Origins of the protection of fellow species

Animals on the Agenda - Animal Rights
December 18, 1998

Attired in the bloodstained surplice of the priest of vivisection, (the lecturer) has tucked up his sleeves and is now comfortably smoking his pipe, whilst with hands coloured crimson he arranges the electrical circuit for the stimulation that will follow."

In 1903 the middle classes of London read with shock an account by Louise Lind af Hageby of her experiences as a physiology student at University College London. She was a campaigner against vivisection and her work succeeded in horrifying not just her audience but scientists as well - the latter were dismayed that their research methods had been so rudely disclosed. The scientists sued her for libel but, despite some success, their action enhanced the book's sales: it went through four editions.

The question at the heart of the scandal was this: which of the protagonists represented civilised values? For a century the middle classes had adopted a humane approach towards other species as a mark of enlightenment. Now a group from within their own ranks was extolling vivisection as the route to modern learning.

Hilda Kean traces the origin of today's concerns about animals back to the emergence of this enlightened middle class in the early 1800s. It was a time when London was packed with worn-out horses which regularly collapsed dead in the streets; pigs which shrieked as they were slaughtered behind the home and in the crowded knackers' yards where a gruesome and noisy death was the norm. It was a low point for animals. But London was also filling with their saviours, newly educated people anxious to dispel the habits of past "rude and obscure ages".

Kean describes, with a pleasing balance of anecdote and analysis, the way in which selected species were, one by one, granted extensions of the newly articulated "Rights of Man".

An early entrant to the fold was the London horse, abused with impunity by the cab-driver. "In the whole circle of the habitable globe," wrote campaigners, "there does not perhaps exist a more uncivil set of beings than the majority of men at present plying their vocation as the cab and omnibus drivers of London". This was remedied with the founding in 1871 by their betters of the Cabmen's Mission Hall and of the Horse Accident Prevention Society. Ultimately, there were changes in the law.

This enterprise was aimed as much at humanising the gutter-dwelling cabman as it was at rescuing horses, on the principle that if the men behaved more humanely to their animals they would improve in overall character. And the intriguing theme throughout Kean's book is its questioning of the extent to which animal welfare campaigns were powered by pure animal welfare concerns. In most cases they were linked to other causes such as the liberation of women or children, or the conservation of the countryside.

Kean might have added that a modern example of this reliance of animal welfare campaigns on other human concerns is the BSE crisis of the 1990s, which revealed to an unprecedented number of people the life of an intensively farmed cow. Yet media analysis was exclusively concerned with the consequences of farming for human health with the result that, if the lot of cattle has improved, it is only a coincidence.

Unfortunately Kean gives this episode little coverage. Perhaps she is putting modern campaigners in their place, suggesting by her silence that they are, relatively speaking, less successful than their predecessors. Even if this is so, there is still much that could have been discussed. The book has yet to be written that will help us to contextualise the mink-farm raiders, the continuing death threats to vivisectors and how it became possible to own the patent for a living creature.

Although Kean mentions certain Methodists who have campaigned on behalf of animals, Christian leaders have largely ignored the issue. This is for good reasons, as the honesty of the contributors to the excellent Animals on the Agenda reveals.

After the Fall of Man, God awarded him dominion over other animals. Subsequently, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas seem to have offered us unequivocal licence to do whatever we like with other creatures. Those who challenge this status quo face formidable theological problems. One of the greatest, discussed in an essay in this collection, is how to explain the daily suffering endured by wild animals at the hands of each other. The traditional explanations of human suffering - that it is a consequence of free will or moral development - do not apply here.

Faced with obstacles such as these it is all too easy to conclude that Christianity can offer no insights into pressing ethical problems of how we relate to the natural world. Yet Andrew Linzey's and Dorothy Yamamoto's writers offer in these short and disciplined essays compelling reasons why theologians should try. First, they argue, historical Christian tyranny over the natural world has had disastrous consequences that are now threatening human health. Second, the church is now regularly embarrassed because of its inability to provide ethical leadership on issues such as animal cloning. But, perhaps most profoundly, John Cobb argues that the kind of changes in human behaviour required in order to rescue the natural world take energies "that historically have been elicited only at the religious levels of existence I Enlightened self-interest will not suffice".

Some of the authors take refuge in the vegetarianism that existed before the Fall, a state that must therefore be God's ideal. Others expose various scholars who have made some fascinatingly distorted interpretations of key texts through the ages, claiming that biblical references to animals are merely human allegories.

John Berkman tackles that most anti-animal of organisations, the Catholic Church, highlighting its recent stress on an ethic of "reverence for life". This was born from fears about new reproductive technologies and the increasing acceptability of abortion and euthanasia. Perhaps, in an echo of past alliances, a reverence for animal life could now attach itself to this quest.

Aisling Irwin is a science journalist and author.

Animals on the Agenda

Author - Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto
ISBN - 0 334 032 2
Publisher - SCM
Price - £15.00
Pages - 297

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