Created from Animals
by James Rachels

This book is a defense of humane treatment of animals based on implications from Darwin's theory of biological evolution. It is worthwhile for its brief summary and appreciation of Charles Darwin's life. Darwin has amazing powers of observation and attention to detail.
"His technique seems to be to overwhelm the reader with examples, as if to say: if you don't like this one, here's another that you might like better." p. 133
He was way ahead of everyone else. Modern science is still trying to catch up with him. This book is also worthwhile for its clear descriptions and arguments for the moral implications of Darwinism.

Sociobiology

Imagine that someone proposed eliminating the study of mathematics, and replacing it with the systematic study of the biological basis of mathematical thinking. They might argue that, after all, our mathematical beliefs are the products of our brains working certain ways, and an evolutionary account might explain why we developed the mathematical capacities we have. Thus 'mathobiology' could replace mathematics. Why would this proposal sound so strange? It is not because our mathematical capacities have no biological basis; nor is it because it would not be interesting to know more about that basis. Rather, the proposal is strange because mathematics is an autonomous subject with its own internal standards of proof and discovery. Consider the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra, which we know to be true because of Gauss's proof. 'Mathobiology', if it existed, could add nothing to our understanding of the theorem or the proof. It would be irrelevant to determining whether the proof is valid or invalid, because that is something that can only be established within the framework of mathematics itself.

The deep reason for resisting the substitution of sociobiology for ethics is the conviction that ethics, like mathematics, is (as Thomas Nagel puts it) 'a theoretical inquiry that can be approached by rational methods, and that has internal standards of justification and criticism.' This means, first, that the observation that our moral capacities are connected with the operation of the hypothalamus and the limbic system is irrelevant to ethics in the same way that the observation that our mathematical capacities are connected with other parts of the brain is irrelevant to mathematics. Moreover, it means that particular ethical issues--such as whether male-dominated social arrangements are desirable or undesirable--are to be determined by the application of rational methods, and standards of criticism and justification, that are internal to ethics itself. That is why sociobiology can no more tell us whether sexist practices are a good thing than mathobiology could tell us whether Gauss's proof is valid. Although it might make significant contributions to our understanding of moral phenomena, the idea that sociobiology can explain ethics 'at all depths' is, for this reason, mistaken. p.78-79

Teleology

Darwin's great contribution "was the final demolition of the idea that nature is the product of intelligent design." p. 110 ... all that was needed was random variation and natural selection." p. 112

Aristotle's assumption was that everything has a purpose. p. 112 The rain falls, not of necessity, but in order to make plants grow. p. 113

"The Aristotelian account saw nature as governed by principles of value: water leaves its 'proper place' to prevent a vacuum from forming because vacuums are 'abhorrent.' These terms were not meant as metaphors or convenient ways of speaking, as comparable terms might be for a modern physicist. p. 114 "By the middle of the eighteenth century, the ideal of the physical sciences was to be 'value-free,' to understand nature as it is without any assumptions about how it ought to be. In the physical sciences, teleological explanation was out." p. 115
In fact, God has provided evidence that makes it reasonable for us to believe that the earth is 4.6 billion years old. And since it is reasonable for us to believe this, it follows that it is reasonable for us to believe that the creationist hypothesis is false.

Much the same can be said about the theistic interpretation of the evolutionary process, when it is construed in the open-ended way that guarantees compatibility with all possible evidence. Suppose God is somehow involved in the process that evolutionary biologists since Darwin have been describing. This would mean that he has created a situation in which his own involvement is so totally hidden that the process gives every appearance of operating without any guiding hand at all. In other words, he has created a situation in which it is reasonable for us to believe that he is not involved. But if it reasonable for us to believe that, then it is reasonable for us to reject the theistic interpretation. p. 125

Freud said:

"Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of 'God' to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, not withstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines." p. 126
The concept of God as a loving, all-powerful person, who created us, who has a plan for us, who issues commandments, and who is ready to receive us into Heaven, is a substantial concept, rich in meaning and significance for human life. But if we take away all this, and leave only the idea of an original cause, it is questionable whether the same word should even be used. By keeping the original word, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are talking about the same thing. p. 126

A just and all-powerful God would not create beings to suffer for no purpose. The suffering of humans could be explained (or so it was thought) by associating it with the doctrine of the Fall of Man: human suffering is the consequence of Adam's sin. But animals are not descended from Adam, and have no share in Original Sin; moreover, they have no hope of Heaven, which could redeem their earthly suffering. Thus the pain of animals is apparently an intractable theological problem. Darwin, as we have seen, thought about this problem and concluded that God probably does not exist. But what solution was there for those unwilling (or unable) to draw this conclusion? The solution favored by many was to deny, against all apparent indications, that animals suffer. p. 130

Altruism

But, even for humans, being altruistic does not necessarily involve forming the idea that it is good to be altruistic, or that one is morally required to act altruistically. Being altruistic only requires desiring that others not suffer, and acting on that desire, even at cost to oneself. Animals may not form abstract conceptions, but they do have desires, and apparently it is a powerful desire of the rhesus monkey that he should not cause suffering to others of his own kind. p. 150
'Kin altruism,' as it is called, leads individuals to care for their relatives just to the extent that those relatives share the individual's genes. This explains why we are especially concerned for the welfare of our children and siblings, somewhat less for our cousins (who share fewer of our genes), and even less for strangers. p. 155

