De-Extinction

The Woolly Mammoth became extinct around 12,00...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pausing in her grazing, a mother mammoth casts a wary eye for signs of danger to herself and her offspring. Hidden from her view, a saber-toothed cat assesses his chances of getting a meal…or getting stomped. The cat is startled by movement behind it and whirls about to confront a vehicle full of people. Digital photos are snapped, then uploaded to Facebook. “Damn tourists”, thinks the cat, as it saunters away.

While this scene is not yet a reality, there are people who hope to make it so through de-extinction. De-extinction is the restoration of a species that has been lost to extinction. The most famous fictional example is Jurassic Park: dinosaurs are restored and made the central focus of an amusement park. There have been real-life attempts at restoring lost species, but these have focused on species that went extinct far more recently than the dinosaurs.

There are various ways in which a species can be restored. The best known (thanks to the movies) is genetic restoration: the genes of the species are recovered and used to recreate the species. For example, recovered mastodon DNA could be implanted into an “emptied” elephant egg and the egg could then be implanted into a female elephant. If the process succeeded, the surrogate mother would give birth to an actual mastodon.

A somewhat less known method is “trait” or “appearance” restoration. In this method, an extinct species is recreated by selectively modifying an existing species until it looks like the extinct species. For example, an extinct species of pigeons could be “restored” in this manner. One rather obvious question about this method is whether or not such a restoration should be considered an actual de-extinction. To use the obvious analogy, if after my death someone is modified to look like me, then I have not been restored to life. Likewise, creating a species that looks (and acts) like the extinct species does not seem to really restore the species. Rather, a rather clever imposter has been created.

In additional to the practical concerns of the science and technology of de-extinction, there are also moral concerns. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns involve he potential consequences of de-extinction.

One matter of concern is that the de-extinction of a species could actually have negative consequences for other species or the environment. A restored species could become an invasive and harmful species (directly or indirectly), which would be rather bad and has been shown by existing invasive species that have been transported by humans into new environments. In the case of de-extinction, humans would be re-created rather than transporting-but the effect could be quite similar.

It can be replied that the impact of a species could be sorted out ahead of time, especially if the species went extinct fairly recently. The counter to this reply is to point out that people have made rather serious mistakes when importing species and that it is not unreasonable to believe that people could make comparable mistakes.

Another matter of concern that a species could be restored despite there not being a viable habitat for it. This sort of irresponsible de-extinction might occur for a variety of reasons, perhaps to provide a novelty attraction for a zoo or park. This sort of treatment of an animal would certainly seem to be wrong because of the exploitation of the species. The reply to this is the same that is given when species that are close to extinction are kept in zoos or parks: such an existence is better than no existence. This does have a certain appeal, but it could be contended that restoring an animal to keep it in a zoo is relevantly different from endeavoring to preserve an existing species. It could also be contended that the zoo preservation of endangered species is wrong, hence the restoration of an extinct species to serve as a zoo exhibit would also be wrong.

One common argument against re-extinction is that it would be expensive and it would thus take money away from conservation efforts that would yield more results for the money. While I cannot predict the exact cost of restoring a mastodon, it seems safe to predict that it would be extremely expensive. This money could, one might argue, be better spent in protecting elephants.

While such cost arguments have considerable appeal, they often suffer from an obvious defect. This defect is that the argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not just one pool of money that is allocated to this matter. That is, money spent on restoring a species need not come from the money that would otherwise be spent on preserving existing species.

While it could be argued that money spent on de-extinction would be better spent elsewhere, it could very well be the case that the money spent on de-extinction would not, in fact, be spent on anything better. To use an obvious example, a wealthy celebrity might not care much about the plight of the snail darter, but he might be willing to spend millions of dollars to get a saber-toothed cat. To use another example, an investor might not be interested in spending money to save elephants, but she might be very interested in funding a Mammoth Park featuring restored mammoths and other charismatic but extinct species that people would pay to see. Interestingly, this sort of funding could itself raise moral concerns. That is, bringing back the mammoths so some investors can make a fortune on Mammoth Park might strike some as morally dubious.

