Yesterday I read about a new Channel 4 documentary about animals in the womb, where they have created some interesting computer generated images of what animals look like in utero. Now what I find interesting about this is the reaction to the images by other people on the net (check out the Daily Mail website and read the comments). Some people look at these images and see intelligent life. I however, take a different perspective.
During my recent holiday, I spent some time interacting with a pet dog and from watching its behaviour I entertained the possibility that the dog might have emotions, in the sense that it feels pain, hunger or sexual desire. However is emotion without understanding something to respect? To put it another way. I could build a computer, which when you hit it, it says 'OW' but would I feel bad for hitting it? If the computer asked you not to hit it again, would that really make a difference to how you treat it?
Hitting our computer does not hurt it, in the same way that hitting an 8 year old child hurts the child. Surely most people would agree with that. But then, swotting flies, killing bacteria and stepping on ants is pretty much akin to hurting biological machines. A fly doesn't understand anything about the nature of its existence, it just follows its biological programming (as its ancestors did).
So if humans don't mind killing flies, why does this picture of an elephant create feelings of respect? Because we anthropomorphise all the time. We look at other people and try to work out what they are thinking and why they are doing what they are doing. We look at animals and try to do the same. But this must be incorrect. What it is like to be a fly is a non-question, in the same way as the question, what is it like to be a computer. We are all machines (computers, flies and humans) but some are more sophisticated than others.
So is there a line then, between animals like us and animals not like us? It seems to me that there is very little evidence for anything like human consciousnessin other animals. Because without language and education, how can you 'know' anything? And as I've already said, emotion without understanding or comprehension seems insufficient for respect.
Now, I eat meat. I do so, because I have evolved to do so, but also because I enjoy it. Do I feel bad that cows and chickens are killed for me to eat? No. Because cows don't sit there depressed and lonely, thinking to themselves 'oh, god, please don't let me die'. What the cow is actually thinking is hard to say. But perhaps it's not really thinking at all. And if it is, perhaps it is very simple emotional thoughts with no real understanding of the context.Go Top