The Great Chain of Being

The Astronomer by John Vermeer (1668)

For a long time now I have been trying to work out the philosophical underpinnings of my views on animals, which I do not believe differ that greatly from other people’s. By which I mean the views of the vast majority who think it’s okay to keep pets, use fly spray, eat meat and yet refrain from slavery. murder and cannibalism. Here is a sketch of how those metaphysical underpinnings might be laid out, although it lacks the rigour and structure of an academic treatise. I am not trying to illuminate the path every step of the way and counter every possible movement of dissent. The destination is already known to be the right one, I am merely shining a torch down the path as I go along it.

I hold the view – derived from Aristotle, codified and made Christian by the Medievals – that there is a Scala Naturae, ‘Chain of Being’, which accords certain creatures a morally higher status than others. As an atheist, I’ve dispensed with God (along with the angles from Seraphim to Principalities) leaving Man at the top. From Man, there is a line coming down through mammals and birds, via reptiles and amphibians, onto the invertebrates, and thence beyond the Animal Kingdom into Plants, Fungi, Protists and Monera.

It is immediately obvious why this offends some people: it sounds an awful lot like saying that certain peoples, cultures or ethnicities are better than others, an illiberal thought if ever there was one (and I am a classical liberal, in the John Locke sense, rather than a new liberal, in the John Rawls sense.) Firstly, saying “morally higher status” in this context is very different from saying “better”. I am not claiming that animals at one end of the chain are “better” than animals at another, as in more virtuous, more blessed or even more likeable. I am not even prescribing how people should view animals. I am making the descriptive claim that when you feel bad for running over a dog, but not a bee, this is why. Bees are deeply alien creatures with their hives, workers, drones and queens, but it is not for being different that I rank them lower than dogs, but because I have strong reason to believe they lack any significant inner life. To take a rather rudimentary proof of this, here is an example of their lack of inner life as manifested by their behaviour (as described by Richard Dawkins):

Honey bees suffer from an infectious disease called foul brood. This attacks the grubs in their cells… There are so-called hygienic strains [of bee] which quickly stamp out epidemics by locating infected grubs, pulling them from their cells and throwing them out of the hive. The susceptible strains are susceptible because they do not practise this hygenic infanticide. The behaviour actually involved in hygiene is quite complicated. The workers have to locate the cell of each diseased grub, remove the wax cap from the cell, pull out the larva, drag it through the door fo the hive, and throw it on the rubbish tip.

[When the biolgoist WC Rothenbuhler crossed the two strains]. He found that all first-generation hybrid daughter hives were non-hygenic: the behaviour of their hygienic parent seemed to have been lost… When Rothenbuhler ‘back-crossed’first-generation hybrids with a pure hygienic strain… he obtained a most beautiful result. The daughter hives fell into three groups. One group showed perfect hygienic behaviour, a second showed no hygienic behaviour at all, and the third went half way. This last group uncapped the wax cells of diseased grubs, but they did not follow through and throw out the larvae. Rothenbuhler surmised that there might be two separate genes, one gene for uncapping, and one gene for throwing-out. Normal hygienic strains possess both genes, susceptible strains possess the alleles — rivals — of both genes instead. The hybrids who only went halfway presumably possessed the uncapping gene (in double dose) but not the throwing-out gene. Rothenbuhler guessed that his experimental group of apparently totally non-hygenic bees might conceal a subgroup possessing the throwing-out gene, but unable to show it because they lacked the uncapping gene. He confirmed this most elegantly by removing caps himself. Sure enough, half of the apparently non-hygienic bees thereupon showed perfectly normal throwing-out behaviour. (The Selfish Gene, 1976, pp. 60-61)

What Dawkins does not dwell on, because that is not his purpose as a biologist, is how astonishingly mechanistic such behaviour is. What could possibly be going through a creature’s mind such that the mere fact of one its parents possessing a single gene would lead it to dig out and slaughter its own diseased younger siblings? Or the absence of that gene lead it to sit idly by while they infect and destroy its entire hive? The utter lack of awareness, reason and freedom, the lack of anything going on ‘inside’ – the lack of a soul if you like – are why I don’t pity fallen bees. On the transition from living bee to dead bee, nothing seems to have been lost other than mere locomotion for locomotion’s sake.