Laying aside the moral concerns connected to why we should not engage in de-extinction, there is also to matter of why we should (morally) do this. In the case of natural extinctions, it would seem that we would not have a moral reason to restore a species. After all, humans were not responsible for its demise. Naturally, we might have pragmatic (to create Mammoth Park) or scientific reasons to restore such a species.

In the case of human caused extinctions, a case can be made that we should undo the (alleged) wrong that we did. This line of reasoning has the most appeal. After all, if we were responsible for the death of a species and we could restore this species, then it would seem that we should do so. To use the obvious analogy, if I kill someone (by accident or by intent) and then I get the means to restore the person, then I should do so (unless, of course, killing the person was the right thing to do).

In any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.

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26 Comments.

  1. Nice to and fro.

    That’s a good way to do it. Helps keeps mind open as real-world proceeds.

  2. On your considerations about de-extinction through “selectively modifying an existing species,” I think you draw a bad analogy. Defining a species is usually done in some technical or agreed upon way; for instance, the capacity to breed with others. Thus if the recreated species could have bred with the extinct species or if their DNA is similar enough, perhaps within the allowable variation that occurs within a species, that they would be designated to be the same species. And it seems that would be good enough to say we recreated the species.

    The “me” of “Mike” gets into considerations of identity and the essence of “Mike” that goes beyond body image. If you’re essentializing “Mike” as you are today or your general dispositions from your brain/mind/body, then that of course goes beyond the original DNA or zygote development. Thus recreating human body image does not recreate the identity of the self.

    When talking of species, (roughly) recreating the DNA is recreating the species. There is something vastly different about “penguins” if we take them out of the wild and they only live in zoos, but in general we would still claim they are one and the same species. And thus the recreation of the species would recreate that species, even if we put them into a different environment in which their behaviors and dispositions are expressed in vastly different ways.

    If you mean something more superficial, say instead of breeding whales to have the gills of an extinct fish we only breed them to have look-alike-gills that are actually skin flaps, then I do not think anyone would accept that we would have recreated the past species. Or maybe something like we breed mountain lions to have the fangs of saber tooth tigers but on inspection the lookalike teeth are actually one tooth further back on the bred creation than they were on the original. We again would say we did not really recreate that species, even if outward appearance is strikingly similar.

    If we go fine enough on that we may run into zombies. No, but seriously, I guess we could recreate duplicating functional organs that means the species looks and behaves the same but that the DNA is far enough apart that we would not call them the same species. Or that somewhere down the line, perhaps years later, the difference in DNA eventually leads to a difference in function or environmental reaction, or something along those lines. And then we would realize (or probably not realize) that we did not actually de-extinct the previous species.

    On human caused extinctions, I have seen some claims by scientists that humans coming to North America could be (partially) blamed for the mass extinction here, which would include mammoths. Though, that claim seems utterly groundless to me.

  3. “n any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.”

    And I am awaiting my mammoth burger. With some fava beans and a nice chianti.

    Do you know how wild animals evolved to be afraid of humans. We ate all the ones who weren’t.

  4. @JMRC,

    The bronto burger is where it’s at. 😉

    @Mike,

    Another limiting issue with genetic restoration is that the mitochondrial DNA is located within the host egg itself, and so must be compatible with the introduced DNA. This is less an issue with recently extinct species such as mammoths, but is a real issue for things that have been extinct for significantly longer.

    Another problem is that epigenetics (changes in gene expression not due to changes in DNA–for example, interactions between genes and environment) plays a significant role in how DNA is actually expressed. The donor egg being from another species is a particular concern with this. You can end up with an organism that has perfect mammoth DNA but that is physically and behaviorally different from the way a historical mammoth was.

    The behavioral aspect is another important dimension. A significant part of what constitutes our identity as a species is our culture–the knowledge and behavior we pass on to our peers and offspring. A completely feral human would significantly different from an enculturated human.

    This same problem would exist for a resurrected species. Depending on how they were raised, they would either be feral or enculturated by their parenting species. For example, you might end up with a mammoth that behaved not like a historical mammoth, but like the elephants it grew up with.

    Just some off the cuff thoughts. I’ll have to think a bit more about the moral aspects of all this.

  5. I think that it’s better to be alive than not to be alive.

    That may sound silly, but, for example, if I were only alive because of a de-extinction program, I’d be grateful to it.

    So, I don’t think we’d be doing wrong by the animal, even if it was just for it to live in a zoo.

