Rational Animals?

Ashley Thorne

Arctic bears aren’t the only heat-wave-endangered group. Scientists are getting scorched too—at least those scientists whose research involves experiments on animals.

In February this year, animal rights activists set off a firebomb on the front porch of Edythe London, professor of psychiatry and of molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California at Los Angeles. Later that month, bandana-faced assailants attacked the home of a woman who uses mice for breast cancer research at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The most recent incident, also directed at UCLA, happened at the beginning of June: Animal Liberation Front (ALF) set fire to a University van used to shuttle commuting UCLA faculty members.

ALF admitted the torching in a note posted in the magazine Bite Back. Well, “admitted” isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like “boasted.” Bite Back has a diary of actions on its website, logging away worldwide animal rights victories. Among them you’ll find entries like,“Greece - 250 RATS LIBERATED FROM UNIVERSITY LAB,” “UK - ARSON ATTACK TARGETS OXFORD UNIVERSITY,” “USA - UCLA VAN GOES UP IN FLAMES.” One of these stories was about a Welsh research institute targeted for its tests on animals. Activists raided the campus, spreading Japanese knotweed, “a very destructive weed that spreads very easily,” across the grounds, and “Butric acid was spread in toilets, changing rooms and library.” Apparently, “the smell is very hard to remove and boy, does it smell.”

I suppose it is good to have some evidence that the ALF is not just a collection of fire bugs, intent on burning science to the ground. But there is something strikingly childish about this organization. Unable to mount arguments that have convinced more than a fringe, they launch themselves on a path of wanton destruction. 

What reeks more than butric acid is the activists’ all-justifying anger. These are “I can’t stand by and do nothing” people who skip picketing and letter-writing, and instead take out their frustration with firebombs. Driven by a kind of extremist moral imperative similar to those that lead radical pro-lifers to bomb abortion clinics and Muslim jihadists to fly planes into buildings, animal activists would rather face a 30-year jail sentence for arson than see universities pursue medical or scientific research on lab mice.

Both the Bite Back and the ALF websites are full of pictures of animal rescuers, but the pictures don’t make icons of their human heroes, who are outfitted in black head socks like executioners or bank robbers. Or IRA killers. Or KKK raiders. Or the Grim Reaper. Some pictures seem to aim for a precious moments look, with animal rescuers cradling puppies and piglets in their arms. But tenderness somehow just doesn’t come through. The masked man may be petting a puppy at the moment, but you get the sense he would shrug with indifference if his antics killed a night watchman or incinerated a child. 

Animal Liberation Front had a link to a 2005 documentary called Earthlings, which Aint It Cool News called “the Passion of the Christ of animal rights films.” Narrated in the monotone voice of Joaquin Phoenix, the film seeks to show the connections between nature, animals, and humankind, all of which are “earthlings”—inhabitants of the earth. “There is no sexism, no racism, or speciesism in the term earthling,” Joaquin intones. “By analogy with racism and sexism, the term ‘speciesism’ is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” These lines gave me a clue as to the motive behind the raids and arsons. Speciesism, a term I’d never heard before, corresponds with exploitation and oppression of the weak, like rape or slaveholding.

“Speciesism”—if we are going to indulge the term—runs deep. Many trees, including maples and pines, blot out the sunlight beneath them to kill off other plants that would compete for nutrients. Recently botanists have shown that some plants, such as the sea rocket, will leave alone members of their own species, but attack the roots of other species (“Loyal to Its RootsThe New York Times. June 11). Animals likewise defend themselves as species, not just as individuals. There is good biological reason for this. Few of them can—like Joaquin’s namesake, the phoenix—burn themselves up and start over. Species are certainly biased in favor of themselves, an instinct without which they wouldn’t survive. 

