Saturday, 13 March 2010

Second Nature – Jonathan Balcombe ****

That four star rating is a compromise – this is a book with a five star theme and important messages, but it’s just not very well written, so that drags the rating down.
The first key part of the message is that animals feel much more than we credit them with – the whole gamut of emotions – and because of that we should treat them better than we often do. The second part is that we ought to consider eating less meat, for our own health, because of the impact on global warming of meat production, and because of animal welfare (though as Jonathan Balcombe himself points out, this is often better in Europe than the US – there is a movement in the right direction).
The problem with the book is the way this message is put across. Firstly, a huge proportion of the book consists of repetitious examples. How this animal, after this animal, after this animal all demonstrate feeling this way. It often comes across as a massive attempt to persuade by anecdote, anecdotes which after the 100th get a bit boring. Secondly, there’s the way Balcombe tries to argue we ought to treat animals better, because human beings don’t have a special position.
This is hard to take seriously. He employs the old ‘we haven’t evolved that much’ argument – clearly he hasn’t read my book Upgrade Me. It’s a painfully narrow biological view that suggest a creature that has gained the ability to fly, to ‘run’ continuously for hours at 70 miles per hour, to communicate almost instantly to the other side of the world and to receive (through books) communications from people who died thousands of years ago hasn’t evolved. We are a totally different kind of creature.
I think a useful way of looking at this is to think of human responsibilities instead of human rights. The outward looking concept of responsibilities is, I would say, a much more productive approach than the usual one of rights. We all ought to take our human responsibilities seriously. But if you think we are no different from the other animals, you ought to be able to apply the same thinking to them. Let’s take cats. When are they going to take seriously their responsibilities to the hundreds of millions of birds they terrify, torture and kill each year? (I notice that when Balcombe is going on and on about how caring animals are, he doesn’t mention this kind of behaviour.)
So, yes, we ought to respect that fact that animals are sentient and to treat them well. Yes, we ought to look at ways to reduce meat consumption. Yes, we ought to do away with sadistic activities like bull fighting and hunting for ‘sport’. But Balcombe is on a hiding to nothing when he tries to suggest there isn’t some sort of hierarchy. Not necessarily a biologically based one, but a hierarchy nonetheless. People are different from animals and need to be put higher in the chain of responsibilities. A dog is different from a fish, and again needs to be put higher. And so on. There’s no advantage to be gained from pretending otherwise, and it makes it difficult to take the important messages of this book seriously.
Review by Brian Clegg

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