    There’s the quality of life issue, but a life worth living doesn’t require all that much, for humans or for anything else. I think a good zoo would be more than tolerable.

  6. Steve Merrick

    To discuss species resurrection is wrong. It’s too late. We shouldn’t’ve brought about that extinction in the first place. And without the necessary habitat, it would be just like resurrecting someone who’d been poisoned (without removing or neutralising the poison): they’d just die of poisoning again. Correct moral behaviour comes long before extinction occurs.

  7. @Steve,

    Two points.

    The first is that 99% of species that have ever existed on this planet have gone extinct. This is true now, and it was true before humans existed.

    While many–or even most–extinctions in the last few thousand years have doubtless been due to human expansion in some sense, as a proportion of total extinctions over the history of this planet, the percentage is relatively small.

    Hence, when you say:

    “To discuss species resurrection is wrong. It’s too late. We shouldn’t’ve brought about that extinction in the first place.”

    The implication that the only extinctions we could be speaking of are those we’re responsible for is factually incorrect.

    Similarly with the idea that the only life available to a resurrected species is an ecological niche that no longer exists.

    The second point is that even if we have a moral obligation to work to save a threatened species before it becomes extinct, this does not mean it is wrong to discuss resurrecting or to actually resurrect them after they’ve gone.

    That would be like saying that, if we couldn’t prevent a robbery, we shouldn’t then act to return what was stolen.

    On another note, I’m not actually sure that it is morally wrong to allow or even cause an extinction. Does anyone have a strong view on this?

  8. Lyndon,

    True, my analogy does break apart under enough pressure. However, I think that my general point is still worth considering, namely that making something that looks like an extinct species but is not the same genetically is not the same as restoring the species.

  9. JMRC,

    You can get that mammoth burger-you just need to get a frozen mammoth. 🙂

  10. Dregs,

    Good points that are well worth considering. If the goal is to restore a species, then it certainly makes sense to consider what this really means. Is it just a matter of getting creatures with the same base DNA back on earth or is there more to this?

    As you note with the human example, there is the matter of getting their natural behavior back. Perhaps the restored creature would have “hard wired” behavior that would manifest automatically, but any culture the species had developed would presumably be lost. I’m using “culture” here rather loosely, of course. If we get mammoths that act like modern elephants, do we have mammoths back or just some furry elephants?

  11. Dregs,

    In general, I would agree that it is better to exist than not exist. So, I would think that a creature that exists because of a restoration program would (if it could reflect) approve of this program.

    I can imagine some exceptions, but these would generally involve what was done to the individual rather than the restoration itself. For example, if mammoths were restored to be raised on horrible factory farms to produce mammoth burgers, then they might be better off if they had not been restored.

    In general, I don’t see anything morally wrong with de-extinction itself, but how it is used and what it costs to use it could involve morally wrong stuff.

  12. Steven Merrick,

    Interesting point. If we plan to bring things back, we should be responsible enough to ensure that they won’t just die out again.

    Your comment also got me thinking about the ironic possibility that the capacity for de-extinction might actually contribute to extinction. People might say “well, if we wipe that species out, we can just restore it in the future.”

  13. Steve Merrick

    Dregs wrote:

    While many–or even most–extinctions in the last few thousand years have doubtless been due to human expansion in some sense, as a proportion of total extinctions over the history of this planet, the percentage is relatively small.

    Hence, when you say:

    “To discuss species resurrection is wrong. It’s too late. We shouldn’t’ve brought about that extinction in the first place.”

    The implication that the only extinctions we could be speaking of are those we’re responsible for is factually incorrect.

    I understand the latest thinking, surprisingly enough, is that humans were responsible for the extinction of the mammoth, the example used in the original article. I think the end of the Ice Age also had something to do with it. 🙂 But I take the point you’re making.

  14. Mike LaBossiere,

    “For example, if mammoths were restored to be raised on horrible factory farms to produce mammoth burgers, then they might be better off if they had not been restored.”

    It didn’t cross your mind they might be quite happy? Free food in a big warm shed. No one would have to tell them about the burger bit.