But let’s not indulge the term. We don’t need it. “Speciesism” is a specious idea—and the analogy with racism and sexism doesn’t hold. Species are not are not like oppressed sub-populations within human societies. Sea rockets, rhubarbs, variola viruses, and earthworms do not have the prerequisite intelligence and moral agency to suffer oppression. Humanity may well have good reason to protect the store of earth’s plants and animals, but that has nothing to do with overcoming a “bias” in favor of ourselves.

Discovering a “bias” in need of overcoming is, however, the dominant form of moralism on campus. AFL and it kindred organizations, of course, are creatures of the university as it has been recast by the academic left in the last few decades. The animal liberationists, with their smattering of philosophy, inflated image of themselves as romantic revolutionaries, and grandiose moral claims could exist nowhere else but in the penumbra of a failed liberal arts education. That’s why their targets are almost always scientists. Among other things, the animal liberation movement is about the intellectual resentment of the semi-educated towards their intellectual betters. Equal rights for earthlings means to the earth-firsters that the dandelions and mole rats are on their side. Take that, you lab-coated speciesists.

The notion that “bias” is the great evil in the universe plays out on lots of topics besides lab rat and puppy dog experimentation. We’ve seen the same impulse at work for example in the intervention in residence life programs and in college course material.  These are attempts to weed out biases such as racism, heterosexism, ableism and carbon footprints…ism. But it always turns out that the folks who intervene have biases of their own—against anyone who disagrees with them.

And in the case of animal defense, activists generally value animal life more highly than human life. ALF’s humor page included bumper sticker material like, “Save an animal. Encourage hunters to drink and drive.” In its credo, ALF claims to be a nonviolent group, with “activists taking all precautions not to harm any animal (human or otherwise).” But setting fire to a college van, attacking a researcher’s family at home, and leaving a firebomb on a front porch—these are not peaceful protests.

The National Association of Scholars defends the freedom of rational inquiry in higher education, and we also affirm that the right of university researchers to perform tests on animals falls within that realm of rational inquiry. Let us be clear here. At every college and university where animals are used in research, experimental protocols have to pass through strict review, which generally aims to divert the research to non-animal models where this makes sense, to minimize the number of animals involved, and to ensure their humane treatment. Laboratory animal facilities also come under strict federal and state regulation. Actual abuse of animals in these conditions is rare, though groups like PETA go to extraordinary lengths to suggest otherwise. 

We like animals. We like to see them in the wild, and we don’t think they should be thoughtlessly killed.  But we believe that there is an order to the world where humans take ultimate priority over plants and animals. Like the sustainatopians who put the environment before all else, the activists in their rampage in California have an upside-down view of this order. It is, as Austin Williams would call it, a misanthropic point of view, in which the natural world is the highest concern and man is the problem, spoiling everything. This view also skews how people understand justice.

Earthlings would have us assume that there is no essential moral difference between people, animals, and plants. We are all non-objects with dignity and rights, and no one species can assert superiority over another. But even objects were once part of the natural world, so is a wood shelf the same as a tree, or a wool sweater the same as a sheep? What if you dent your desk or tear your sweater—is that oppression? Where do we draw the line?

Aristotle wrote, “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” Well, whether we behave more like lions or rats, humans are still a higher species than animals. What follows from this is that it is more important to research cures for breast cancer than to save mice.

NAS is running a series of opinions on what higher education should be. We’ve titled this series, “If I Ran the Zoo.” Indeed, the world of academe is like a zoo, with its various prickly, furry, striped, winged, and long-necked disciplines all on display in their semi-natural habitats. Some are docile, some cantankerous. But all should be preserved, protected, and properly fed. A well-kept zoo attracts visitors and lets animals thrive. If wild animals from outside the zoo continually break in and attack a particular type of animal, say, the southern sea otter (or the scientific researcher), then the otter population will die out. Oh, maybe the independent ones outside the zoo will survive, but they’ll be in hiding, and we won’t be able to visit and appreciate them in person anymore.

I expect the next bias to be broken down will be “earthism,” and we’ll all learn that earthlings are no different than those greeting us from other planets. They come in peace, right?

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