The point is not that individuals calculate how to ensure the survival of their genes--no one does that. The point is that these are types of genetically-influenced behavior that will be preserved by the same mechanism that preserves the polar bear's warm coat, the finch's well-shaped beak, and any other advantageous characteristic. p. 155

By far the most powerful kind of altruism, even among humans, is kin altruism. Even when people do show unselfish willingness to help strangers, their preference for helping their own kin remains very much stringer: our non-kin altruism is so weak that when an affluent American gives a few hundred dollars to support famine-relief efforts, while spending thousands to send his children to an expensive university, he is judged to be exceptionally generous. p. 157

It is significant that all the most impressive examples of non-kin altruism are from the so-called 'higher' animals--humans, monkeys, baboons, and so on--animals in which the power of reasoning is well developed. In the 'lower' animals we find only kin altruism. This seems to confirm Darwin's speculation that the development of general altruism might go hand-in-hand with the development of intelligence. p. 157

Moral Sense

Darwin said:
"Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man." p. 160
To have a moral sense was to have a capacity for second-order attitudes--attitudes that have one's other attitudes as their objects. p. 160
... the dog cannot desire to have a certain attitude, and he cannot regret that he has certain attitudes. A man, on the other hand, can want something (I want to hurt the person who hurt me) and at the same time can regret that he wants it (I disapprove of myself for wanting revenge, and wish that I had a more generous temperament). It is this capacity for approving or disapproving of one's own attitudes that constitutes one's conscience. p. 161

Darwin's account goes something like this: suppose a man does something, out of fear or hunger, that violates his moral principles. Then he reflects on what he has done. The social instincts are permanent and persistent; but particular desires come and go. Therefore, when he reflects on his past conduct, his social instincts are still with him, but the particular desire that, at the time of action, overwhelmed the social instincts, is fading away. Thus he regrets what he did. This after-the-fact reflection is what we call conscience and the fact that the social instincts are stronger at the time of reflection, even if they were not stronger at the time of the event, explains why such reflection results in their endorsement. p. 162

Moral Individualism

... "how an individual may be treated is to be determined, not by considering his group memberships, but by considering his own particular characteristics." p. 173

Taken as a description of human beings, the claim that all are equal is plainly false. People differ in intelligence, beauty, talent, moral virtue, and physical strength--they differ in virtually every characteristic that might be thought important. p. 175

(Except they are all moral agents and have the same basic rights.)
... surely we do not want all people to be treated in the same way. A doctor, for example, should not always prescribe the same treatment for every patient, regardless of what ails them. ... like cases should be treated alike, and different cases differently. ... treating people differently is not objectionable if there is a relevant difference between them that justifies a difference in treatment. p. 176

... if it is permissible to cite any old difference between individuals as relevant, our principle is utterly empty ... whether a difference between individuals is relevant depends on the kind of treatment we have in mind. A difference between individuals that justifies one sort of difference in treatment might be completely irrelevant to justifying another difference in treatment. p. 177

We admit humans, but not non-humans, to universities; and this is perfectly all right because the non-humans cannot read, write, or do mathematics. Here humans and animals are in different positions. But suppose we ask, not about admission to universities, but about torture: why is wrong to cause an animal needless pain? The animal's inability to read, write, or do mathematics is irrelevant; what is relevant is its capacity for suffering. Here humans and non-humans are in the same boat. Both feel pain, and we have the same reason for objecting to torturing one as to torturing the other. p. 179

Because a chimp is a curious, intelligent creature, it can easily suffer from boredom, and so some observers have criticized zoos for confining chimps in sterile unstimulating environments. A chimp, they say, should not be placed in a bare cage with nothing to do but stare at the walls. Shrimp, however, are not curious and intelligent in the same way. Therefore a similar complaint could not be lodged about how they are treated. Because there is a relevant difference between them, it seems permissible to treat shrimp in ways that are objectionable where chimps are concerned. p. 179

Does the fact that someone is a rational autonomous agent make a difference in how he should be treated? Certainly it may. For such a being, the self-direction of his own life is a great good, valued not only for its instrumental worth but for its own sake. Thus paternalistic interference may be seen as an evil. ... The fact that a child is not (yet, anyway) a fully rational agent justifies us in treating him differently from how we would treat someone who is a fully rational agent. p. 185

Which is important to us--life in the biological sense, or life in the biographical sense? Plainly, the latter seems more important. Our lives are the sum of all we hold dear; our projects, our activities, our loves and friendships, and all the rest. Being alive, by contrast, is valuable to us only in so far as it enables us to carry out our lives. This is most evident when we consider the extreme case in which a person, while still alive, has lost the capacity for having a life, such as a person in irreversible coma. Being alive, sadly, does such a person no good at all. The value of being alive may therefore be understood as instrumental; being alive is important to an individual because it enables him or her to have a life. p. 199

... killing an animal that has a rich biographical life might be more objectionable than killing one that has a simpler life. This corresponds fairly well to our pre-reflective intuitions. We think that killing a human is worse than killing a monkey, but we also think that killing a monkey is a more morally serious matter than squashing a bug. p. 209

The researchers are caught in a logical trap: in order to defend the usefulness of the research, they have to emphasize the similarities between the animals and the humans; but in order to defend it ethically, they must emphasize the differences. The problem is that one cannot have it both ways, p. 220

Year Read: 1997


Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on September 26, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to royhalliday@mindspring.com.