3 - Chapter One
The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA
The Roots of Evil
For the last half-century, the popular media have been mesmerized by the "hunting hypothesis." According to this theory, early hominids depended on hunting for their food and clothing. But the animals they hunted were faster or stronger than our ancestors, and so these protohumans could survive only by being smarter than their prey and by hunting in groups. Therefore, evolution selected for greater intellectual ability combined with voice boxes that could articulate complex instructions and responses. And voila! the result was us, the "apex of evolution," the smartest, most all-around superior creatures the planet had ever seen.
Concocted in the 1950s by an Australian anatomist named Raymond Dart, the hunting hypothesis was popularized a decade later by Robert Ardrey, a Hollywood scriptwriter. In a series of bestselling books including African Genesis (1961) and The Hunting Hypothesis (1976), Ardrey convinced much of the world that we are, in his memorable phrase, "killer apes," predestined to violence—and planetary dominance—by our evolutionary background.
As popular as Ardrey's books were, the hunting hypothesis soon came under attack within the scientific community. In 1971, feminist anthropologist Sally Slocum published an article entitled "Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology" in which she pointed out that the hunting hypothesis ignores half of the human race and assumes that it was men's behavior exclusively that determined our evolutionary path. Not so, said Slocum, who argued that our evolutionary course was determined less by men hunting than by women rearing children and gathering food, both of which occupations required communal cooperation and high intelligence.
Slocum's hypothesis draws support from the fact that in "hunter-gatherer" societies, the gathering is more important than the hunting. The diet of hunter-gatherers was plant-based, with meat as an occasional supplement. Therefore, the gatherers (the women) were, in fact, more important to the survival and evolution of the species than the hunters (the men). As Jane Goodall explains:
Today it is generally accepted that although the earliest humans probably ate some meat, it was unlikely to have played a major role in their diet. Plants would have been a much more important source of food. This is true of almost all the hunter-gatherer peoples whose way of life lasted into the last century.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, a new generation of anthropologists demonstrated that hunting hypothesis advocates, including Dart and Ardrey, had grossly misread the fossil record. At the same time, field primatologists like Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas were discovering that our closest relatives are not the vegetarian pacifists that we had always believed them to be. Other primates also hunt, fight, and even engage in warfare; and that being the case, the hunting hypothesis simply cannot explain why we evolved to dominate the planet and they did not.
By 1993, Matt Cartmill, professor of biological anthropology at Duke University, could characterize the hunting hypothesis as "a flimsy story" which had "collapse[d] during the 1970s," leading him to wonder why it had been "accepted for so long by thoughtful scientists." In the public mind, of course, it had not collapsed, only in the scientific community. Beliefs sometimes survive less by their truth than by the degree to which they reinforce our fantasies. And while scientists may have understood that the killer ape theory portrayed us as "sick, disordered animals," to laypeople it proclaimed that science had proved us to be the rightful masters of all we survey, king-of-the-hill of planet Earth. Among the public, the primary objection to evolution had been—and in some religious circles, still is—that Darwin's theory took away our uniqueness as human beings and reduced us to just another animal. The hunting hypothesis gave us back our unique status—and did it in the name of evolution.
In 2005, in Man the Hunted, anthropologists Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman pulled the hunting hypothesis inside out by arguing that our ancient ancestors were actually prey animals rather than predators, and that it was the need to escape stronger and faster predators that led to our intellectual ability and language. Needless to say, the popular media were not nearly as enthralled with this unheroic view of human origins as they had been with the hunting hypothesis.
The Crime with no Beginning
Even though hunting did not set our ancestors on the path to humanity, it is nevertheless true that one of our earliest relationships to other animals was predator to prey. As Professor Cartmill puts it:
It is a safe bet that our australopithecine ancestors were hunters in a broad sense: that is, they sometimes killed and ate other animals, just as chimpanzees and people do today. And since people today are more predatory than chimpanzees, it is another safe bet that hunting took on an increased importance during the course of our evolution from a chimpanzee-like ancestor.
Thus, the killing of nonhuman animals for food and clothing is a crime that had no beginning. We practiced it before we were human, brought it with us as we trudged down the evolutionary trail, and expanded on it as we became progressively more human.
For decades, it was believed that humans were distinguished from other animals by our use of tools. That, we now know, is untrue. Many animals, from primates to birds, fashion and use tools. It does seem true, though, that hominids are set apart from other animals by the conception, construction, and widespread use of a certain type of tool: the weapon. As Hart and Sussman point out, as long as we had to depend on our own bodies, we were mediocre predators at best; but as prey, we were every predator's dream. We were slow, awkward, limited in our mobility (poor climbers, poor swimmers, clumsy jumpers, and absolutely unable to fly) and weaker than the flesh eaters who might find a nice human thigh or upper arm a satisfying dinner. At this early point in our history, we had no more impact on the lives of other animals than gorillas and chimpanzees do today.
