One of the most important beliefs which makes animal abuse possible is the idea that humans and other animals are in some way separated by an unbridgeable gap. In fact, humans are great apes, rather than gods. Both genetically, and in terms of their behaviour, humans are much more closely related to other great apes than these animals are to monkeys. Humans and chimpanzees have about 98.4% of their genes in common, whereas monkeys have only about 93% of the same genes as the apes. Gorillas are about twice as close to humans genetically as they are to chimpanzees. Compare this with the genetic difference between two similar birds such as the red-eyed vireo and the white-eyed vireo, which are 2.9% different genetically. In other words, these two very similar birds are twice as different genetically from each other as humans are from chimpanzees.
The genetic similarity between humans and other apes is reflected in their behaviour. Recent experiments with gorillas and chimpanzees have shown that they can learn sign language, and use this to construct simple sentences. They express similar emotions to humans, and show self-awareness - for example, by recognising themselves in a mirror. Using a variety of different intelligent tests, they have been shown to have IQs at the lowest levels of human ability.
Yet for some reason, these obvious similarities are not enough to give them any kind of legal protection. People who would actively oppose the idea of experimenting on mentally-subnormal humans or small children are happy to condone the same actions on animals at the same level of awareness. Many humans eat animals, but few eat babies (even abandoned ones). A distinction is made between humans and all other species which is not based on actual differences between the two, but rather on prejudice. Peter Singer has coined the term "speciesism" to describe this attitude.
To realise how arbitrary this distinction is, it is worth considering distinctions that have existed in the past. For example, in ancient Rome, otherwise decent people watched as slaves or military prisoners were tortured and killed for their amusement. Roman citizens had well-developed rights, but slaves had no rights whatsoever. More recently, other races and other sexes have been treated as if their only purpose was for the convenience of those who did have rights. The barrier between those who matter and those who dont has been moving gradually throughout history, and today it stands at the barrier between humans and other species.
The roots of this distinction spring from the attitudes of scientists, religious beliefs and an elevated idea of human "specialness" based on human technical achievements.
In a society that is supposedly founded on rationalism, the attitudes of scientists are crucial in shaping peoples consciousness. Many people assume that a scientists opinion on something carries more weight than the opinion of an average person. However, scientific attitudes are often a product of social beliefs, rather than of any process of logic.
Although scientists like to think that the scientific way of looking at the world is the only one which is valid, science is, in fact, based on a number of assumptions about the way the world works. One of the most important of these is that, except at the subatomic level, there is some kind of objective "reality" which exists irrespective of the person looking at it. This means that all a scientist has to do is to suspend his or her own feelings and personal experience of a situation, and he or she will arrive at the "truth". If a dog is hit, he yells. If this is understood as some kind of reflex, the scientist can measure it, test it, and form a theory about it. If, on the other hand, the scientist starts to see things from the dogs point of view, and to understand that the dog is in pain, he cannot measure this. An ordinary person would be able to empathise with the dog, but a scientist is forbidden from doing so, because this would compromise "scientific objectivity".
Unfortunately, while this approach works well in physics and chemistry, it does not work well when one is trying to understand the behaviour of other individuals.
One of the biggest problems with any underlying assumption is that it is invisible. In other words, when scientists believe that they must try to understand animal behaviour "objectively" the questions they ask and their interpretations of the results will all be based on this assumption. At some point, he has made the choice to look at things in this way. However, this way of looking at the world becomes so ingrained that it is soon very difficult to see that there is an alternative. Results are seen through the filter of this underlying assumption, and appear to justify the assumption.
The philosophical basis of "objectivism" comes from Rene Descartes. Descartes had the bizarre belief that humans were the only animals who were conscious, because only they had a soul. Thus an animal who was "obviously" in pain was in fact simply an automaton, exhibiting reflexes. Descartes ideas were used to justify the vivisection of conscious dogs by scientists.
A very similar attitude is followed today. So long as a scientist imagines that he is dealing with inanimate objects which "show reflexes" rather than living creatures which experience pain, he will feel free to do whatever he pleases to them, in the belief that no harm is being done.
Descartes ideas were based on the Christian belief that only humans have souls. Yet scientists have more to go on than the Bible, and should know better. All of biological science shows the essential similarity between the physiology of humans and that of other mammals - and especially, that of other apes. A reasonable starting point would therefore be to assume that humans and other animals experience the world similarly - unless there is some evidence to the contrary. For example, our brains are almost identical to the brains of other apes. We have larger cortices, and, consequently, are more intelligent. Chimpanzees are essentially like small, furry, unintelligent humans. But when we see a person who is unintelligent, we dont automatically assume that this person is incapable of feeling pain.
In any case, the scientific attitude of objectivism flies in the face of everyday experience. In his social experience with other humans, the scientist assumes that other people are capable of experiencing emotions, even though he has no direct knowledge of this. A scientist would presumably be aware that his pet dog is pleased to see him when he gets home. Yet this common-sense approach drops away completely when the same scientist starts to do his experiments.
