What your inner ape tells you about apes

One of the things I’ve learned from teaching a course on Animal Rights for many years is that most people (not excluding myself) are confused about animals. They are animal lovers but also on some level they think that animals don’t matter too much.

This combination of feelings sometimes makes it hard to engage people in debates about ethics and animals. There’s this well of feeling in practically any Animal Rights class that surges up from time to time. The gut feeling is “so what?”

I’ve been reading some books and articles over the summer that do a lot to explain the “so what?” reaction. To understand it, oddly enough, you’ve actually got to understand what humans and animals have in common. We share a proto-morality with apes, according to the primatologist Frans DeWaal. (Primates and Philosophers is a good introduction to the whole subject of morality and animals.)

Apes have a sense of reciprocity—if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. They even have a sense of fairness. They don’t react well to getting a lesser reward for some performance if they see a peer getting a greater reward. We’re much the same, and De Waal believes that all of morality in humans starts from basics like this.

The very elementary morality we share with apes goes deep. It’s rooted in our genes and closely allied with our emotions. But it only takes us as far as concern for members of our own group. Strangers, people in other nations, and especially members of other species, are beyond the group.

Because we are not just apes, we are capable of feeling concern beyond our group, but that means going way beyond the deep-seated, emotionally-rooted morality we have in common with apes. We have to use “reason,” which is much more fragile and involves a much greater effort.

We can see, for a moment, that animals matter just like human beings, but it’s very natural to fall back to feeling that they don’t matter much at all. Taking animals seriously means resisting the very strong pull of our genes and emotions.

The resistance in an Animal Rights class is thus due (partly) to the fact that we are animals. We don’t think apes matter (all that much) because of our inner ape!


Two and a half planets

I was reminded of "ethical price tags" today (see my post on 6/21) by an article in the Sierra Club magazine. Instead of reflecting and deliberating about each and every decision we make, we'd do better to take stock of larger things, like a lifestyle, or a household, or a neighborhood. But how to do it? The good people of Vancouver, Canada are trying to hold down the ecological footprint of the city. To that end, they look at neighborhoods and living arrangements and ask "how many planets would it take if everyone lived that way?"

A new website takes you through a series of questions so you can answer this question about your own lifestyle. It turns out I have a 2 1/2 planet lifestyle. There's a rejoinder to this that's obvious--but not everyone does have my lifestyle, or will. I have the good fortune of living in the most affluent country in the world, and my little corner of it is relatively luxurious (though I don't live in a 40,000 square foot house, like some of the folks across town).

Still, I'm using more than my fair share of the earth's resources if everyone couldn't possibly live like me. Fun concept. Here's the website: http://www.myfootprint.org/


Tomatoes from Holland?

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan suggests thinking of every product at the grocery store as having an “ethical price tag.” It adds to the ethical price of a tomato if the migrant worker who picked it was underpaid and exploited. It adds more if the fertilizers that were used to grow the tomato will have a negative impact on the environment.

Animal byproducts have high ethical costs when the animals are subject to inhumane factory farm conditions. The way they are killed in the slaughterhouse adds another cost. The treatment of the slaughterhouse workers yet another.

Global warming forces us to contemplate more ethical costs. If the product was shipped in from far away, lots of fossil fuels were burned in the process, and lots of greenhouse gasses were released.

A whole library of books would be needed to grasp all of these factors. David Shipler’s book The Working Poor, to understand the mistreatment of migrant workers. Pollan himself on fertilizers. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation on factory farms. Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) on slaughterhouse workers. Al Gore on global warming.

Could you really bring yourself to compute the ethical price tag of each item you put in your shopping cart? I thought about this while walking through Central Market the other day. The place is a pleasure palace filled with tempting possibilities. Just the display of Holland tomatoes had me caught like a deer in the headlights. I couldn’t begin to choose between the little orange variety, the special yellows, the mouth-watering reds. Too confusing. I bought the standard tomatoes that are available at Tom Thumb for much less money.

I haven’t the slightest idea where the regular tomatoes come from, but it did occur to me that I had a reason not to grapple with the bewildering tomatoes from Holland--they were shipped in from awfully far away. (Assuming Holland means Holland, as in The Netherlands.) I couldn’t quite picture it. Do they really load up jumbo jets with tomatoes and fly them into U.S. airports?

What I wonder is this—could I really go through the grocery story computing the ethical price tag for each item? What would it cost me in well being if I did so? I’ve already committed myself to paying attention to the animal welfare component. After adopting a set of general rules for myself, it’s not that difficult. I don’t have to pick up a package of bacon and contemplate its ethical price tag. I don’t pick up the bacon in the first place.

But the undeniable point that Pollan makes is that everything has an ethical price tag, and there are lots and lots of components. How could I pay attention to each and every one, in all it’s gruesome complexity? Wouldn’t I be losing out on an awful lot of spontaneity?

Well, yes. But it seems like a feeble excuse. One solution is to think of a whole store as having an ethical price tag. I know Central Market is full of Holland tomatoes, olives from Australia, fish from South America. I could pass up the whole place and go to the local farmer’s market. Great idea. But what local farmer’s market?

As far as animal products go, Whole Foods is a great option. They’ve studied the ethical price tags for all of their meat, dairy, and egg products, at least as far as animal welfare goes. The humane standards they impose on their producers are not perfect (see Peter Singer’s The Way We Eat for evidence), but they’re a huge improvement on the norm.

With more good decisions at the larger level of stores, institutions, communities, and even nations, an individual could live ethically without fussing and fretting about every tiny little decision, all day long. Wouldn’t it be nice?