That all changed with the invention of the weapon. In the old west, the six-shooter was called the great equalizer, because someone who was small and weak had as good a chance in a gunfight as someone who was big and strong. But prehistoric weapons were not equalizers; they were dominators, because we were the only species who used them.
The first weapons were probably clubs—in the form of broken-off tree limbs—and stones, picked up off the ground and thrown at their victim. These were of some help in warding off predators and hunting small prey animals such as ancestral squirrels and rabbits, but overall, throwing stones and swinging clubs did little to advance the fortunes of hominids.
The first weapon invented rather than discovered seems to have been the sling, the simplest form of which was a long narrow strip of cloth that the hunter folded once lengthwise. Picking it up with both ends held tightly together in one hand, he placed a stone in the fold and then twirled it around and around above his head. When he released one end of the sling, the stone flew out at a high rate of speed. In the hands of a skilled hunter, a sling is surprisingly accurate at close range, but the windup motion often startles the prey, reducing its value as a hunting weapon.
The weapon that began to create a new balance of power among species was the spear. With spears, our ancestors could defend themselves against most predators, and by hunting cooperatively in groups they could encircle and kill large prey animals, such as wild cattle, sheep, goats, and even bears and elephants. The invention of the spear marks the beginning of the hominids' transformation from gatherers who were almost exclusively vegan,4 to hunter-gatherers who increasingly killed other animals for food, clothing, implements (made of bone, horn, and antler), and housing (tents made of skins).
The earliest known spear was found embedded in the side of an elephant killed around 250,000 years ago. Discovered in Germany, it was a shaft carved from the wood of a yew tree with a whittled point that had been case hardened over fire. The earliest known example of a sharpened flint spearhead—found buried in the head of a bear near Trieste, Italy—dates from around 100,000 years ago. Although a flint tip added to the penetrating power of the shaft, mostly it tore muscles and blood vessels, causing greater pain, crippling, and internal bleeding. Then as now, large animals whose bodies were punctured by spears or arrows rarely died immediately. They suffered agonizing, terrifying deaths over hours or days from exsanguination, dehydration (from being unable to walk to water), or infection. Spear and bowhunting technique is—and has been from the beginning—to impale the victim, who immediately takes off running for her life, and track her until she collapses.
Next in the march of lethal technology came a small spear launcher with no moving parts called the atlatl (pronounced at-LAT-ul, sometimes known as a "spear thrower"). Usually made of wood or antler, about two feet long and just thick enough to grip comfortably, an atlatl has a tiny perpendicular prong on one end that fits into a notch on the back end of a long spear. The two are held together in one hand—the atlatl parallel to the shaft of the spear—and whipped forward in a running overhand throwing motion similar to that employed by a modern javelin thrower. At the top of the motion, the spear is released and the atlatl propels it forward with a range and velocity that the unaided human arm could never approach. The first known atlatls date from around 30,000 years ago, but if the use of antler was a relatively late development, as I suspect it was, the atlatl could easily be much older. Under most conditions, wood rots and leaves no traces.
The weapon that decisively shifted the balance of power between humans and other animals was the longbow. For killing all but the largest animals, such as mammoths and elephants, the longbow is as far superior to the spear and the atlatl as the rifle is to the longbow itself. A longbow can be loaded, fired, and reloaded quickly and without the overhand throwing motion that alerts intended victims to the danger; the arrow travels at a higher velocity and on a flatter trajectory than a spear, making it almost impossible to evade; and most importantly, a longbow can be aimed with a degree of precision that a spear—no matter how it is launched—cannot begin to approach.
Exactly when the bow and arrow were introduced is uncertain. Some archeologists would set the date as far back as 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, but this is probably too early. Its first known appearance in Europe is around 8000 BCE.
One of the cruelest of all hunting weapons is rarely thought of as a weapon at all: fire. In colonial days, both native Americans and European settlers practiced fire hunting, as did Africans until well into the second half of the twentieth century—using flaming spears or arrows to set grasslands ablaze, burning the large animals, such as elephants, who were grazing there so severely that they died of their injuries or could be easily killed. By its nature, fire-hunting leaves no evidence for archeologists, but we may be confident that fire had not been long under the control of our prehistoric ancestors before they began using it as a hunting weapon.
