Our Evolving Ethics on Animals

This post by Derek Beres originally appeared in Big Think.

As did murder. In his cover story for the latest Scientific American, “The Most Invasive Species of All,” Curtis W. Marean discusses the intense cooperation that took place for humans to emerge at the top of the animal kingdom. This involved killing off any animal that didn’t look like us, even those we were close to. He writes,

Neandertals were perceived as a competitor and threat, and invading modern humans exterminated them. It is what they evolved to do.

Ever since, humans have done the same to any threatening species, any that provided food. Somewhere along the way — perhaps it was early on — our ancestors also started killing for sheer pleasure. When the hunt was no longer necessary, we still hunted. The quest for protein became a quest for trophies.

Last week’s outrage over the killing of Cecil was tragic, given how photogenic the lion was — we certainly are in love with pictures — but what it wasn’t was surprising. Trophy hunting has gotten a bad rap recently, though at the same time, (predominantly) white Americans who can afford tens of thousands of dollars to chase down animals with the help of rangers has been going on for decades, if not centuries. I’m never sure why one animal sets off our cultural trigger while thousands of others do not, but such is the case.

Turn the other cheek? Hardly. My social media feed was filled with vitriol and disgust to the point of violence. Many wished the dentist/hunter harm, death, jail, unemployment — his Yelp page has turned up a barrage of negative reviews, which, like it or not, has nothing to do with his dentistry. We take twisted pleasure in seeking justice, even if we never leave our living room to actually do anything about it. Laptop as soapbox.

The story disturbed me as well, the way that the death of any animal for pleasure is troubling. But we have this genetic inheritance for murder that extends far beyond killing our cousins. The Gadhimai temple in southern Nepal, for example, has a twice-a-decade ritual slaughter that in 2009 saw the death of 500,000 buffaloes, chickens, goats, and others. The festival, it was just announced, is done with the killings after its 2014 edition.

While that fete’s demise points to progress, the 10,000 dogs killed each year in Yulin will see no such fortune. Activism has ramped up — man’s best friend tugs at our heartstrings more than chickens and goats — whenever I tell someone about this festival, their disgust is palpable. The growing outrage is part of the understanding that we needn’t kill a sizable portion of the 56 billion land animals that die for our sustenance and kicks each year. At the moment, that equals eight animals for every human (not including sea life).

Yes, most other animals kill for survival, but humans take unique joy in murder that far surpasses evolutionary necessity. There’s a large disparity between taking out the Neandertals to capture land and aiming a gun or bow at a lion so you can put its head on your wall. The “spiritual” argument holds little weight: One ranger on the Cecil hunt stated that it is an honor for an animal to be killed in such a way. Easy to say if you’re not the animal being tracked, slowly dying over 40 hours.

The separation between our reality and the reality of the rest of animal life — the “man given dominion” nonsense — is a façade that’s slowly eroding. Killing other animals for survival is part of our heritage. You can argue whether or not it’s necessary in this day and age — I have my thoughts on it, but that’s not the point — but hunting for a perverse sense of superiority or some weird spiritual connection — I wrote about Christian hunting on this site before — we will hopefully evolve out of.

The signs are pointing in the right direction. The pleas for justice over Cecil’s death are part of a larger movement as we, as a species, move toward a stronger connection with the Earth that birthed us. Climate change has helped us understand that the planet’s resources are not something we can easily lord over without consequence. We’ve played that role atop the animal kingdom for 50,000 years now, and the shift away from it is a most welcome one.