Published on News24: 12 April 2018
The term ‘anthropocentrism’ refers to the belief that human beings are the most significant entity in the universe and the primary holders of moral standing.
It relates directly to another term, ‘speciesism’, coined by animal rights advocate Richard D. Ryder in 1970, and popularised by Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, in his book Animal Liberation.
Speciesism is the assumption that human superiority entitles our species to exploit other ‘inferior’ animal species for human benefit, and to exclude them from the rights, freedoms and protections afforded to humans.
The rationale behind this human supremacy/exceptionalism, is that our species is capable of cognitive functions that other animal species are not – such as self-reflection, abstract reasoning, scenario-building, and having an appreciation of morality.
This status quo begs the question: does humanity’s intellectual dominance give us the right to do whatever we please with the millions of other species that have the unenviable plight of sharing the Earth with us?
Humans are just very clever animals
Although there are many who view humans as unique and far removed from the rest of the animal kingdom, modern society is steadily adopting the view that we are just another animal, albeit a very clever animal.
As Charles Darwin stated in his book, The Descent of Man: “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties”, and that all the differences are “of degree, not of kind.”
Almost 150 years later, a BBC article titled ‘Humans are nowhere near as special as we like to think’, reiterated Darwin’s observations – that the differences between humans and animals ‘are not stark and absolute, but rather a matter of degree; and they get subtler the more we investigate them’.
Irrespective of varying opinion on this matter, one fact remains incontrovertible … that every animal species on this planet, including humans, is reliant on the Earth’s air, water and resources to live.
We’re also reliant on Earth’s complex biosphere and diversity of life, without which no animals – including humans – would exist at all.
Thus, believing that human lives matter more than the lives of other species (for whatever reason), is dangerously presumptuous, since it is the complex integration of all species that have evolved over 3,8 billion years and inhabit the Earth today, that facilitates humanity’s fragile existence.
Human supremacy and the cascade effect
The prevailing mindset of human supremacy is as precarious as it is unjustified because we do not yet fully understand or appreciate the contribution that every species makes to Earth’s biosphere. Every species has a link in the chain of life and should one species be removed, there could be unknown knock-on effects on numerous others.
This phenomenon of secondary extinctions being triggered by the primary extinction of a key species in an ecosystem, is known as the ecological cascade effect. One species most commonly associated with the cascade effect is the honey bee.
Yes, the human species is a far more complex and intellectually advanced species than the lowly honey bee, but without it, the natural world and human civilisation as we know it could be put at immeasurable risk.
Humanity’s primitive interpretation of democracy
In the human context, democracy makes a whole load of sense; but in the context of the planet, it makes no sense at all. Yes, animals do not have the intellectual capacity to vote, but if they could, what would they vote for?
Most likely many of things humans vote for … peace, land and food security, a safe environment to roam and raise families, an inclusive democracy, and living under the protection of basic rights.
The sad truth is we’ve put Earth’s indigenous species through hell and back: we’ve proliferated without restraint to dangerous proportions; expropriated 85% of our planet’s habitable terrain for our own purposes; transformed and/or inadvertently destroyed vast swathes of natural habitat; and subjugated billions of animals for a variety of purposes including milking, testing and slaughter.
We’ve annihilated/displaced billions of wild megafauna to make space for us and our domesticated species; eliminated 70% of Earth’s insects; stripped our oceans of food; polluted our atmosphere to the point that we’re changing our planet’s climate; and potentially set in motion an irreversible mass-extinction event that could render up to 90% of Earth’s species extinct … where’s the morality we boast of in that?
As a ‘supremely intelligent’ species, we pride ourselves in our abilities to self-reflect, reason, derive scenarios, exercise democracy and make moral judgments, but our autocratic behaviour towards the Earth’s environment – as a human collective – would suggest we’re not applying these attributes in a fair, honourable or sustainable fashion.
Speciesism in the context of sexism and racism
Over the last century, human society has witnessed surging condemnation of both sexism and racism, but the condemnation of speciesism remains conspicuously absent.
Although there are fashionable trends and movements supporting animal rights, vegetarian diet, vegan lifestyle and environmental sustainability, global opinion on speciesism has not yet gained sufficient momentum for its condemnation to become a societal norm.
Alice Walker, the African-American author of The Colour Purple, could not have addressed the issue of speciesism any better when she stated: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women were created for men.”
Our supremacy in perspective
Although we humans see ourselves as the ‘masters of Earth’, it’s likely our cohabitating species see us as the ‘monsters of Earth’.
Supremacy is an ugly thing in every aspect of human culture, so why do we consider it acceptable with regards to other species that do nothing but contribute to the living biosphere that keeps us all alive?
If humans are as intelligent, foresightful and moral-bound as we like to think we are, then surely we should serve and protect the interests of other species as passionately as we do for ourselves.
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