Sunday, 2 December 2012

A week of books from 2012 - Day #2

Every day during the first week of December, I’m reviewing one of my favourite seven nature books published in 2012. Each book will be presented alongside a ‘perfect partner’, a book that might appeal in case you have a nature-loving friend who’s eager for two books in their stocking this Christmas. The books are reviewed in no particular order (although I am saving my overall favourite right till the end too, just to keep you guessing). The books draw together a wide selection of subjects including zoology, geography, mythology, poetry, history, art, philosophy, storytelling and drama (something for everyone, I hope), each with a strong nature theme.

Please use the comments box to say what you’ve been reading this year, and what books you might recommend on the subjects of wildlife, nature, or plants and animals in general. Or if you’ve got any comments on my selections, join in that debate too! 
Direct links are given to online bookstores, but please don't forget to support your local, independent bookshop - they need you this Christmas!
For yesterday's review, click here.

Day 2 - Book of the day:

Why Animals Matter: Animal consciousness, animal welfare, and human well-being.
Marian Stamp Dawkins
Published by Oxford University Press, 2012.

Available from Amazon and Waterstones.

This is a short book with a big punch.  Upon noticing a book entitled Why Animal Matter, you might be forgiven for thinking that Marian Stamp Dawkins is preaching to the converted (would you read this book if you didn’t think animals and animal welfare are important?), but this is a real polemic that seeks to challenge the way in which many people think about animals, and challenge their reasons for thinking of the importance of animals.

In general, Dawkins challenges most people’s anthropomorphic view of animals – that is, the view that animals’ thoughts and feeling are in some way comparable to human thoughts and feelings, a view which might cause us to argue for high standards of animal treatment based purely on our emotional response. The trouble is, we have no evidence that animals feel anything.  We have no evidence that any animals have conscious experience, and while many appear to us as conscious beings, this may in fact be due to us thrusting our experience onto them as a result of their behaviour.

Now, before you get annoyed and throw the computer out of the window and insist that ‘of course they are conscious – it’s obvious’, these ideas and their benefits to animal welfare need some clarification.  Firstly, the author gives hints throughout the book that she is not a cold-hearted, hard-nosed scientist with no compassion or feeling for animals – she tells us, for example that she is a dog-lover (and has a good deal to say about the welfare of dogs in the later stages of the book).  Most importantly, she argues in general that protecting the animal for the sake of its conscious experience is ‘soft’ welfare – not least because it will only appeal to those who care for the conscious experience of animals, and not for those who don’t.  What we need instead is a set of arguments for animal welfare that are scientifically rigorous, and therefore irrefutable.  Scientists who refuse to acknowledge the possibility that animals are conscious are not ‘killjoys’ as they are often termed: some animals, maybe even all animals, might well have some conscious experience, but that isn’t the point.  For all that anthropomorphism may improve people’s compassion for animals, it can only impair scientific method.  More important arguments can be made for their welfare that take into account the practical implications of mistreating animals:
If you are human, there is no escape from animal welfare. Almost all the goals that the human species is now setting itself—feeding a rising human population, reducing pollution and greenhouse gases, conserving habitats—depend either directly or indirectly on other species and their health. To believe that any of these goals could be achieved without taking into account the well-being of animals is to misunderstand our dependence on them. Their health affects our own health, our food, the medicines we have, and the ones we need, as well as making the earth a good place to live...But if, as seems likely, animal welfare turns out to be one of the best defences we have against diseases that affect humans, its whole status will have to change. Animal welfare will no longer be the poor relation, begging to be noticed. It will be there, centre stage, in discussions on the future of human food production and disasters caused by a blinkered pursuit of efficiency at all costs. [page 124]

If this sounds like a selfish, human-centred attitude towards animals, it is not; in the book’s final pages, for example, Dawkins lists the challenges that we face in campaigning for animal welfare as including ‘culture, religion, and a widespread and deep-seated conviction among people that humans are much more important than any animal’ (my italics).  For those scientists who remain ambivalent to the question of animal consciousness are in no way taking away from the values of those who fight for animal welfare on the grounds of animal consciousness.  Quite the reverse:
It’s important to emphasize...[that] by linking animal health to human health and human well-being, animal welfare is given a powerful, new set of arguments for why it is important. Nothing has been taken away. Those who believe that animals are conscious and should be treated ethically for that reason are still able to go on supporting animal welfare for that reason. It’s just that some new recruits have joined the ranks. Those new recruits—the consciousness-free brigade—are bomb-proof in the face of attack by the killjoys. [page 121]
Arguing for the human benefits of animal welfare is simply a means of arguing that the natural balance of healthy life, all lives, needs not be disturbed, and that an imbalance created in one place through mistreatment of animals can ricochet right through the order of life on earth. 

The final message of the book is that good animal welfare relies on satisfying an animal’s ‘wants’ as well as its ‘needs’.  This is not to say that animals need to be mollycoddled to have all their needs met all the time.  Looking to healthy animals in the natural world reminds us that most are ‘a bit hungry, a bit thirsty, a bit fearful, a bit too hot or a bit too cold for most of the time’, but are able to keep a healthy compromise between each of these wants and needs within their environment.  Nevertheless, this provides a strong argument against the rather narrow idea (all too present much of modern farming) that in order for an animal’s needs to be met, it must simply be provided with the food it needs.  Both wants and needs should be considered together in order for animals to be healthy; simply considering one or the other cannot result in good welfare. 

It’s a strong argument, and one which ends up incorporating a consideration for all aspects of an animal’s existence and welfare, rather than simply following the anthropomorphic stance of an animal looking and behaving in a manner which a human would recognise as constituting happiness.  It’s a book which is intended to provide a challenge to your current thinking without providing a difficult read.  And if you are principally interested in welfare due to your own feelings for animals and nature, this is a book which can only sharpen your mind and deepen your understanding in perhaps the most important areas of the debate for good animal welfare.

Perfect Partner

Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism
Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman
Published by Columbia University Press, 2005

Available from Amazon and Waterstones.

The arguments of Marian Stamp Dawkins against attitudes of anthropomorphism are strong indeed, and very convincing, but all arguments should be viewed from both sides.  Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism speaks from the other side, although I don’t imagine that this is not a side of the argument that Dawkins would necessarily take a strong stance against.  Whilst anthropomorphism might well have limitations when arguing for animal welfare, it certainly finds many uses in modern life (as it has throughout history) and this book explores those uses in a series of chapters, written by a wide range of authors.  As the editors put it:
This is a book about the fact, not the value of anthropomorphism. From a variety of viewpoints—philosophical, historical, cross-cultural, political, economic, scientific, medical, and artistic, the authors explore what might be called the practice of anthropomorphism.
These different aspects are approached under four different headings  - Thinking with animals in:
 1) Other times and places (including ancient India and Victorian Britain);
2) Evolutionary Biology;
3) Daily life (including the human-pet relationship and the advertisement industry); and
4) Film (including the media of science, politics and conservation).
All in all this book makes for very interesting and varied reading, and offers the other side of the argument to Dawkins’ Why Animal Matter, without one book necessarily disputing the central argument of the other.

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