A dog, on the other hand, shows a consciousness of its surroundings, an intelligence in dealing with them (within limits), and a boundless liberty of spirit that require no experimental proof (although there is plenty of that). When a dog dies, something passes, something is lost. In the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s terms, I can come to understand that there was something that it was like to be that dog. With the bee, I simply cannot.

However, the dog is not a human. Indeed, although there is something it is like to be the dog, it is less than it is to be a human being. In every test we can devise to see if dogs have any awareness of their own existence – self-consciousness- they fail. For example, the famous red-dot test designed by Gordon Galllup has been used to show that they can’t recognise themselves in mirrors (essentially an odourless red dot is placed on an anaesthetised, unconcious animal in a place only visible to it by using a mirror), although apes, elephants and bottle-nose dolphins can. Equally, they don’t appear to realise that their thoughts and knowledge are not accessible to other consciousnesses around them – Theory of Mind – whereas, arguably, the great apes do (Prof. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, formerly of Georgia State University and now of the Iowa Great Ape Trust, has done interesting work on this with the bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha. I covered my time with the three of them in an essay for the Financial Times in 2004 and have reprinted it on my blog here.) Whilst I am happy to assert that there is something it is like to be a dog, I do not for a second believe that I can actually imagine it. And I have tried. I will never forget sitting in an empty pub with a wonderfully alert and intelligent (and well-mannered) border collie called Finbar and wondering what he actually saw in that room. A room full of tables and chairs? No. Those categories of object are simply not accessible to him, not least because he would have no idea that the tables and chairs had been made by humans. So did he see them as some sort of highly regular, naturally occurring environmental ‘furniture’? Again, this makes no sense because “naturally occurring” only makes any sense as a concept if you know what artificial means – these concepts are defined in contra-distinction. So, a room full of existent objects extended in space and time then? Well, yes, perhaps, but I for one have no idea what that looks like. I see them as tables and chairs and that’s just it.
There is also a more nuanced but related argument, made by the philosopher, logician and founding father of cognitive science, Hilary Putnam. He says that while a dog may have some sort of proto-concepts, it can never have a full concepts. His reasoning goes as follows:

The real point is this: human beings are reflective creatures. Human beings are able to think about their own practice, and to criticize it from a number of points of view. If I have a thought and act on it, I can later ask whether my thought was successful or not, whether it achieved its goal, whether it contributed to my well-being, my satisfaction, and so on; but I can also ask whether my thought was true or not, and this is not the same question. I may decide that one of my thoughts was successful in enabling me to maximize my well-being, but was not in fact true. I was deceived, but the deception was a fortunate one. No such cognitive performance is possible in the case of the dog. For a dog, the very distinction between having a true belief and having a successful belief simply does not make sense; and that means that the notions of a dog’s thought as being true or false, and of its proto-concepts as referring or not referring to something, simply do not make sense. A dog can recognize that something is illusory only in the sense of encountering a disappointment. If something looks and smells like meat, but turns out to be made of rubber, then when the dog tries to chew it, it will experience disappointment. But the idea that even a successful encounter with ‘‘meat’’ may have succeeded although the belief was false is inapplicable in the case of dog. (Renewing Philosophy, 1992, pp. 30–31)