    It’s wrong to think of animal welfare in anthropomorphic terms. Yes, it would be distressing for a human to be kept like a dairy cow, but for dairy cows it’s generally fine (they don’t know about the burger bit either). Like it would be terrible to keep a human like a dog, but dogs are quite happy to live like dogs.

    With occasional exceptions, the general conditions of animals in farming is quite good. How do we know this, since animals can’t talk? It’s quite simple. When cows are distressed it’s very obvious. And more obvious to a farmer than a non farmer. It’s not in the farmers interest to have stressed animals – they’re less productive. Japaneses Kobe beef cattle are fed beer, given massages and played classical music.

    Poor animal welfare translates into poor quality animals, which equals lower profits – even bankruptcy. A beef processing plant will reject an animal in poor condition.

    I had been shown compilation videos of animal cruelty, supposedly taken with hidden cameras on farms. I found them a little suspicious, as farmers generally do not do things like beat their animals with iron bars for no good reason – or any reason. Like you wouldn’t expect a car dealer to bash their car stock with an iron bar for a laugh. Then I’ve heard, though I have no proof of this, that animal rights activists, have been sneaking onto farms, and committing acts of cruelty on animals so they’ll have videos for their compilations. From what I’ve seen that would make sense, in its’ own warped way.

  15. JMRC,

    That is why I specified that the factory farm be horrible. If it is nice for the mammoths, then that would be another matter.

    That said, there are reasonable objections against raising animals to be killed and eaten, but this would take us to another issue.

    As far as the conditions on factory farms, you are right that it does not make sense for the farmers to damage the animals in ways that would impact their profits. However, there seems to adequate evidence that factory farming is often rather brutal (see Peter Singer’s famous book). There has been some change-some farms have hired experts to improve the condition of the animals for reasons humane and economic.

    I don’t know about animal rights people brutalizing animals so they can get it on film and blame the farmers. I have heard this claim, but haven’t seen any actual evidence. While this tactic is not inconceivable, I’d need some proof.

  16. Mike LaBossiere,

    “That said, there are reasonable objections against raising animals to be killed and eaten, but this would take us to another issue.”

    Yes, there are serious ethical issues in raising and killing animals. I see a time in the not to near future where meat will be synthetically produced, and the idea of killing and eating animals will be as repulsive as the once popular cannibalism has become.

    “However, there seems to adequate evidence that factory farming is often rather brutal”

    Slaughtering is brutal. But it is just one day in the animals life. And if the animals were allowed die of old age, their deaths would be a lot more miserable. Humans have the dying thing down – the animals do not. This isn’t a justification – but in comparison to wild animals, farm animals have it very good.

    And you could say the same for domesticated dogs over feral ones.

    Did you know that the average American pet dog will receive more medical care in a single year, than the average sub-Saharan African will see in a life time.

    And in Marcopia County, Arizona, if you leave a dog out in the heat you will get a jail sentence. And where they’ll put you is Tent City – which is human beings trapped out in the Arizona heat, with nothing but a tent for shelter. When people are treated worse than dogs, you have to wonder about the dog lovers who are dishing out the treatment.

    But in general, better animal welfare makes better economic sense. It’s a simple fact. I did know a farmer who practiced very poor welfare, and he went out of business. If you’re cruel to animals, and don’t look after them properly, they have a habit of all dropping dead.

    “I don’t know about animal rights people brutalizing animals so they can get it on film and blame the farmers. I have heard this claim, but haven’t seen any actual evidence. While this tactic is not inconceivable, I’d need some proof.”

    Allegations have been made about this for a while. I have no proof. I am convinced though there is something very wrong with some of the videos I have seen. You’re not going to see a car dealer mess with their cars when they think no one is looking. I have worked on farms, and lots of people who do really hate the animals (literally getting crapped on while you’re trying to milk them can wear out anyone’s patience) but they don’t injure them, and they avoid distressing them. Because a cash cow, is very literally a cash cow.

    I’m not sure about the videos. Some of these groups, who do have good intentions, attract a certain kind of misanthrope.

  17. I recently discussed these and other related issues in an essay for Rationally Speaking: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2013/06/attack-of-clones.html

  18. “I don’t know about animal rights people brutalizing animals so they can get it on film and blame the farmers. I have heard this claim, but haven’t seen any actual evidence. While this tactic is not inconceivable, I’d need some proof.”

