Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charles Darwin, godfather of terrorism

I had to stop in the middle of Green Is the New Red when I read about a certain report. ALEC has been in the news over the past several months, and its corporate agenda is of course well known. But I was still taken aback to read of their 2003 report about animal rights and environmental activism:
In 2003, ALEC issued a report titled “Animal & Ecological Terrorism in America.” The Private Enterprise Board Chairman at the time was Kurt L. Malmgren, a senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The editor of the report, Sandy Liddy Bourne, would later become vice president for policy and strategy at the Heartland Institute, which calls climate change “scare-mongering.” In a section titled “From Books to Bombs,” the report outlines the history of animal rights and environmental extremism, beginning with Darwin’s publication of The Descent of Man. According to ALEC, the voyage of the Beagle charted a course that led to the Animal Welfare Act and then to the ALF. The next step, the report warns, is physical violence. The authors make this warning repeatedly and dishonestly… (p. 127).
Potter has a link to the report on his site, and it does in fact suggest this:
They are hell-bent on revolutionizing a system of perceived abuse into one that abides by deeply rooted philosophies of fundamental animal equity and environmental preservation. Change has been slow to take root, both politically and within the psyche of the American public. Yet the movement has brought the nation from an understanding of the ethics of animal/ecological welfare to a presumption of fundamentally protected rights. Outlined below is a timeline of this historic and sustained struggle for animal rights organizations:

1859 – Philosophical roots bud as a result of Darwin’s publication of The Descent of Man where he claims, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.”

From Darwin’s initial theories on the nature of animals and other scholarly works concerning environmental sustainability, these groups have progressed to the modern day firebombing of those institutions that have caused a breach in their vision of good society.
So the philosophical ancestor of today’s “radical” animal rights movement is Charles Darwin? On the surface, Darwin’s an odd choice. If his scientific ideas were so conducive to today’s radicalism, we’d expect him to have been a radical in his own time. But in fact the ideas quoted in the report were shared by many people over the centuries. His observations are accurate but not really original. The Animal Rights Library includes this selection from Darwin (and, incidentally, one from Richard Dawkins), but it also includes works from Tolstoy, Gandhi, Paley, and Schweitzer. Religious and secular arguments (and believers and atheists) have long been and still are found on both sides of animal rights questions around the world.* Anti-vivisectionist movements existed in Darwin’s time, but he was no anti-vivisectionist radical: see this excellent piece by Eric Michael Johnson.

But I think the theory of evolution, what it suggests about the inseparability of humans from other animals, and its rejection by the Religious Right are at the heart of why Darwin’s writing was selected in the report as the intellectual ancestor of the animal rights movement. It’s an interesting question to what extent evolutionary knowledge affects people’s thinking about our ethical-political relationships with other species. As I’ve said before, I think scientific knowledge can play a role in developing our ethical sensibilities concerning other animals. No ethical position, much less any set of tactics, automatically or inevitably follows from this knowledge, though. People with a deep appreciation of evolution can still be unmoved ethically to protect nonhuman animals.

The link made in the ALEC report, though, isn’t an intellectual or empirical one. It’s politically motivated – an attempt on behalf of corporations to appeal to the Religious Right, whose ideology we saw in action in the hilarious “Religiosity and Global Warming Advocacy” panel at the Big Footprint conference. By insinuating a nebulous link between the ToE and (a caricature of) the animal rights and environmental movement, they can smear both. By opposing to them a vision of religion that doesn’t recognize the mass exploitation and destruction of nonhuman animals by humans as a fundamental moral issue – or even celebrates it - and a minimalist animal “welfare” program in the interest of corporations, they can promote both.

*This is discussed in Paul Waldau’s Animal Rights:

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