Speciesism, Evolution & Cruelty to Plants

Recently, I heard the term speciesism used for the first time. For those who aren’t familiar, speciesism is mostly used by animal rights advocates, who argue that speciesism is a prejudice similar to racism or sexism, in that the treatment of individuals is predicated on group membership and morally irrelevant physical differences. The argument is that species membership has no moral significance (Ryder Speciesism).

As an athlete who eats a lot of meat, I struggle to reconcile my lifestyle with the ethics of treating animals poorly. On one hand, I’m confident that my nutritional protocol helps me feel and perform better, but on the other, I’m not sure I should end other beings’ existence for my supposed betterment. I’m mindful of the animals I consume: I buy organically raised and humanely treated bison, cow, elk, lamb and chickens from farmers I know and trust; I use virtually every part of the animal including organs, tail and bones; and I treat every meal as though its sacred, taking the time to sit without distraction and appreciate each bite. However, I’m cognizant of the counter argument that a slave owner treating slaves with respect does not neglect the fact that said slave owner enslaves people. I might eat happy animals, but I’m still responsible for their death.

When considering evolution, humanity wouldn’t have survived to this point without eating animals. Through our intelligence, we had the opportunity to seize a spot at the top of the food chain, and we did just that. Had we not developed the tools and manipulated nature to our advantage, we wouldn’t be here to contemplate the morality of our current state. As an organism, we grew and got stronger by eating other organisms. What organisms were most advantageous for us to consume? Animals, of course. Animals are more nutritionally dense and provide more energy for us. So, if you’re to invest time into attaining energy, you’ll get the biggest reward by going as high on the food chain as possible. With all that said, I recognize the hierarchical structure of the food chain and the similarities it bears to the racial, gender and sexual preference hierarchies that were accepted without question up until recent decades. Will we one day look back in disgust at “speciesists” the same way we now look at racists, sexists and homophobes?

As humanity evolves, our wrongdoings become apparent, which begs the question: are our wrongdoings wrong at all if we can’t recognize them as such until we view them in hindsight? Or, are the things we eventually perceive as wrongdoings a necessary step in our evolution? Must we live through these experiences in order to learn from them? How much of our modern day thinking is subject to the hindsight bias? For example, as much as I’d like to believe that had I been alive in the 1600s, I would not have owned slaves, perhaps I would have. Slavery was ubiquitously accepted at the time, and though I’d like to think I would have led an abolitionist movement, I can’t be sure I would have. The wrongness of owning slaves is only so obvious from our modern day perspective. And even still, slavery was largely responsible for building a world economy, something we all benefit from.[1]

How many things do we do today that will be viewed as archaic, or even barbaric, by future humans? I can imagine a future in which eating animals—though a necessary step in our evolution—will be widely shunned or outlawed. I’m sure many of us suspect that non-renewable energy sources—though a necessary step in our evolution—will be done away with in favour of clean energy. Or, how about the acquisition of certain materials required to build our various electronics? Many of the materials that power our cell phones and computers are processed by disenfranchised third world workers in toxic environments. Hopefully, we’ll evolve beyond this reality as well. And, who knows what other injustices we’re committing that future generations will view with a critical eye? To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, known unknowns, but there are also unknown unknowns. Put another way, there are things that we know that we know (e.g. we know the sky looks blue), things that we know that we don’t know (e.g. how to affordably convert salt water into drinkable water), and things that we don’t know that we don’t know.

Neuroscientists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel famously conducted a study in which they divided kittens into two groups: the horizontal group and the vertical group. The horizontal group was subjected to an environment consisting only of horizontal lines: the wallpaper, the clothes worn by their handlers, everything these kittens saw were made of black, white and coloured horizontal stripes. Contrastingly, the vertical group lived in an environment consisting only of vertical stripes. After weeks spent in these artificial environments, the cats were let out and the results were fascinating: the horizontal cats could only see horizontal lines. They could see windowsills and the seats of sofas, but they were blind to the legs of tables and chairs. The cats would crash right into the legs of the tables and chairs since their brains had devoted all of their vision neurons to one orientation while neglecting the other. Similarly, the vertical cats had no problem navigating around table legs, but they could never find a seat or windowsill to rest on. Hubel and Wiesel’s experiment invites the question: what are humans blind to—not just visually but philosophically? If we’ve never been exposed to an idea or the framework in which an idea operates, are we capable of thinking it?

Today’s activists against speciesism might advocate veganism, but are plants not species too? In fact, something most gardeners know is that plants experience pain and arguably emotions, which scientific studies demonstrate as well (watch this video if you’re interested: http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/amazing-plants/0/136361?4). Eating vegetables being an injustice against plants is a notion distant from most people’s thinking, but perhaps eating plants is cruel and we just can’t hear our cauliflower scream when we rip it from the Earth. Maybe future generations will think we were uncivilized for eating animals and plants. If we consider the idea that artificial intelligence could replace the human race, it becomes less far-fetched: robots don’t need to eat. Or, perhaps humanity will persist but in a more cyborg like form with robotic anatomy and organic minds. Those future generations wouldn’t need to consume organic matter, but they would probably realize that the consumption of organic matter was a necessary step in their evolution.

Maybe it makes me less evolved, but for the time being, I’m going to continue eating meat and plants. They serve me well—at least, I think they do—and I enjoy them a great deal. I’ll end this reflection with a quote by Edward Burtynsky from Manufactured Landscapes:

I think many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t necessarily want to give up what we have, but we realize what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep. It’s not a simple right or wrong. It needs a whole new way of thinking.







[1] Though admittedly, perhaps we’re all still recovering from the psychological trauma.