Rene Descartes ideas were based on the Christian view that there is an impenetrable divide between humans and other animals. Because humans have a soul, they are conscious and have feelings, whereas other animals do not.
Whereas this may be a Christian view, it is not based on anything found in the Bible. In fact, the Bible has very little to say about animal welfare. Following that tradition, despite centuries of moral rules and regulations, there does not appear to have been a single pope or bishop who has spoken up against animal cruelty, let alone done anything concrete to help prevent it.
A bizarre consequence of this attitude is that, whereas the church is aggressively opposed to abortion, on the grounds that "life is sacred", it is indifferent to the fate of other species. Even a bacterium is more complicated than a single fertilised human ovum. The churchs attitude might be better expressed as "only human life is sacred". Other apes, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, are on the same mental level as a small child or some mentally-retarded humans. Yet the Christian church, for all its apparent "love" is completely indifferent to their fate.
While it is true that the distinction between humans and other animals in peoples minds has roots in science and religion, there is another reason why it has persisted: the idea that humans are in some way unique seems, at first hand, to make sense. The lives of humans living in Western societies appear to be complex: they drive cars, use computers, read books and watch television. There appears to be an enormous gulf between the way in which humans live and the way in which other animals live.
However, this apparent complexity hides the fact that most of this activity is not particularly complex. A chimpanzee can watch television, and can be taught to use a simple computer program. Of course, he wont be able to understand much of what he sees: but then, neither would a human from the stone-age. Driving a car along a road may involve more technology than running along a rocky mountain path, but it is not necessarily any more complicated. The sophistication of the technology hides the fact that most of these activities require little real intelligence.
It is true that some humans have the ability to actually design the technology which others passively take advantage of, and other species apparently cannot. However, no human has ever lived who could design even the simplest piece of technology from scratch. An engineer who designs a car engine does not need to re-invent the internal combustion engine, or to work out how to produce steel from iron ore. The complexity of our society depends on a tiny number of truly creative people, and the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of development.
It is very difficult to strip away those parts of our existence which are products of culture, rather than our essential "humanness". One way is to look at human societies which have no technology beyond simple shelters and weapons - such as those in the Amazonian rain forest. Clearly, even without modern technology, these people are indisputably human.
However, there is still a difference between the life of these people and the lives of other apes living in a similar environment. Even Amazonian Indians have shelters, language, and simple tools. They have fire, and cook their food, for example. However, imagine a group of humans born on a strange planet, with no knowledge of human technology. Given that it took humans several million years to discover fire, weapons or shelter, it seems unlikely that anyone could do this from scratch within a single lifetime. People in this situation would live their lives much like chimpanzees, yet would still be completely human.
The bulk of the difference between human lives and the lives of other apes is accounted for by culture: if you strip away the accumulated knowledge which humans have built up over the period of their existence, there is very little that distinguishes them from chimpanzees or gorillas. Nevertheless, the fact remains that humans have actually built up a civilisation, while chimpanzees and gorillas have not. Is this just chance, or are there some ways in which humans are actually different?
Humans are different from other apes in a number of ways. They are more intelligent, and they are able to use their intelligence more effectively. Essentially, they are able to leverage the advantages that they do have, so that a relatively small real difference in structure has lead to an enormous difference in the way they live their lives.
One of the most important structural advantages which humans have is their prehensile hands. Although other animals, such as elephants and dolphins, have brains which are larger than humans, their ability to develop technology is virtually zero.
The second advantage which humans have is their use of language. There appears to be a special part of the human brain which is devoted to language: this means that, whereas other species can use language, they do so much less readily than humans. Because humans have developed language, the contribution made by the tiny number of individuals who have been creative has been kept. The invention of writing, the printing press and cheap computers have created the means for ideas to be preserved and shared, so that finally, in the last 0.2% of their existence, humans have been able to pull ahead of the other apes.
Some people might argue that the use of language demonstrates that humans are qualitatively more intelligent than other animals. However, language is not necessarily a reflection of general intelligence. Although it is true that it requires a high level of intelligence to construct or understand a complicated argument, it appears that the basic ability to use language is "hard-wired", and not dependent upon a high intellect.
Moreover, just as most humans are not capable of designing or even understanding the technology that they use, most humans are not capable of using sophisticated language. Most people communicate in pre-constructed phrases and cliches; most conversation is essentially trivial; and most people are unable to follow much beyond very basic logic. Some humans, undoubtedly, can achieve much more. But most cannot; and even those who can barely communicate even the simplest ideas are still considered to be human. Indeed, a person who has been deaf and dumb from birth is still considered human.
So language is not a quintessentially human quality. It is true that most humans are vastly better at language than most non-humans. However, not all humans have language, and not all animals who have language are human.
While it is obviously true that humans are more intelligent than most other species, the case for taking their needs seriously does not rest on the extent to which there is an overlap. The brains of other mammals, for example, are different from those of humans primarily in that the latter have much bigger cortices. This explains why humans are better able to think. But it has no bearing on their ability to experience pain or to suffer. Surely, this should be the test of whether they should be protected from harm.
