Archive for May, 2009

A Case for Vegetarianism

May 26, 2009

For me, it all boils down to one question: do animals feel pain in a way that I and others would recognize as pain?  That requires a nervous system and especially a functioning brain, so for fungi, plants, and lower and immature animals, the answer is no.  Even with this definition there is plenty of meat I think most of us would pass on in most situations, including dear Rover who just died of old age, developed embryos of most species (as opposed to eggs), and senile Granny.

But if an animal can feel pain, if I owe it any rights at all, I owe it the right not to have pain inflicted on it by me or on my behalf.  Ok, so admittedly, we could confine ourselves to eating those higher animals that died of old age—but that would immediately cut down the supply of meat and dramatically increase the price.  To have a mass market in meat, we will have to kill animals in their prime.  Is there, then a pain-free way to kill an animal?  “Sure,” you reply, “when Coco was dying from cancer last year, we took her to the vet, who gave her a couple of shots and she just went to sleep; we all cried a lot, but Coco didn’t suffer!”  Nice try, but those chemicals would make an animal unfit to eat.

Historically, the “best” way to kill larger food animals like cows and pigs was to hoist them up by their rear legs, slit their throats, and let them bleed to death, since meat tastes better with the blood drained out of it.  Nowadays the food industry uses putatively more humane methods, such as inserting an electrified needle into the animal’s brain, which is supposed to kill it almost instantly.  “Supposed to,” of course, since it doesn’t always work, which is why they have to keep baseball bats handy….  I don’t think even the meat industry claims their methods are absolutely cruelty free (if they were so terrific, why don’t we use them for human executions instead of our current methods), but simply as humane as possible.  Is that much consolation, you think, to the animal in pain?

Of course, the cruelty is not limited to end-of-life issues in agribusiness.  Take a sheet of writing paper and fold it in half.  That’s approximately the size allotted to the average chicken on a typical chicken farm, that is to say, very nearly the size of the chicken itself.  The chickens are kept in wire mesh cages their entire lives, seldom or never seeing the sun.  As you know, birds’ feet by default curl, so as they grow, it’s not uncommon for the immobile chickens’ feet to grow into the wire mesh.  To keep the birds from pecking each other to death, the farmers often amputate their beaks.

Cows are fed mainly a diet of corn, which their digestive systems were not designed to handle.  Among other side effects, this leaves them with weakened immune systems and vulnerable to infections, so they are commonly given antibiotics (and bovine growth hormone to fatten them for market faster, too).  Tip: those routine antibiotics are a major part of the reason we’re seeing the growth of super bugs like MRSA that won’t respond to most antibiotics.

In breeding pigs to grow as fast as possible, a genetic defect was introduced such that when the pigs panic, their flesh begins to melt down and becomes unfit for human consumption.  Anyone who’s owned a pet pig can tell you that they are very intelligent.  Apparently quite a few of them figure out what’s happening on the way into the slaughterhouse and there’s enormous waste.

A normal, healthy human adult can get all the protein and every other nutritional need from plant sources with an eye on nutrition; it’s even easier if you allow animal products like eggs, cheese, milk, honey, or even shellfish, etc.

Eggplant lasagna, anyone?

Is Dr. Who Human?

May 1, 2009

I’m afraid I’m not going to have any easy answers on this one.  We have an intuitive sense of what separates the human from the non-human, but pinning it down exactly turns out to be a much more difficult task than it at first appears.  Let’s try some obvious and classical answers.

Humans are rational.

No.  Lots of animals have more rational capacity than newborns, the demented, and some of the mentally challenged.  Besides, if you’re talking computational ability, do you really want to propose a PC as human?

Humans use language.

No.  Creatures as simple as bees use gestures and pheromones that are arguably a kind of language.  Chimps have been taught to use at least rudimentary sign language, and have even been observed teaching it to their offspring.  Admittedly, it’s hotly contested what constitutes linguistic usage and the depths to which chimps genuinely grasp syntax, grammar, and all the rest, but clearly animals communicate with each other and with us.

Humans use tools.

No.  At the very least, chimps in the wild have been observed using sticks to collect ants–then scoot the ants up with their hands and gulp them down in one motion.  Yum!  I seem to recall primates, possibly even birds, using stones to crack nuts and mollusk shells.

Humans are the genetic descendents of the first Homo sapiens.

What?   You say you mean WHOLE organisms?  How whole?  Do amputees not count?  They do?  Then just HOW whole?  What if science were advanced enough to preserve the life of a person whose body had died, but whose brain lived on in a vat?  Would she still be a person?

But aren’t you being a little ethnocentric confining the human family to Homo sapiens?  How about those other branches on the human family tree closest to us, especially the Neanderthals?  I suspect most people would identify them as human, too.  Good thing, as many people believe many modern humans are partially descended from them, although this isn’t yet documented.

And when you start talking about genetics, you’re really opening a can of worms, of course.  We talk about THE human genome as if it were one thing, where there are countless known variations; let me discuss two of the better-known ones:

Down’s Syndrome is when a person has all or part of an extra copy of chromosome 21.  It usually causes mental retardation (although my Philosophy of Biology professor claimed that when she taught at Stanford she had a student with Down’s with an IQ of 140!) and a host of other mental and physical problems, but also a propensity towards less depression than typical.

XYY Syndrome is when a male has an extra Y chromosome.  According to Wikipedia, “most often, the extra Y chromosome causes no unusual physical features or medical problems.”

Since people with Down’s Syndrome or XYY Syndrome are genetically different from your typical person, are they really human?  I think most people would say yes.

And back to Dr. Who (and all the other fictional alien characters literature has given us, who hold a mirror up to our humanity, yet whose ancestors usually did not even spawn in our same oceans), who perhaps we will one day be privileged to meet in person.  Although genetically and internally he is certainly very different from us, yon Time Lord outwardly looks like us, reasons like us, has bad hair days like us, is subject to moral failings like us, uses tools far in advance of us, in short, seems to be meaningfully like us in every way that should count.

So, without a working definition, I want to say yes, I think if the Time Lord will accept us as company, we should accept him as human.