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Around 40,000 years ago, humans began to occupy Australia, which they found teeming with large mammals and reptiles, all of whom, according to Jared Diamond, suddenly "became extinct shortly after humans reached Australia." Likewise, when humans first settled North and South America, they found their new lands filled with large mammals like the wooly mammoth. Again, within a short time, most species of these large animals had gone extinct. The coincidence seems too great to be accidental, and while some anthropologists have proposed climatic reasons—a drought in Australia, the end of the Ice Age in North America—these explanations are not convincing. There was no drought in the Pacific Islands, which lost their large mammals when they were invaded by the same humans who invaded Australia; and wooly mammoths had made it through several previous Ice Ages without a problem. It seems clear that we began our career as exterminators of entire species a full 40,000 years ago.
The Tyranny of Human Beings
The enslavement of animals did have a beginning, but one so far beyond the reach of history that it is lost to us forever. There is no incident to which we can point and say, "This is the first instance of a human community practicing animal slavery." Likewise, there is no group of whom we can say, "This is the society that first enslaved animals. The rest of us learned it from them." At every spot on the globe—east to west, north to south—we emerge into history as systematic exploiters of animals. All of the most ancient civilizations of which we have found evidence were built on the enslavement and slaughter of animals, who were used for food, clothing, labor, transportation, entertainment, and religious sacrifice. But exactly how this came about, we do not know. Of the theories that abound, most are nonsense and all are guesswork.
One theory that keeps showing up like the proverbial bad penny would have us believe that animals volunteered to be enslaved ("domesticated" is the euphemism that is typically employed) so that they could enjoy the protection and sustenance provided by herders and farmers. According to this theory, there is a kind of social contract between enslaved animals and their human owners—originally entered into freely by both parties—under the terms of which we provide them with food, shelter, and safety, and in return they allow us to kill them to satisfy our own needs. Why a contract entered into several thousand years ago should be binding today on descendents of the original parties many generations removed is a question for which the proponents of this theory have no convincing answer. But in fact, we never need to reach this question. Unsupported by evidence, the "volunteers for death" theory is a self-serving justification for modern-day animal slavery and slaughter projected backward in time so that it can masquerade as legitimate scholarship. It is the interspecies equivalent of claims that African slaves were happy in their servitude because it spared them the risks and uncertainties of freedom.
The earliest form of animal agriculture was pastoralism: herding, initially sheep and goats, then cattle, and finally horses. Unlike modern animal slavery, which is organized around a fixed-site prison—a barn, a corral, a fenced pasture—ancient pastoralism was nomadic. Herders cycled with the seasons, high country in summer, low in winter, as they followed the pasturage.
Pastoralism is incompatible with large-scale plant agriculture. For one thing, livestock and crops don't mix; the former have a frustrating tendency to trample or eat the latter. The two can exist side by side only in the presence of effective fencing, and, for obvious reasons, nomads don't like to build fences. Small gardens—some grain for bread, a few vegetables—are the closest to farming that pastoralists can come. To this day, in traditional societies, nomads are not farmers and farmers are not nomads.
Herding evolved out of the nomadic migrations of hunter-gatherers in temperate or dry climates. (In most tropical regions, the year-round abundance of plant and animal life make the nomad's annual circuit unnecessary.) Gatherers in search of growing plants would need to follow a cycle much the same as sheep, goats, and cattle, and so the early hunter-gatherers found themselves migrating along the same routes as these other herbivorous animals. They were, so to speak, traveling companions.
At some point, in some way that we do not know—and about which it is more fun than informative to speculate—the humans learned that there were benefits to bringing under their control the animals who were migrating beside them. These included an ample supply of meat and skins without the hardship, danger, and uncertainty of hunting; milk, cheese, and butter; wool; and body warmth against the cold—something to be valued during windy, snowy winters. Labor and transportation came later, first from dogs, who were useful for hunting and herding; then from oxen, yaks, camels, and llamas; and finally from donkeys and horses, who were not broken until sometime around 3000 BCE, give or take a thousand years.
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The use of animals for labor and transportation ratcheted the cruelty of their enslavement up several notches. Previously, animals' enslavement had been mostly passive, that is, it consisted largely in preventing them from doing many of the things they did by nature, such as form their own societies and make their own decisions about where to live and when to migrate. It might even be more accurate to refer to pastoral servitude as "imprisonment," rather than "slavery." Being forcibly prevented from responding to the inborn demands of your nature is a terrible torture, as any human prisoner can tell you. But being turned into a slave laborer is worse.
