Sunday, March 20, 2011

Axe to grind much? A review of a review of "The Moral Lives of Animals"

Book Review: The Moral Lives of Animals -

Shorter Budiansky: "Don't be fooled by those damned, dirty apes!"
(Image via

The deeper problem, as Mr. Peterson more frankly acknowledges, is that it is the height of anthropomorphic absurdity to project human values and behaviors onto other species—and then to judge them by their similarity to us: 'It's like dressing elephants in tutus,' he writes. Nor is Mr. Peterson so enamored of the natural world that he is blind to the very disturbing things that animals can do. Along with a lot of too-familiar accounts of sexy bonobos, empathetic elephants and cooperative hyenas, he offers less often heard tales of the ugly truths that reign in the animal world. These include brutal infanticide in lions and horrific violence and cannibalism among chimpanzees. In one famous case, observed by Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee named Passion repeatedly kidnapped the babies of other mothers and, with the help of her own children, consumed them.
Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum of opinions on whether animals have any rights of any kind that humans should observe, it shouldn't be hard to spot the dressed up straw men in Mr. Budiansky's review.

Out of the gate he makes his opinion clear, any attempt to ascribe any kind of mental processes we would normally associate with humans (compassion, intelligence, self-awareness, fear, experience of suffering) is mere anthropomorphism. My problem isn't so much with the opinion, because what I suspect what his real concern is that people might think animals have souls, and I agree with him -- but I'd go one more step further and tell him not ascribe eternal, magical qualities to human consciousness either. Again, I'm assuming his position is animals don't have souls and humans do. I could be wrong, but I don't think so; his thinly veiled animosity towards those engaging in research into the mental process suggests a faith-based objection. (He acknowledges the theory of evolution in the review, so I don't mean to imply he is Creationist, and I suppose I may be projecting a bit myself here in speculating on his opinions based on this one article.)  Let me be clear and upfront though, just because I don't believe humans or animals have eternal souls doesn't mean I believe all bets are off and we should construct one big meat grinder and throw every thing in it to make hamburgers either. I believe animals do have certain rights (not to be tortured by humans, for one) and humans have certain rights (not to be tortured by other humans, for one, but also the right to bargain collectively) which humans ought to respect.

So, with my own assumptions disclosed, let's take a quick look at the techniques Budiansky uses to make his point. He starts by giving examples of anecdotes that he asserts scientists and popular writers put forth as evidence of the humanity of animals. He includes Dr. Jane Goodall as an example of one who puts forth these types of anecdotes, and with his clucking tone, derides the lot for engaging in such childish simplicity.  Yet, later, when it suits his argument, he trots out another example of Goodall's, this time to show that animals are merely savage, cruel beings who'll cannibalize babies of their own species and shouldn't be mistaken for being anything like us.

So where does this argument from anecdote get us? Nowhere. He's right, for every instance of perceived animal compassion, we can find many more instances of animal savagery. But is it fair to characterize Dr. Goodall's work as offering anecdotal evidence to convince us of the humanity of apes? No. And he knows it. Dr. Goodall is not saying animals are human, she has argued though that they exhibit behaviors that are evidence for their having more intelligence, and emotional capacity, than was formerly ascribed to them. She is not saying chimps are humans, all she is saying is in that they are capable of some mental processes that were once thought to be exclusive to humans.

And yet, the whole of Mr. Budiansky's review is the throwing up of straw men, then tearing them down and presenting his straw man as proof of the opposite position. He seems to be arguing that every sign of intelligence we observe in animals is proof rather of their animal cunning, the ability to repeat certain behaviors to obtain a reward. He has no problem critiquing stylistic choices as evidence of the author's intellectual laziness, yet himself takes a series of arguments and dismisses them out of hand:

" ... Let's call that the principle of anatomical continuity ..." No, let's not, especially since few of these terms prove to mean much of anything on even slightly closer examination.

Well, this is a long-ish review, maybe one such "slightly closer examination," wouldn't have been out of place to make your point? Instead we get a couple of paragraphs giving examples of questionable use of italics, capitalization,  and what Mr. Budiansky sees as insufferable showboating about the places the author has been. Tone is important, and there's a place for using the pricking pin to take the snobbery of writing, heck, I'm all for that, but I'd like to see more than snobbery and insufferable tone offered in defense of your criticism.

Mr. Budiansky is on the right path when he writes:

Despite having begged the question of human exceptionalism at the start — by dismissing the sense that we are different as mere "Darwinian narcissism" — Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts.

He goes on to discuss scientific efforts to formulate a theory of mind but quickly slips back to simple dismissiveness, highlighting study results that back his opinion, making no mention of ones that don't.

There is room here for discussion about what it means for humans and animals to have similar, but different, mental processes without painting everyone that thinks questions of human and animal suffering are appropriate to inquiries into human morality as having made the mistake of thinkings animals are more than they are, or humans less. Just because (most?) humans appear to be capable of mental processes that (all?) animals are not, doesn't necessarily mean we don't have moral obligations to animals. We almost certainly are the sole moralists in nature, but demanding a quid pro quo of animals before accounting for their suffering seems a bit like egocentric judgment.

I suppose now that I've read through this review and see that Mr. Budiansky has written about dogs, I'm going to have to have to read up on him a bit. While I've been critical of his review and methods, I cheerily credit him for being an engaging and strong writer. (Despite what I perceive to be his errors of judgment, I have to admit his review is written with far more skill than I've managed to bring to bear here against it, and I do like good writing.)

Update: Mr. Budiansky has a blog and is a self-proclaimed liberal. I would've guessed by the WSJ publishing his review, and content of it, he swung the other way. Interesting. Think I'll actually start reading there ...
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