July 30, 2008

The ethics of food-3: Evolutionary implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution has, of course, implications for the question of whether we should eat meat. One popular view of evolution lends support to the perceived superiority of humans over other species. This view sees evolution as a ladder-like hierarchy, rising ever upwards to higher and higher forms: as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 352)

In this model, since humans are the most evolved and higher than other forms, it gives us the right to kill and eat other species. In the Christian equivalent of this hierarchical model, that last step up in the ladder was the addition of the soul. But even if we do not take the idea of the soul seriously, the idea that humans are at the apex of evolution can be used to support the exploitation of 'lower' species.

But that linear, ladder-like model of evolution is simply wrong. Evolution is a branching theory, more like a spreading bush. Starting from some primitive form, it diverged into other forms, and these in turn branched out into yet more forms and so on, until we had a vast number of branches at the periphery. All the species listed above are like the tips of the twigs of the bush, except that some (like the dinosaurs) are now extinct.

According to this model, although all existing species have evolved from some earlier and more primitive forms, none of the existing species is more evolved than any other. All existing species have the same evolutionary status. They are merely different. We are not higher or lower than them. They are our cousins.

The actual theory of evolution says that while some species may be considered to be more 'primitive' than others, that word is used in the evolutionary context in a purely technical sense, and not as a measure of any intrinsic worth that might justify killing them. It is not meant to signify that they are inferior in some way but just that their present forms are similar to their ancestral forms. So present-day bacteria and sponges are 'primitive' because they are not very different from the forms that their ancestors had billions of years ago. On the other hand, the ancestors of humans start looking very different just a few tens of millions of years ago, so we are considered to be less primitive.

If humans are just the tip of one particular branch in the tree of life, is there any reason to think of us as special or superior? Religious people who accept this correct view of evolution could still argue that god gave only humans a soul and so the justification for dominating other species and eating meat still exists. This requires the soul (or mind or consciousness) to appear just after the human lineage separated from its nearest evolutionary cousins in the Great Ape family, and seems too much like an ad hoc self-serving rationalization for comfort. In the erroneous ladder model of evolution, the emergence of the soul at the final step was still an arbitrary assumption, but had a little better justification since a ladder-like hierarchy could be used to argue for qualitative differences between the rungs.

If we dispense with the idea that humans are uniquely possessed of a soul or some such entity, the basic question is whether humans possess a moral right to kill and eat nonhuman animals. Philosopher Peter Singer argues that the principle of equality that we apply to all humans should be extended to animals as well. In particular, the interests of animals should receive the same consideration as the interests of humans.

But how would this extension of equality work out in practice? Do we have an obligation to send animals to schools like we do with children? Singer explains:

The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. Whether we do so will depend on the nature of the members of the two groups. The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 29.)

Some philosophers have argued against Singer's view by saying that rights and obligations are inseparable. Humans have rights because they also have obligations. Animals cannot enter into social contracts and thus don't have obligations, so they do not have rights. Wikipedia has a good article that summarizes the various positions on this issue.

Those who disagree with Singer's point that animals deserve equal consideration tend to look for specific markers that distinguish humans from nonhuman animals and thus can be used to grant humans privileged status.

In the next post, I will look at whether we can find such markers.

POST SCRIPT: The right to choose your own name

There is perhaps nothing that is so close to one's sense of identity as one's name. Hence it is odd that our names are bequeathed to us by others.

One of the things that I am really thankful to my parents for is that they gave me a really ordinary name. 'Mano' is a very common name in Sri Lanka. I could never understand people who use this power to name their children something exotic and weird, as in this case where a child was given the name 'Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii'.

Maybe we should create a custom where everyone, upon reaching some specific age goes through a self-naming ceremony where they get the right to choose the name they use for the rest of their lives.


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Your name if extended becomes Manohar - literally "stealer of hearts" - or captivates our senses. That's exotic!

Posted by kural on July 30, 2008 09:23 AM

Actually, my name is Manohar. Almost everyone called Mano in Sri Lanka really has an extended form (Manohar, Manoharan, Manohari, Manonmani, etc.), but very rarely is that the extended form used in practice.

Posted by Mano on July 30, 2008 09:44 AM

That's funny about the name. The opposite side of the coin, of course, is that people with unusual or relatively unique names often feel a sense of affection for their given name because the name is special and unique. My first name used to be extremely unusual (it's rather more common now) and growing up I was rather pleased to have a name that was not just the same as every other kid.

Of course, naturally, I have projected my own experience on my hapless children. When working with my wife to find names that we could agree upon, I only had one "condition" and that was that the name not be found anywhere in the list of the previous year's 1000 most common baby names as articulated by the Social Security system. This way, I could be reasonably certain that each child would be unlikely to encounter anyone else with the same first name among their classmates at school.

I guess it remains to be seen whether my approach will be viewed as benevolent or burdensome by my children. I know people who have actually changed their first name later in life -- a hassle but doable -- so this is always an option. But so far, as young children, all three seem to be very fond of their own names, as far as I can tell.

Posted by Corbin on July 30, 2008 06:26 PM


I think that having an uncommon or unique name is not the problem. It is those names that are clearly not chosen with the interests of the children in mind but to make some sort of statement or to draw attention to the parents.

Posted by Mano on July 30, 2008 09:14 PM

'Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii' thats really funny, not for the poor child though!

Thinking about your suggestion about the self naming ceremony seems to be quite a good idea. However the question is how will be child be identified before they reach the age were they are able to pick a name for themselves? Presumable they will still have to go by a name chosen for them by their parents during their school years (which is when most of the teasing happens!).

Posted by baby names on September 15, 2008 01:40 PM