The Better Angels of Our Nature – Part 6


Unfortunately but unsurprisingly Pinker dedicates only a tiny part of his extensive book about violence to nonhuman animals. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, he decided to call this chapter Animal Rights and the Decline of Cruelty to Animals, that is despite that the book’s claim is for a decline in violence. Pinker knows there is no decline in violence towards animals, so he changed the term to a more conceivable one. Still wrong, but more defensible.

Animal experimentation

Pinker starts the chapter with a confession about a very cruel thing he did during a summer job as a research assistant in an animal behavior lab when he was in sophomore:
“One evening the professor gave me an assignment. Among the rats in the lab was a runt that could not participate in the ongoing studies, so he wanted to use it to try out a new experiment. The first step was to train the rat in what was called a temporal avoidance conditioning procedure. The floor of a Skinner box was hooked up to a shock generator, and a timer that would shock the animal every six seconds unless it pressed a lever, which would give it a ten-second reprieve. Rats catch on quickly and press the lever every eight or nine seconds, postponing the shock indefinitely. All I had to do was throw the rat in the box, start the timers, and go home for the night. When I arrived back at the lab early the next morning, I would find a fully conditioned rat.

But that was not what looked back at me when I opened the box in the morning. The rat had a grotesque crook in its spine and was shivering uncontrollably. Within a few seconds, it jumped with a start. It was nowhere near the lever. I realized that the rat had not learned to press the lever and had spent the night being shocked every six seconds. When I reached in to rescue it, I found it cold to the touch. I rushed it to the veterinarian two floors down, but it was too late, and the rat died an hour later. I had tortured an animal to death.

As the experiment was being explained to me, I had already sensed it was wrong. Even if the procedure had gone perfectly, the rat would have spent twelve hours in constant anxiety, and I had enough experience to know that laboratory procedures don’t always go perfectly. My professor was a radical behaviorist, for whom the question “What is it like to be a rat?” was simply incoherent. But I was not, and there was no doubt in my mind that a rat could feel pain. The professor wanted me in his lab; I knew that if I refused, nothing bad would happen. But I carried out the procedure anyway, reassured by the ethically spurious but psychologically reassuring principle that it was standard practice.”

Of course it says something terrible about him and his moral standards and sensitivity, however there is a general inference to take from his personal story (and from his personal inference about how he felt and what he did or didn’t do at that time when realizing that, regardless of his private all night long electrification of that rat, there was something wrong with what was done to all of the rats), that is maybe an answer to many of his wonders of how could humans do all the things he specified they did along history, demonstrated in his own words:
“But I carried out the procedure anyway, reassured by the ethically spurious but psychologically reassuring principle that it was standard practice.”
Most humans, even when realizing something is wrong, are reassured by the ethically spurious but psychologically reassuring principle that it is standard practice.


Anyway it feels a bit cheap to bash the 20 years old Pinker so we’ll focus on the deeds of the 60 years old Pinker.

He reveals more about the common atrocities standardly occurring in these labs:
“To motivate the animals to work for food, we starved them to 80 percent of their free feeding weight, which in a small animal means a state of gnawing hunger. In the lab next door, pigeons were shocked through beaded key chains that were fastened around the base of their wings; I saw that the chains had worn right through their skin, exposing the muscle below. In another lab, rats were shocked through safety pins that pierced the skin of their chests. In one experiment on endorphins, animals were given unavoidable shocks described in the paper as “extremely intense, just sub tetanizing” – that is, just short of the point where the animal’s muscles would seize up in a state of tetanus. The callousness extended outside the testing chambers. One researcher was known to show his anger by picking up the nearest unused rat and throwing it against a wall. Another shared a cold joke with me: a photograph, printed in a scientific journal, of a rat that had learned to avoid shocks by lying on its furry back while pressing the food lever with its forepaw. The caption: “Breakfast in bed.”
I’m relieved to say that just five years later, indifference to the welfare of animals among scientists had become unthinkable, indeed illegal.”

Pinker is totally ignorant of what is still happening inside the laboratories. These are still standard procedures and common treatment towards animals in the laboratories. Every time activists manage to plant an undercover camera or an undercover activist or breaking into a laboratory revealing documents of experiments, similar atrocities are uncovered, similar cruel preparations, similar experiments, similar callousness outside the testing chambers and even similar inner jokes on the animals’ expense.

Pinker ridiculously argues that since the beginning of the 80’s, any use of an animal for research or teaching had to be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), and more ridiculously that: “any scientist will confirm that these committees are not rubber stamps.”
Yea, but every activist would confirm they are.