The Whales of Alaska

I just got back from a trip to Alaska. What I didn’t know about Alaska: It is all mountains, all spruce trees, full of light, and prodigiously filled with cappuccino machines. My kind of place.

I was hoping to get up close and personal with animals on the trip. In Dallas, I have close encounters with the squirrels in my backyard and regularly tangle with my cats. I also get to see animals behind bars at the zoo regularly. But I was hoping to see animals in the wild. There’s a great video clip of the teeming seas off the southern coast of Alaska in The Blue Planet, with breaching whales, vast schools of herring, flocks of seagulls, marauding orcas. I was also hoping to have some deep thoughts.

Without an underwater camera and the wise voice of David Attenborough, the profusion of life isn’t quite the same, but on our 6-hour tour of Resurrection Bay, the gulf of Alaska, and Holgate glacier, we saw many humpback whales, many orcas, a ton of stellar sea lions, one black bear, a few bald eagles, lots of dall porpoises, some goats, and a lot of puffins.
A not-so-deep thought I couldn’t avoid on the trip is that my ten year old son suffers from sea sickness. Fortunately, he suffers pretty quietly, and without any actual “episodes.”

Deeper thoughts were stimulated by reading The Whale and the Supercomputer before the trip (by Charles Wohlforth). This is a book about all the signs of global warming in Alaska, but there’s a book within the book (and maybe it should have been separate) about Eskimos and whale hunting.

The Eskimos have a centuries-old tradition of hunting whales in the Arctic sea. At the Museum of the North in Fairbanks and the Museum of Art and History in Anchorage there are wonderful exhibits that illuminate just how central whale hunting is to the Eskimo way of life. (There are actually many Eskimo cultures, and the one Wohlforth focuses on is the Innupiat).

The Innupiat hunt bowhead whales, not the humpbacks and orcas I saw in the Gulf of Alaska. The connection to the global warming issue is that it’s getting harder to hunt whales because there’s less shorefast ice extending out into the sea that can be used to get out into a position to watch for migrating whales, and launch the hunt.

Wohlforth sees the threat to whale hunting as one of the tragic consequences of global warming. But from a whale’s point of view, it’s not tragic at all. Seeing whales first hand on the glacier cruise, I was baffled how it is even possible for anyone to kill a whale. What is it about a breaching whale that so totally delights us? The leap into the air seems so free-spirited. It bespeaks sheer, boundless fun. How does a person drive a harpoon into the head of such a magnificent creature?

Wohlforth’s book and the museum exhibits tell the other side of the story. At least at one time, whale hunting was absolutely critical to sustaining life on the perimeters of the Arctic. It really isn’t anymore. Despite the remoteness of villages in Northern Alaska, all the conveniences of contemporary life are available. I appreciate the way that Wohlforth is unsparing in his depiction of the way the hunt is carried out these days. The whale is pursued in metal boats by some of the crews. Communication between crews is accomplished by radio. The whale is finally butchered with the help of chain saws. Innupiat Alaskans today can eat what the rest of us eat; they don’t need to kill whales to survive.

I find it hard to be a four-square, true-blue, 100% animal rights advocate. I can’t completely dismiss the desire of the Innupiat to continue their traditional way of life. I can’t even dismiss the desire of the regular guy we met in Talkeetna to hunt and fish on the weekends. On the other hand, I can’t not see the tragedy of killing whales. And so I feel conflicted.
If the whale hunt ceased, something valuable would be lost. As the whale hunt continues—and it does—something valuable is lost: the individual whales, and possibly (in the end) the species of bowhead whales. For there are only a couple of thousand left, and I don’t trust the Eskimo whale-counters who wish to reassure the International Whaling Commission that the bowhead isn’t in danger of extinction.

Wohlforth argues that people who eat cows can’t, logically, be so deferential to whales. That argument has no force for me, since I don’t eat cows. But I wonder about the underlying thought, especially after watching whales myself. Are all animals to be lumped together, just because they are not human? Or could there be differences that make for moral differences? We think we are pretty special. No cannibalism allowed. But maybe whales are special too.

Why? Is it the fact that they live for 200 years? (Somehow killing a being with a hundred years’ worth of experience seems especially bad.) Or is it their amazing ability to migrate from Alaska to Hawaii in the winter (but then salmon are amazing migrators too). Or is it the mystery of whale communication? Or is it really just an aesthetic magnificence to us that makes it a crime to destroy a whale—a crime on a par with destroying a painting or defacing a beautiful canyon?
I don’t have the answers, but when all is said and done, I’m on the side of the whale. I have a fleeting fantasy of writing fiction one day. I’d like to tell the story of an Innupiat teenager who surfs the web and starts to read animal rights websites. Gradually, he stops being able to participate in the whale hunt. Conflict and alienation ensue and it looks like he’s going to lose his place in his community. But then, somehow, other people start to see his point. The community decides to end the hunt and find some other way to preserve the central place of the whale in their culture. With NSF funds they establish the Innupiat Center for the Study of Whales, which becomes a beacon for international whale research. Everyone lives happily ever after, including the whales.

I’m conflicted enough to think even with such a harmonious ending, there would be something lost as well as something gained. It wouldn’t be exactly the same for the Innupiat. But I can’t bring myself to think that’s not the way things should go.

That’s all for now…and by the way, if you’re an Innupiat teenager with an interest in animal rights, please do drop me a line! I would like to know if such a thing is possible, and what it’s really like.