Work is not a biological imperative of herbivorous animals; it is alien to their nature. They graze; they do not labor. When they are forced to work, it does violence to everything that they are. To break an animal to the yoke, the harness, or the saddle is to crush the animal's innermost self. What is broken is the animal's soul. It is true that most arrive at some sort of accommodation with their servitude, just as most human slaves reach an accommodation with theirs—it is a way of maintaining one's sanity—but they are broken nonetheless, and their lives—like the lives of all slaves—are drenched in the pain of living contrary to their nature.
From this juncture forward, the "domesticated" animals had lost control over their own lives and from birth to death were totally under the dominion of their slavemasters. This is the moment at which the words that George Orwell put into the mouth of a wise pig named Old Major became true: "Is it not crystal clear, then, comrades, that all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings?"
It is at this point that human society became fundamentally different from the societies of other species, and it becomes proper, therefore, to begin calling it civilization. "Civilization" is what we call our break with nature, and the critical step in that break, the step that made all of the subsequent steps possible, was the enslavement of animals by the first pastoralists. All human civilizations have been built on animal slavery and systematic animal killing, and those early herders were the first slaveholders and the first slaughterers.
Where and when pastoralism first emerged is a matter of some confusion and conjecture. Pastoral peoples don't leave much behind to remind us of their existence. But clearly, pastoralism was well established around the globe by the time of the first agricultural revolution, which occurred roughly 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium or two.
Farms and Cities: The Neolithic Revolution
No doubt humans at various places around the globe had been planting a few seeds here and there and harvesting the plants for thousands of years. And over time, these would have developed into what we would call gardens. But large-scale plant agriculture depended on breaking animals to labor. And agriculture in turn ratcheted the suffering of animals up another notch. Previously, they had only been required to haul and carry, which was burden enough in itself; but with the arrival of farming, they also had to spend long days plowing and threshing, and they had new burdens to haul in the form of crops that had to be carted to market. Furthermore, human beings had now begun to live almost entirely on food produced by animals, either through their labor in the fields or by the taking of their bodies and their lives. This would not change until the tractor was invented 10,000 years later.
And there was worse to come. Agriculture created a large food surplus. For the first time in human history, the supply of available food could support more people than were needed to produce it. And it is a law of nature applying to all species that a food surplus leads to a population increase—which in this case became a population explosion. Scholars estimate that just before the agricultural revolution, around 8000 BCE, there were only about four million human beings worldwide, a number that had remained relatively stable for tens of thousands of years. By the beginning of the historical era, around 3000 BCE, that number had more than tripled to fourteen million. A mere thousand years later, in 2000 BCE, it had nearly doubled to twenty-seven million.9 The human population has been growing ever since and now stands at just over six billion.
The creation of a large human population that was not needed to produce food had three results, all of them disastrous for animals. First, more humans meant more animals enslaved and slaughtered for food, skins, labor, sacrifice, and entertainment. Second, the division of labor on a large scale became possible for the first time in human history. Entire classes of full-time craftspeople, merchants, bureaucrats, priests, and soldiers arose who plied their trades while living on food produced by others. In turn, these occupations were themselves supported by animal labor, which led to a further increase in the number of animals—especially oxen, camels, donkeys, and horses—enslaved for work, transportation, and warfare.
Finally, the surplus population and the rise of specialization led to the creation of cities, and cities represented the final step in the alienation of animals from their own inherent natures. Animals who were brought into cities for labor and transportation, or (primarily chickens and ducks) to serve as convenient sources of meat and eggs were deprived of all semblance of their natural world.
The rise of cities set the pattern for animal slavery and slaughter that human societies have followed down to the present. The entire history of human civilization is the story of animal abuse remarkably unchanged through the centuries. Depending on the degree to which a society was urban or agrarian, the level of abuse might be somewhat higher or lower, but the basic structures of animal exploitation are the same today as they were ten thousand years ago. In fact, as our story proceeds, the only major changes that we will see in the broad patterns of human treatment of animals will be: (1) the widespread elimination of animal sacrifice, which began in India during the sixth century BCE and occurred in most of the West early in the Common Era; (2) the reduction in animal labor brought about by the invention of mechanical sources of power during the Industrial Revolution; (3) the widespread use of animals in medical and scientific experiments, beginning in the Renaissance; (4) the transformation of farms from prisons into concentration camps made possible by the discovery of antibiotics in the twentieth century; and (5) the creation of genetic engineering and transgenic animals in the late twentieth century.