Pinker continues to deceive his readers:
“The size of cages, the amount and quality of food and veterinary care, and the opportunities for exercise and social contact are strictly regulated. Researchers and their assistants must take a training course on the ethics of animal experimentation, attend a series of panel discussions, and pass an exam. Any experiment that would subject an animal to discomfort or distress is placed in a category governed by special regulations and must be justified by its likelihood of providing “a greater benefit to science and human welfare.”

You probably don’t really need us to refute Pinker’s misrepresentations and delusions, but please check our article about animal experiments and this video anyway. Everything in it happened long after the 80’s. So did the numerous documentations and exposures of animal experiments, available on the various anti-vivisection organizations’ websites, that refute Pinker’s claims.

“Any scientist will also confirm that attitudes among scientists themselves have changed. Recent surveys have shown that animal researchers, virtually without exception, believe that laboratory animals feel pain. Today a scientist who was indifferent to the welfare of laboratory animals would be treated by his or her peers with contempt.”

It is not really a progress to revoke the revoke of something that shouldn’t have been revoked in the first place. Animals’ sensibility shouldn’t have been revoked in the first place.
And anyway it is ridicules that Pinker can seriously argue that in the 80’s scientists didn’t think that animals can feel pain. If rats can’t feel pain why would scientists preform scientific experiments on rats regarding pain? Does Pinker seriously believe that scientists researched pain on animals incapable of experiencing it?

And of course it should have never been scientists or any other human’s decision whether to perform an experiment on animals. And it was always and still is scientists’ decision. They are sitting in the committees, promoting their own interests – scientific progress in the better scenario, and a platform for scientific publications and grants in the worst. All on the expense of animals, which obviously none of them sit in none of the committees.

Pinker writes about animals that:
“The change in the treatment of laboratory animals is part of yet another rights revolution: the growing conviction that animals should not be subjected to unjustifiable pain, injury, and death.”
But in the case of the other rights revolution, of women, children, blacks and gays, he didn’t write that they should not be subjected to unjustifiable pain, injury, and death. Because in their case he doesn’t think there is justifiable pain injury, and death. Meaning already there’s a fundamental difference between humans and nonhumans. Who decides what is unjustifiable pain, injury, and death? Humans of course. And all the more so, the very self-interested ones.

Animal experimentation is a huge violence cause which is a direct outcome of exactly the factors Pinker argues caused violence decline, the age of reason and the thought that humans’ reason can figure the world out and fix everything in it. The scientific revolution supplied both the technical and the ideological infrastructure for vivisection. It is a violent enterprise which would have never reached its terrifying scope if not for the Enlightenment line of thinking. In fact, along with factory farming, it is the most characteristic feature of it. The nature domination, the genetic intervention, the know-all pretension, the invasive observation from a superiority viewpoint, “the end justifies the means”, and in this case – the scientific progress justifies any torture possible, are all showcases of this sort of thinking. It is a world of violence invented by Pinker’s violence decline causes. Pinker’s optimism sources are animals’ living hell.

Shadowing the present with the past

After discussing animal experiments Pinker is using the same trick he used regarding violence towards humans. To assist his meta-argument of a decline in violence throughout history, he shadows present atrocities by detailing past atrocities.
So here too he samples common violent atrocities from different periods of history such as ancient tribes (who still exist) like the Masai, who regularly bleed their cattle and mix the blood with milk for a delicious beverage, Asian nomads that cut chunks of fat from the tails of living sheep that they have specially bred for that purpose and the Mbuti of Africa, who their hunting dogs, valuable as they are, get kicked around mercilessly from the day they are born to the day they die.
Then Ancient Greece and Rome which had a similar view of the place of animals in the scheme of things:
“Aristotle wrote that “plants are created for the sake of animals, and the animals for the sake of man.” Greek scientists put this attitude into practice by dissecting live mammals, including, occasionally, Homo sapiens. (According to the Roman medical writer Celsus, physicians in Hellenic Alexandria “procured criminals out of prison by royal permission, and dissecting them alive, contemplated, while they were yet breathing, the parts which nature had before concealed.”) The Roman anatomist Galen wrote that he preferred to work with pigs rather than monkeys because of the “unpleasant expression” on the monkeys’ faces when he cut into them. His compatriots, of course, delighted in the torture and slaughter of animals in the Colosseum, again not excluding a certain bipedal primate. In Christendom, Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas combined biblical with Greek views to ratify the amoral treatment of animals. Aquinas wrote, “By the divine providence [animals] are intended for man’s use…. Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing or in any other way whatsoever.”