And this is even more true with regards to time. As Wittgenstein famously asked, “A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe his master will come the day after tomorrow?” (Philosophical Investigations, 1953, p.174) Without that structure of time, the idea that Finbar has hopes and dreams about his future that will be thwarted and evaporate with his untimely passing simply makes no sense. I’m sure he’d like to chase more rabbits in the sense that, if there was a rabbit placed in front of him, he’d chase it with great delight, but I’m afraid unless he’s scratching at the door of the farmhouse one cannot meaningfully say, “Finbar wants to catch more rabbits in his life.” I may have my entire consciousness focussed on the bull in front of me, without a quantum of thought to spare for anything else on pain of death, and yet it remains true that I want to finish writing my book. This is a vital difference in terms of what death takes away from me as opposed to him. As every first year acting student is told, the gravity of tragedy is the stakes. Should Finbar be granted a ‘deathbed’, would he be wracked with regret over the unwritten books, the unborn children, the cities never visited and the lovers never met? No. Friend of Finbar that I am, I am afraid that he would not. I realise that it will grate on the dog-loving public, but there really is less going on in Finbar’s head than in yours, mine or his owner Lucy’s. When the ‘lights go out’, less is lost.

This is also one of the reasons why the system of rights that devolve from my political liberalism cannot be extended to a dog. Isaiah Berlin gave perhaps the most pithy statement of liberalism when he said:

Members of one culture can, by the force of imaginative insight, understand (what Vico called entrare) the values, the ideals, the forms of life of another culture or society, even those remote in time or space. They may find these values unacceptable, but if they open their minds sufficiently they can grasp how one might be a full human being, with whom one could communicate, and at the same time live in the light of values widely different from one’s own, but which nevertheless one can see to be values, ends of life, by the realization of which men could be fulfilled. (‘On the Pursuit of the Ideal’, New York Review of Books, March 17, 1988, §4)

I may regard the Aztec practice of human sacrifice with a combination of contempt and horror – pluralism is not relativism after all – but I do understand it and can put myself in the shoes of all involved, even if I would rather not. However, whilst I can love a dog, and there is something which it is like to be him – which is why he has priority over the bee – I cannot imagine what it is like to be him when I try it with any seriousness or rigour (by which I don’t mean in the facile sense of ‘imagining’ you will find in Call of the Wild or Watership Down). And this is because there is so much less going on mentally that the mentality itself is not accessible to me. Which is why humans have priority over the dog.

So, having shown three links separated by moral status, it is clear that there is a chain here, but is it a single strand or many? And how long is it? And is a chain the best analogy since it seems to me that an animal can appear in more than one place on it? I may place a lion higher than a wildebeest – in short because one has more going on ‘within’ than the other – however, that does not mean I would prevent a wildebeest from killing a lion. Nor vice versa, of course, which is the inescapable corollary of the arguments of animal rights proponents (whatever they may publicly claim to the contrary).

The prime example of this sort of reasoning being the philosopher Mark Rowlands, whose memoir of his life with his pet wolf Brenin I reviewed for Prospect (available here). What I didn’t mention in the review was that he forced his pet wolf into vegetarianism, an obvious absurdity I have no need elaborate on here.

So, how does this justify the fighting of bulls in Spain? Well, because I believe it justifies the eating of meat by humans, and, as I show at the end of the post ‘Rights and Wrongs of Bullfighting’, that has far more terrible welfare consequences than bullfighting. As for laying out this philosophical underpinning much more detail than that: well, that is what I have spent most of my life trying to work out. And progress has been terribly slow. I’m not sure I’ve moved forward more than a few intellectual inches since I wrote this post on the subject on Prospect magazine’s blog in 2007. However, as it stands at the centre of our ethical dealings with the natural world, it is by definition ‘worth’ the effort.

See thro’ this air, this ocean, and this earthAll matter quick, and bursting into birth:Above, how high progressive life may go!Around, how wide! how deep extend below!Vast chain of being! which from God began;Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,Beast, bird, fish, insect, who no eye can see,No glass can reach; from infinite to thee;From thee to nothing.–On superior powersWere we to press, inferior might on ours;Or in the full creation leave a void,Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed:From Nature’s chain whatever link you like,Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, I, 7 (1733)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

1 thought on “The Great Chain of Being

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