The primary subjects of the cave paintings left by the Paleolithic tribes of Europe are not, as we might expect, human beings. The first artists—who lived around 15,000 years ago, plus or minus two or three thousand years—devoted themselves almost exclusively to painting wildlife, including scenes of hunting. Since these were hunter-gatherer peoples living at the tail end of the last great Ice Age, when gathering was still difficult and hunting was more important to the community than in warmer climates, it seems reasonable to conclude that cave paintings were intended to serve as props for religious ceremonies—somewhat on the order of altar paintings or stained glass windows—that were conducted to assure a successful hunt or to express thanks for one.
As part of these ceremonies, it would be natural for early hunters to begin offering a portion of the dead animal's flesh as a gift to be enjoyed by the higher powers who had given them success. From there, it was a series of short steps to offering a piece of hunted meat to enlist the aid of the gods in overcoming whatever obstacle the community was facing and to maintain their goodwill against the unforeseen. The offering was not the purpose of the killing. Animals were killed for food and skins and a piece of their flesh offered in thanks. Thus, animal sacrifice was rooted in fear—in this case, fear that the hunt would fail. The gods must be propitiated or calamity would befall the community. From its earliest inception, religion was enlisted in support of the murder of animals.
Herding was a more secure source of food than hunting, but it still had its share of uncertainties and potential disasters, relating mostly to weather, injury, and disease. And so when early humans took up the herding life, they did not give up their religions and the sacrifices that were central to them. Only now the animals whose flesh was offered to the gods were raised, not hunted, and they were slaughtered, not ambushed. In fact, many ancient societies seem to have had a taboo against eating animal flesh unless a portion of it had first been offered as a sacrifice. This taboo survived well into historical times and is recorded in the Bible.
When and why animals began to be slaughtered specifically to be offered as sacrifices, we do not know. The practice probably began during the pastoral age, based on a desire to offer sacrifices not specifically connected with the slaughter of an animal: arrival of the birthing season, for instance, the beginning of a long trek, or some more personal event, like a wedding or a human birth or death. In all likelihood, the ritually murdered animal was still eaten, but there had been a subtle shift in the relationship between the ritual and the food.
With the emergence of cities, there arose temples and a class of priests to administer them. These temples were not the serene, comforting houses of worship that we know today. The principal function of ancient religion was to mollify the gods through sacrifice; the first temples were built as venues for sacrifice, and the first priests were technicians who knew the sacrificial liturgies that would assure the gods accepted the offerings and were well disposed toward the donors. If early doctors were barbers, early priests were butchers, and ancient temples were first and foremost abattoirs. This approach to religion extended deep into the historical period. In fact, It survived in Judaism until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—which was one of the largest slaughterhouses in the ancient world—in 70 CE. In the Classical world, animal sacrifice survived until Christianity took control of the Roman Empire and abolished it in the fourth century. In Islam and some schools of Hinduism, it is still practiced, although on a reduced scale. Otherwise, sacrifice survives mostly in religions of African derivation, such as Santeria.
As the World Turns
By the dawn of history, around 3000 BCE when writing was invented, the origins of animal abuse had long been forgotten. Animal exploitation seemed so natural to our first visible ancestors that they never even thought about it. In the world's most ancient literatures, there are no defenses of animal exploitation because there was no occasion to defend what everyone took for granted. It was not until religious rebels in India, Israel, and Greece challenged animal slavery and slaughter that anyone bothered to craft a defense for it.
This challenge came during what historians call the "Axial Age," a remarkable period of about 600 years, falling roughly between 800 and 200 BCE, that saw the emergence of the major ethical and philosophical ideas that have shaped civilization down to the present. During these six centuries, human understanding of such fundamental issues as the nature of the universe, virtue, truth, the purpose of human life, and the organization of society changed more radically than at any time before or since.
In this brief period, human thought was literally swung about on its axis by thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu in China; Mahavira and the Buddha in India; Zoroaster in Persia; the Later Prophets in Israel; and Pythagoras, Socrates, and the Seven Sages in Greece. It was also during the Axial Age that the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, Mahabharata, and the Hebrew Scriptures were put into substantially their present form. It is not too much to say that the idea of the primacy of love in human relations (as opposed to greed and fear), the notion that the function of government is to improve the lives of its citizens and not just to assure the dominance of one clan or tribe over others, and belief in reason as the best guide to human conduct all date from the most remarkable centuries in human history.
Animals shared in this revolution in human understanding as Mahavira, the Buddha, the Hindu sages, the Later Prophets, and Pythagoras used the ideas of the Axial Age to challenge the enslavement and slaughter of animals. Although this inconvenient fact is generally overlooked—part of the cloak of invisibility cast over animals and their suffering—the great spiritual pioneers of the Axial Age included animals within their moral universe, and they spoke out courageously against the two most egregious forms of animal abuse—religious sacrifice and meat eating.
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