But what really is the big difference between the divinity version of godlike humans and the enlightened version of godlike humans?
Despite the enlightenment resentment of the religions’ divine universe structure, not only that humans stayed in the center of the universe during the age of reason (like in the rest of the religions), in a godless world, humans and their divine reason have advanced to a godlike status.
Both are super anthropocentric philosophies justifying the use of animals as means for humans aims. In both philosophies there is a condition which is to use animals as long as it is not an abuse. And in both there is a condition to the condition which is only if the abuse is justified. So the only thing they needed is to find a justification and then do whatever they want. Just like they do nowadays.

Then Pinker transfers to modern philosophy which got off to a bad start:
“Descartes wrote that animals were clockwork, so there was no one home to feel pain or pleasure. What sound to us like cries of distress were merely the output of a noisemaker, like a warning buzzer on a machine. Descartes knew that the nervous systems of animals and humans were similar, so from our perspective it’s odd that he could grant consciousness to humans while denying it to animals. But Descartes was committed to the existence of the soul, granted to humans by God, and the soul was the locus of consciousness. When he introspected on his own consciousness, he wrote, he could not “distinguish in myself any parts, but apprehend myself to be clearly one and entire…. The faculties of willing, feeling, conceiving, etc. cannot be properly speaking said to be its parts, for it is one and the same mind which employs itself in willing and in feeling and understanding. ”Language too is a faculty of this indivisible thing we call mind or soul. Since animals lack language, they must lack souls; hence they must be without consciousness. A human has a clockwork body and brain, like an animal, but also a soul, which interacts with the brain through a special structure, the pineal gland”

As we argued in a former part of this book review, we disagree with Pinker’s accusation of all the atrocities of the 20th century over more or less 3 persons, however if we’ll follow that line of thought then Descartes is animals’ Hitler. Both are broadly studied in the academy, one with deep admiration and one with deep loathing. Despite the mythical attitude they get, Hitler is not the devil and Descartes is not the angel of reason, they are both humans with terrible ideas that many other humans implemented. Even if Pinker is right regarding the tremendous influence the few have over the world, it is another reason why the world shouldn’t exist.

But like in the case of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Princip, obviously Descartes is not solely responsible for animal violence but another link in the endless violence chain. Violence towards animals didn’t start with Descartes and humans don’t need him to tell them that violence towards animals is totally fine since they don’t feel pain. Evidently, nowadays everyone knows that they do, and still it is the worst time ever to be an animal.

Another attempt to shadow nowadays violence is by arguing that violent practices in agriculture are very old:
“Practices like gelding, branding, piercing, and the docking of ears and tails have been common in farms for centuries. And cruel practices to fatten animals or tenderize their meat (familiar to us today from protests against foie gras and milk-fed veal) are by no means a modern invention. A history of the British kitchen describes some of the methods of tenderization in the 17th century:s
Poultry, in order to put on flesh after its long journey from the farms, was sewn up by the gut . . . ; turkey were bled to death by hanging them upside down with a small incision in the vein of the mouth; geese were nailed to the floor; salmon and carp were hacked into collops while living to make their flesh firmer; eels were skinned alive, coiled around skewers and fixed through the eye so they could not move…. The flesh of the bull, it was believed, was indigestible and unwholesome if the animal was killed without being baited…. Calves and pigs were whipped to death with knotted ropes to make the meat more tender, rather than our modern practice of beating the flesh when dead. “Take a red cock that is not too old and beat him to death,” begins one . . . recipe”

“The Elizabethan method of “brawning” or fattening pigs was “to keep them in so close a room that they cannot turn themselves round about . . . whereby they are forced always to lie on their bellies.” “They feed in pain,” said a contemporary, “lie in pain and sleep in pain.” Poultry and game-birds were often fattened in darkness and confinement, sometimes being blinded as well…. Geese were thought to put on weight if the webs of their feet were nailed to the floor, and it was the custom of some seventeenth-century housewives to cut the legs off living fowl in the belief that it made their flesh more tender. In 1686 Sir Robert Southwell announced a new invention of “an oxhouse, where the cattle are to eat and drink in the same crib and not to stir until they be fitted for the slaughter.” Dorset lambs were specially reared for the Christmas tables of the gentry by being imprisoned in little dark cabins.”