    While I don’t have proof, I have seen some instances where the video has definitely been staged. Staged by who and why is the question. For instance, animals being skinned alive and conscious – one I have seen I believe it was a small horse. There is no conceivable reason, why say a knacker (someone who renders horses – it’s also a pejorative), would chose this as a more practical method to the normal procedure. So someone has staged the action and filmed it – possibly for their own depraved entertainment. If it’s an animal rights activist, then it’s even more depraved, and incredible.

    Depravity aside. What’s interesting is when people make “throw the fat man in front of the tram” decisions in real life. And they do. The other day there was a disturbance on a flight over England – people looking for asylum. British fighter jets were scrambled. This was announced on British media as the jets being scrambled to assist the plane in landing. How does a fighter jet assist a hijacked passenger plane in landing?

    Elsewhere I saw someone ask, they claimed to be a frequent flier and wanted to know what the jets really do. They have a protocol. If the plane has been hijacked, and the hijackers won’t respond, if the jet pilot believes the target is in a built up area, his job is to blow the plane out of the air, to spare more lives being lost – the passengers will die anyway. And he has shooters pejorative. Throwing a fat man in front of the train is purely hypothetical – but the jet pilot’s position is not. The pilots who scrambled the other day, their job was to decide whether they needed to kill everyone on the plane, to spare lives on the ground – or they also have the pejorative that they do not interfere. The dilemma is far more interesting than the fat man. The pilot must judge if there is an intended target – they have the weight that the intention of the hijackers may not be to crash the plane – and if they exercise a shoot – they may be the cause of unnecessary deaths.

    Now, I find it incredible that animal rights activists would commit acts of animal cruelty. But what if a group of radical vegetarians, break into a farm intending to capture scenes of animal cruelty. And what they find, is what you find on most farms, boring scenes of vaguely contented bovine creatures. They could believe themselves to be in a similar situation to the jet pilots. The animals are going to die anyhow, so by cruelly attacking them and filming the cruelty, the animals’ suffering will serve an ultimate purpose of saving animals in the future. It’s still very absurd – but it’s in the territory of reality; in Vietnam, burning the village to save the village. With Iraq, killing tens of thousands of civilians, to save the survivors from a terrible dictator. But it can be argued, that the nuclear bombing of Japan brought peace and stability to the nuclear powers. If these bombs had never been used on a civilian population, would nations and peoples realise that MAD, mutually assured destruction, really meant what it said on the tin.

    Outside of abstract ethical dilemmas (Fat men and trams). There are deadly serious and concrete implications for ethics and philosophy in the real world.

    David Cameron is a graduate of Oxford’s PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and English), He got a 1st (which he likes to tell people if they think he’s being stupid). In the early stages of the Syrian civil war, after Assad had clearly committed war crimes and atrocities. Cameron said he would be quite happy to see Assad gone (he meant asylum not dead), and he wasn’t concerned about seeing prosecuted for crimes against humanity. People were horrified and he was criticised – but there was a very straight forward moral logic to his argument. At that stage Assad had only killed a few thousand – had he left, and been allowed to flee without fear of prosecution, it may have saved tens of thousands of lives. It’s very interesting in GW Bush’s approach being completely the opposite – willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of lives to get one bad guy – or really to serve some greater project. I believe Cameron’s position was sane and correct – but it seems horrifying and cold blooded

    “While this tactic is not inconceivable, I’d need some proof.”

    Conceivable is one thing, actually doing something like that is something else. Animal welfare is a very legitimate concern.

    For the sake of discussion we do not need proof. Like we don’t need proof that there was some event where a fat man was pushed in front of a tram to save some girl guides, or whatever they were.

  19. JMRC,

    Without proof, there seems to be only unfounded speculation about such videos.

    True, if the video was staged and if it was staged by an animal rights activist, then it would be rather horrible. But, if I had a billion dollars and if I had a Porsche, I’d be driving around with a billion dollars in a Porsche. 🙂

  20. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: posted by JMRC, June 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    “For the sake of discussion we do not need proof. Like we don’t need proof that there was some event where a fat man was pushed in front of a tram to save some girl guides, or whatever they were.”