The scientific viewpoint seems to have shaped attitudes towards animals in two ways. On the one hand, as discussed above, there has been a strong need to "objectify" animals: in other words, to attempt to understand their behaviour, rather than their experiences. The underlying dogma here is that it is not "scientific" to attempt to see things from the animals point of view. So a scientist can talk about a dog exhibiting a conditioned reflex to an electric shock, but not about the animal knowing that he will be hurt, and realising that he must do something to avoid that.
But scientists seem to have taken a second step, which removes them still further from the experiences of the animals themselves. They deny that the emotions exist in the first place.
The first step is essentially saying "yes, I know that this animal is angry, but I cant deal with this. In order to study what is happening, I have to stick to what the animal is actually doing."
The second step is to deny the fact that the animal has any emotions in the first place. This step requires a complete denial of reality.
Most people who live with dogs or cats have constant evidence that these animals have feelings, and, indeed, this would seem to be the "common sense" conclusion.
The third factor that has limited progress on animal welfare is that animal abuse is deeply enmeshed in human culture and the human economy. Most people in western societies eat animal flesh, and use animal parts or skin for clothes. Animal research is (or appears to be) a central part of medical research. And institutions which are largely based on animal abuse, such as zoos and circuses, are commonplace. In some countries, such as the US, hunting of deer is considered a sport by certain sections of society.
Even attitudes towards animals which appear to be benign are still based on a mind-set in which the animal is essentially an item of property. For example, many people have animal companions or "pets". These are part of the family; except that, unlike the rest of the family, they are killed if it becomes inconvenient to keep them. Cats live reasonably successfully with humans because they stay in a state of kitten-like dependency throughout adulthood, and see their human companions as surrogate parents. They act as surrogate children to humans. Dogs see their human companions as pack leaders. Consequently, they behave much like an extremely loyal friend, and mimic the company of other humans. While neither of these relationships is particularly harmful, it reinforces an attitude whereby animals exist to serve human needs, and their own needs are only important when they coincide with those of humans.
Circuses are very obviously exploitative, and are increasingly being seen as such. Nevertheless, they are still legal. Modern zoos make a real effort to treat animals in more natural conditions, but nevertheless give nothing more than the illusion that the animals are in the wild.
However, overwhelmingly the most significant way in which the average human interacts with humans is indirectly, as a source of food. By far the greatest amount of animal cruelty takes place in the name of providing animal parts for human consumption at the lowest possible price. It is in this interaction where the most harm is done, and also where the vested interests are deepest.
Caring properly for animals which are being reared for food inevitably costs money: indeed, the only reason why animals are reared under such brutal conditions is because the intense competition between agribusiness corporations means that only the cheapest survive. However, this is only the case because consumers do not care about anything more than the cost and quality of the meat they are eating. The needs of the animals to have a decent quality of life are in direct conflict with the needs of the humans to save a little money. The obvious alternative, to eat less meat, is taking a while to catch on.
In practice, therefore, humans in western societies interact with other species almost exclusively through abusive relationships. Humans attitudes towards other animals are shaped by the belief that they need to eat meat; by their need for companionship; or by their need for amusement. For example, Australia is famous for its koala bears. However, most Australians have never seen a koala bear outside a zoo or sanctuary. Badgers, stoats and weasels are common in England; yet most English people have never seen any of these. It is very rare for a person living in a western society to meet an animal on equal terms, in which both the human and the other animal are both free.
Not only are the interactions of individual people with animals largely concerned with forms of abuse: the same is true of the economy as a whole. Virtually all the people whose job it is to help sick and injured animals are paid for by people who are exploiting them in some way, such as farmers. The ministries of state that are concerned with animals are, likewise, concerned with ways of making them more profitable, or for protecting humans against the consequences of animal disease.
Large sectors of the economy are also dragged into an abusive relationship with animals because they have products which are tested on animals. Recently, a great deal of attention has been directed at drug and cosmetics testing; however, most new products which could conceivably be toxic are tested on live animals.
But again, the deepest interaction between the human economy and animal welfare takes place in the production of food. In the US, and increasingly in other countries as well, animals are reared for food by a small number of huge agribusiness corporations. These companies are often owned by other companies whose business is apparently unrelated.
The consequence of all this is that attempts to protect animal welfare come up against vested interests which have the resources to influence legislation and manipulate the media. Television stations and magazines are dependent on advertising, and advertising is more likely to come from organisations that are abusing animals than from organisations that are trying to protect them.
Partly as a result of this imbalance, animal welfare groups are increasingly portrayed in the media as marginal organisations whose members are fanatical. There is a sad irony in the fact that a person who abuses thousands of animals purely in order to make money is regarded as a pillar of the establishment; while a person who tries to help those animals, with no personal gain and at considerable risk, is regarded as an outcast.