What it proves is that humans have always been cruel to animals and were always looking for ways to gain more on their expense. These are the products of the human “progress”, which gradually created the world’s most oppressive violent units. These are the proto-factory farms.
Pinker is trying to say that there is nothing new in factory farms. He is conceptually right but practically wrong. Factory farms are not a dramatic change in the way humans see animals, but a dramatic change in the way they treat them. All the practices that are standardly used today would have been used in the past if humans had thought about them then, and if they were possible technologically. Obviously current practices are basically a “refinement” of old ones. However in practice, every moment in every victim’s life is totally regulated to the smallest detail, from their own genes structure, through the food amount and quality, the water amount and quality, the oxygen level, their living constructions size, shape and components, the floor, the ceiling, the windows if any, the bedding if any, the lighting, the antibiotics, the vaccinations, the hormones, the precise timings of each phase and etc. So it is dramatically different, and dramatically worse.

It is not that humans are more indifferent today. If humans cared more about animals in the past it is was mainly because each animal was much more expensive. It was an instrumental care. Humans didn’t establish factory farms because they suddenly realized that they hate animals so they have decided to confine billions of them in huge crowded, hot, moldy, stinky, sickening pens until they murder them all. Today, like in the past, and like it has always been, humans see other animals as resources. The dramatic change, and it is dramatic despite Pinker’s attempt to tell us differently (so he can argue there’s an improvement), is in the advanced torture practices and tools, and of course the number of victims. Humans don’t hate animals more than they did in the past and not less, they are similarly indifferent to them. It is not about hate and it never was. The conditions are terrible because humans are looking for minimum costs and maximum yield. And every year they gain more ways to improve that, worsening the already horrible lives of animals.

Violence is not a product of hate, many humans (including even a few animal farmers) feel affection to some of the animals they consume. They don’t participate in their torture because they hate them, they finance their torture because they love to eat them.
Violence is also not a product of ignorance, nowadays many humans know what kinds of lives animal have gone through before ending up in their plates.

Unfortunately the problem is much bigger, since violence is mostly a product of indifference.


All you need is Jeremy Bentham

After deriding old animal perceptions like the Pythagorean Diet and the Hindu vegetarianism or some religious hypocrite rules and modern philosophy’s rudimentary conception, Pinker turns to Jeremy Bentham:

“Jeremy Bentham’s laser-beam analysis of morality led him to pinpoint the issue that should govern our treatment of animals: not whether they can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer. Throughout 19th-century Britain, a blend of humanitarianism and romanticism led to antivivisection leagues, vegetarian movements, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Biologists’ acceptance of the theory of evolution following the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 made it impossible for them to maintain that consciousness was unique to humans, and by the end of the century in Britain, they had acceded to laws banning vivisection.”

But in the 20th century he argues for a critical regression:

“The campaign to protect animals lost momentum during the middle decades of the 20th century. The austerity from the two world wars had created a meat hunger, and the populace was so grateful for the flood of cheap meat from factory farming that it gave little thought to where the meat came from. Also, beginning in the nineteen-teens, behaviorism took over psychology and philosophy and decreed that the very idea of animal experience was a form of unscientific naïveté: the cardinal sin of anthropomorphism.“

We disagree with Pinker’s description since factory farms were constantly expanding and extending during the period Pinker describes as better, and the changes were relatively minor in relatively small industries and mostly in one part of the world. However it is more important to address the principle, and it is one of our main principles regarding the whole book, if not the whole animal rights movement – we morally refuse to entrust animals’ lives into humans’ hands, and into the arbitrary hands of the historical eventuation.
Why do you trust humans? How much more suffering must they cause and to how many more animals, before you stop entrusting them?
How much more destruction and misery do they need to execute, so you’ll be convinced that this world must be destroyed?

The animal rights movement relies on its rational arguments to convince irrational beings.
The worst time to be an animal came after Jeremy Bentham wrote the most important argument about their moral status. This is the world we live in. Theoretically humans don’t need more than this simple and elemental but brilliantly exhaustive argument. Practically the price of meat went down and took the argument down with it.


Humans don’t live ideas, they live life. It is not consciousness of humans that determines their being but on the contrary, it’s their practical and social being that determines their consciousness. The price of meat determines animals’ moral status more than Jeremy Bentham.
And this is relevant only to the ones who are even looking for moral justifications of meat consumption, as for every vegan who decided that their conscience determines their being, there are many meat eaters who never even thought about it.
Our fundamental argument all along the website is that it is morally wrong to put animals’ lives in humans’ hands. And that’s what the animal rights movement is doing. Most activists are trying to convince all humans to free the animals instead of freeing the animals from all humans.

In the next part of the review of Pinker’s false and partial presentation of violence towards animals, we’ll discuss how he also shadows the present.


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