"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

Let's between us make the world a better place.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Sentient beings and vegetarians

Yesterday I wrote of no news being good news. If we change the order of this maxim that served my mother so well for so long, we could say “Good news is no news” and that makes me think about the media business generally, where it is certainly true to say that papers and other news media tend to sell to our voyeuristic tendencies and emphasize the bad news before the good! This then tends to portray a pessimistic view of the world and its problems, whereas we all know that there is plenty that is good about human nature and life generally.

lions prideIn the animal kingdom, the same thing seems to be happening. The films of predators chasing and catching their prey are full of excitement, and make better television than endless shots of prides of lions or herds of elephants just lazing around enjoying the company of the group. This fact, says animal behaviourist Jonathan Balcombe, gives us a false impression of the natural world of prey versus predator. It is not all "nature red in tooth and claw," the expression of the day used by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850:

"Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

In Balcombe's recent book Second Nature: the Inner Lives of Animals, packed with anecdotal and experimental evidence, he shows us why he believes that animals can feel emotion, have a memory and a sense of their own lives, and even feel mental as well as physical pain. In fact the animal kingdom is much more sentient than many would like to believe. This of course has enormous ethical implications for us as humans and for our relationship with animals.

Animal cognitive science is a rapidly growing field and there is even a journal, the Animal Cognition Journal. Balcombe points out that our treatment of animals lags far behind our knowledge of them and this is an ethical issue that we all need to take on board. Balcombe has been a vegan for 30 or so years. I have been a vegetarian for several years now. Something in the order of 75 billion animals are killed to feed us each year. As I have written that sentence apparently 10,000 chickens have been killed to satisfy our appetite for meat. Quite apart from the feeling that I do not want animals killed to feed me, the world simply cannot sustain us any more at the top of the food chain. Meat is an extremely inefficient source of our food and energy when one considers the plants that have to be used to fatten the meat that we then eat.

I turned to a vegetarian diet after seeing the most beautiful large tuna being unloaded with winches from the fishing boats in Playa Santiago in La Gomera. What right have we, I thought, to allow these lovely creatures suffer to satisfy our diet when there is no need. Then I watched the lads fishing at the same port, and I watched with dismay as they threw their catches on the pavement and left them to thrash around until dead.

There is increasing evidence around that fish suffer, that they feel pain. See for example First Science.com Just because we have always done something does not allow us to continue to behave the same way unquestioningly. We do have choice and with the fish supplies dwindling in the oceans perhaps we should think more about making these choices to prevent unnecessary suffering and to increase sustainability, ultimately for the good of us all.

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