Monday, September 24, 2007

Those automatons...

"[Animals] are destitute of reason . . . and . . . it is nature that acts in them [mechanically]." - Rene Descartes (Discourse on Method, Part 5).

This year, I decided to take EEB 311. Although my primary motivation in taking the class was perhaps less than intellectually rigorous - who, after all, would pass up an ST-X that fills a science distribution requirement without a lab - there was certainly an element of me that hoped the class would be an opportunity to connect with like-minded supporters of animals and perhaps arm myself with new ammunition with which to argue that animals are sentient, can feel pain, and can suffer.

Given this goal, the first lecture was sorely disappointing. The professor opened the class with a long admonition against anthropromorphism, and numerous cautions about never imputing human emotions to animals. She showed us a video of a water-buffalo calf being taken by lions and then a mass of adult water buffalo returning, surrounding the lions, and driving them off, saving the calf. She cautioned us not to explain the animals initial flight, and then return en masse, as animals first in fear then mustering up their courage to save one of their own. Instead, what we viewed was an environmental stimulus that triggered genes and hormones in the water buffalo, which eventually built up to the point that they triggered other areas of the brain, which in turn led the water buffalo to return. Descartes was certainly alive and well in the class.

What I see in this is a double standard. While I certainly don't agree with the characterization of animals as furry people, it is disingenuous to treat animals as driven purely by evolutionary characteristics and humans as capable of emotion. At our most basic level, animals and humans are both bags of genes and proteins sloshing around. Yet if I observe humans running from danger than returning to save a family member, I can explain their actions in terms of thought, awareness, and emotion - even though I am not inside their heads and cannot experience what they are thinking. So why, exactly, is it that in the name of science we must set up arbitrary distinctions between animals and ourselves, despite our evolutionary history?

Perhaps the simplest explanation for all these unscientific contradiction is that biologists, just like environmentalists, are the most morally hypocritical with respect to animals. Those that study animals the most, seek to preserve their habitat, and define themselves as "animal lovers" still overwhelmingly continue to consume them. So, I tried to point out that hypocrisy: when our preceptor asked us to bring in a picture of our favorite animal and explain how that animal related to our interest in our class, most people brought in timber wolves or panda bears, and told us how much they loved cute animals. I brought in a picture of a cow, and said I was interested in the class because I wanted to know how scientists and EEB students rationalized denying that this organism did has feelings, self awareness, or a capacity to suffer, yet ogle a panda for hours.

Fortunately, the fire alarm rang just then, so I didn't have to listen to the awkward silence.

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