowlands suggests that the intentional model of self-awareness is phenomenologically implausible because, accordingly, whenever I perceive, I would have to have a higher-order awareness that has as its object my perceiving or thinking. (This, by the way, could lead to an infinite regress.)

However, this is not, in fact, the case. Most of the time, when I perceive I do not perceive myself perceiving. As Rowlands puts it, “Most of the times I simply get on with perceiving things or thinking things” (p. 117). This mode of self-awareness, pre-intentional, Rowlands argues, is essential in the possession of intentional self-awareness.

Chapter 9 is a very technical and dense discussion to the effect that being a person requires mental unity. I cannot possibly do justice to such a sophisticated argument. The conclusion, however, is that “the only version of self-awareness that could confer unity on a mental life is pre-intentional self-awareness” (p. 175). It follows that many animals’ mental lives are unified. And if having a unified mental life is essential to personhood, then many animals can be persons. Pre-intentional awareness does not require metacognition, but involves being aware of an object, episode or process as a certain thing or way. This requires that a subject could have certain expectations or anticipation regarding how the appearance of change occurs with respect to bodily and environmental contingencies. For example, if I see an object as a book (Rowlands’ example), it is because I understand that the appearance presented to me will change depending on certain circumstances and contingencies, i.e., the book rotates or falls off the desk, etc.  

The last two chapters are, respectively, about other-awareness and personhood, and how it matters why animals are persons. Regarding awareness of others, Rowlands relies on the principles developed in the previous chapters, which show that one can be pre-intentionally aware. That is, since it is possible to be pre-intentionally aware of oneself, then it is also possible to be pre-intentionally aware of others. Other awareness is the fourth condition necessary for personhood. It is the ability to recognize others as persons. According to Rowlands, pre-intentional other-awareness is “the mirror image of pre-intentional self-awareness” (p. 192). Many animals, according to Rowlands have the basic capacity to distinguish things that have a mind and things that don’t. Therefore, many animals are persons. In other words, animals are individuals that possess consciousness, cognition, self-awareness, other-awareness, and have a unified mental life – that is, the basic ingredients of what makes up a person.

Rowlands ends the book with a very short moral conclusion: it is time to open our eyes and accept the fact that many animals are persons. Which ones? Well, that’s an empirical question. Most animals, especially those that people normally eat, are living creatures with whom one can communicate cognitively and emotionally and find out about their needs and wishes. It is not hard to understand animals’ body language. Rowlands conclusion reminds me a lot of the feminist-care approach in animal ethics. (See Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams, The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics, Columbia University Press, 2007). Josephine Donovan, for example, suggests that humans should pay attention to the needs of animals by connecting with them, by listening to them, and learning about their opinions. This experience can make us realize that we have marginalized animals and treated them as property and as food. Sometimes in philosophy we make things more complicated than they have to be. The message that I get from Rowlands is that the question of our relationship with animals is very simple: pay attention to the way animals behave. They are persons. They deserve to be treated as such.

- Carlo Alvaro, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at New York City Technical College and is the author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul (2019).

Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Ethical Veganism

Editorial Note: Cross posting from our sister Bibliotekos site the story of an
ethical vegan, philosopher Carlo Alvaro; this might be of interest to ASEBL followers.  The profile draws in part from Alvaro's book, Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul (Lexington Books, 2019).

Click HERE to go to the profile.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Unsustainable life? Essay and photo by Wies Hurkmans - Venture Lab in Experimental Arts and Humanities

Editor’s note: As part of the Evolutionary Studies Collaborative at St. Francis College, Gregory F. Tague initiated a Venture Lab in Experimental Arts and Humanities contest. Without reciting the detailed guidelines here, in a nutshell students at the college were asked to produce a hybrid writing/visual media work product that addressed this question: Emphasizing evolutionary ideas, how can we restore our biosphere, mitigate ecosystem degradation, or reverse extinction of rainforest plant and animal species critical to the sustainability of global climate health? What appears below by Wies Hurkmans, winner of the contest, represents an answer to the question.

Author’s bio: Born in the Netherlands, Wies Hurkmans was able to expand her cultural horizon after moving to the U.S. She has had the honor of traveling to a number of countries throughout the years. Now, after twelve years in the U.S., she is enrolled as a Pre-med Biology major while playing Division I volleyball at St. Francis College. In the summer of 2018, Wies traveled to and lived locally in Costa Rica for two months. This is where her interests on the protection of rainforests and its inhabitants began. Under the guidance of professors, Wies traveled to national parks (Corcovado, Carara, and Santa Rosa) and was embraced by a family in Monteverde.

Unsustainable Life with Degradation of Rainforests

Essay and Photo by Wies Hurkmans

Home to an estimated 8.7 million, flourishing species, a vulnerable future on earth is being generated as rainforests are uprooted by the development of innovative technologies and money-thirsty corporations. These most productive land masses found across the tropics are responsible for the vast majority of non-renewable resources, such as clean water, demanded by the ever-growing population and increased global consumption. Destruction due to agriculture, deforestation, and ecotourism are leading the remaining fifty percent of rainforest area to be demolished. In these areas, demolition provides a steady income for developing countries that are highly dependent on resources produced by cash crops and cattle ranching. The rainforests, however, function to provide the entire human population with necessities for survival; this includes the uptake of carbon dioxide and plants with medicinal compounds. Therefore, extreme measures for conservation must be implemented and backed up by proven statistics to portray the unsustainable, average human life style before earth is depleted of the resources we, as humans, desperately rely on for survival.

Annually, rainforest declines have totaled 78 million acres, which is 200,000 acres every day and 150 acres every minute. The greatest predators of land are directly wired to large corporations seeking to fulfill the demands of consumers, a market that is drastically increasing due to higher standards of living. Deforestation, for this purpose, is linked to the production of cash crops, animal farming, and tourism. Due to cash crops, produced for commercial export, like coffee beans and jackfruit which can only be grown in tropical environments, businesses thrive by clearing vast land areas, or habitats, that are made up of nutrient rich soil. In the same way areas are cleared for animal farming. Both of these incomes allow for money and resources that are shipped to foreign countries, but to add onto the concerns, this is directly related to an increase in toxic fumes and runoff. Toxicity soaks into soil and is mixed with nonrenewable water sources that are consumed by species hundreds of miles away. Many tropical countries, therefore, do not recommend tourists to drink unfiltered water due to contamination that supports the high standard of living. The developing countries are affected most as the rich pay for imports which in return leaves their land untouched.

Tropical plant and animal species are no match for the human power that is destroying habitats sustaining hotspots with endemics. As stated, there is an estimated 8.7 million species, which is widely contradicted to be lower or higher, but since species are going extinct before scientists can study an individual of the population, an accurate number is unidentifiable. Extinction is most prominently due to the destruction of habitats which leads to vulnerable species easily predated upon as they become more exposed. One of the animals that has foreseen danger is the white-faced capuchin, or Cebus imitator (Figure). Their advanced capabilities for adaptation has brought them to the tree tops where they are able to flourish. With continuous deforestation, however, this species will be one of the next on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species. The loss of this specific species will lead to the decline of plants that are dependent on these foragers’ seed dispersion. These evolutionary relationships can be spotted across the tropics, where species are unable to successfully reproduce if the human population destroys their pollinator, disperser, or food source. Over the course of time, crucial species for Homo sapiens survivability will decline around the globe as plants with medicinal compounds and animals with nutrient supplies are neglected.

Also known as carbon sinks, plants in the rainforests are responsible for removing almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide released by humankind. Not only do they keep the global temperature constant by decreasing the foreseen increases in temperature, but, as stated prior, medicinal compounds found within the species are necessary for the human population to survive; plant compounds are found in almost a quarter of modern medicine. Without the uptake of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen through photosynthesis, the air quality will be depleted to an uncontrolled extent and will lead to global warming. Oxygen is necessary for respiration and also acts in the protective layer in the ozone (O3) against ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The thinning of the ozone layer will increase UV radiation and can become the leading cause of eye implications as it burns through the cornea. Therefore, degradation of the rainforest will not only lead to extinction but also to physical damage. From air quality to food sources these eukaryotes, multicellular organisms made up of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), are the backbone of human well-being.

Throughout the latest slice of the Holocene epoch, or arguably the Anthropocene, tourism has developed into a colossal, prosperous business. To make it sound nature-friendly, “eco” has been added to the title. This term is a disguise for the complete destruction of land to build magnificent architectural hotels with nothing less than exquisite luxury. A regular eco tourist’s day begins with a long hot shower, a breakfast too big to finish, and then a bus to take them across town to one of many attractions. By the end of the early morning, various nonrenewable resources are discarded as unnecessary amenities. On the other hand, tropical countries make a huge chunk of their income from this business and have developed crucial ways to shrink the human footprint. This includes solar panels to reduce energy impacts, recycling of water, and even lectures that can be attended to learn about rainforests and the protection of them.

There have been leaps taken to provide a future for rainforests. Lectures, for example are a great way to educate people of all ages. One of multiple success stories began with a United States biologist working in Monteverde, Costa Rica, who traveled to Sweden to spread her obtained knowledge. There, while teaching a group of students, interests sparked and a desire to protect bloomed. Known as Bosque Eterno De Los Niños (BEN), or Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the students are at the core of the fundraising that has totaled protection of more than twenty-three thousand hectares of biological treasures. In addition, constructed parks have kept tourists out of notorious areas without failing to see the extravagant features of the tropics. Trails and tours are a source of protection while supplying locals with a significant income responsible for park rangers and an increase in the local standard of living.

Studies have predicted a great downfall in earth’s ability to sustain life if humankind continues this abuse. As rainforests are cleared, species lose their habitats and food sources, establishing many species as endangered. How would the human race secure an altered fate? Even with advanced adaptability, low oxygen levels and the loss of nonrenewable resources will just be the beginning of a long list of exploitation that is unfolding. Agriculture, deforestation, and ecotourism must be controlled to provide earth time to replenish. In the eyes of money-thirsty corporate organizations “time is money,” therefore strict laws will be one of the only ways to strip them of their overdue abuse. Led by an increase in knowledge, no change is too small as ripple effects can travel across towns and spread beyond just personal gain.

Figure. Photo of Cebus imitator taken in Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica. As the troop passed by the campground their curiosity brought them down from the canopy into the understory layer of the forest. 

Works Cited

Seeker. “What Would A World Look Like When the Rainforests Disappear?” Seeker, 11 Feb. 2017.

Black, Richard. “Species Count Put at 8.7 Million.” BBC News, BBC, 23 Aug. 2011.

Taylor, Leslie. “Saving the Rainforest: A Complex Problem and a Simple Solution.” The Raintree Group, Inc.

Essay and Photograph copyright©2019 by Wies Hurkmans – All Rights Reserved