    I agree with Mike about unfounded speculation. A fictitious scenario could result in a fictitious solution. In the case of the trolley problem, my position has been that it is a dilemma. Therefore, it is unsolvable. All answers are right and all answers are wrong. Part of the reason it is a dilemma is because it is a fictitious scenario with incomplete information. Garbage in produces garbage out.

    One other side note is bothering me here. The description is very brief because the trolley problem has already been discussed deeply elsewhere. For example:

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3729#comment-40198

    Would it sound like trolling if I repeat myself too often?

  21. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Without proof, there seems to be only unfounded speculation about such videos.”

    On Youtube there are videos of UFOs, ghosts, and Chemitrails. If I say these videos are faked, or deeply mistaken, is my speculation unfounded as I have no proof.

    I cannot prove UFOs do not exist, or ghosts. And if you’ve ever argued with a krank over Chemi-trails, they will ultimately say you cannot prove that some evil agency is not putting some strange chemical in the contrails of aircraft. If you ask a chemi-trail nut for proof – they offer photos of what look like, and what are common or garden aircraft contrails.

    A rule of critical thinking is when presented with a shocking or extraordinary fact, not to immediately accept it on an emotional level. you may want to believe something is true for emotional reasons, or believe some fact you find repulsive to be untrue.

    On an emotional level, many people are willing to accept these videos on face value, and on an emotional level the same people would react to a person criticising the videos as being evil and misanthropic.

    There is a reversed ad hominem. A person who cares about animals is good, because caring for animals is good. A good person tells the truth. Therefore if they make a presentation of animal cruelty it must be true. And then it reverses again. Someone who criticises the videos must be bad, etc etc etc. And it’s the same reaction to farmers not wanting animal rights activists coming onto to their farms and filming conditions. If there was a sick animal on their farm, as animals like humans do get sick, regardless of the conditions they are kept under, if the activist filmed the sick animal it’s believed its’ illness is due to ill treatment – this may or may not be the case, but if an alien visited earth, and went to a hospital and saw all the sick people there, they would be mistaken that they are sick due to mistreatment by the owner of all the humans.

    My speculation is not unfounded. Joaquin Phoenix’s Animal Cruelty documentary, Earthlings, is a stream of unrelentless nearly pornographic MTV style edited video clips of animal cruelty. The purpose of the video is to shock and revolt people into becoming vegetarians. It’s not a documentary where you’re given a narrative of where and when these events are happening. I have no proof of the provenance or nature of these video clips – but I have the proof in how the video is presented. Many of the scenes are extraordinary, and they warrant a detailed explanation, but there is none – or simply put that all treatment of animals is inhumane.

    The technique is enough in itself to make me feel nervous. It’s the same technique used in Goebbels’ Der ewige Jude. At the start of the film the viewer is presented with “documentary” evidence of Jews in their natural habit, before they put on the mask of civilized Europeans. The footage is shot in the Polish ghettos of Lodz, Warsaw, Cracow and Lublin. This is where the Jews were forcefully internally displaced to. In the film the Jews are shown to be filthy, living out of choice in awful conditions, begging and fondling money. The truth, there is no mention of in the film, is that the Germans had put the Jews in those awful conditions. And it’s the eye of the cameraman and editor that frames the Jews as revolting.

    It’s possible to make these films. Give me a camera, a crew, and access, and let me follow you around for three weeks, and I will be able produce a fifteen minute documentary “Mike LaBossiere: the most revolting man on earth”. Even if you do not do anything revolting, there’s nothing to stop me cheating, and getting the necessary footage by other means.

    Animal rights activist post videos of Racoons being skinned alive to make fake UGG boots. These videos are accepted by the worlds media at face value. Of course the media never says no to sensationalism. People are horrified.

    The quest that isn’t asked – which should be asked straight off by any journalist. Which isn’t asked, is simply, who in their right mind would try to skin a raccoon alive?

    If you wanted to skin a raccoon, would you kill it first, not even out of a humane consideration for the animal, but it’s a lot more awkward to skin one alive, and what if it somehow wriggled and gave you a bite?

    And I know a little bit about hide preparation and tanning. And though “skinned alive” is a figure of speech, I’ve never heard of it actually being done beyond some medieval torture.

    I’m sure the people who created the video have the best of intentions. But once you step back from the emotions, it seems preposterous. I would need a plausible explanation as to why the pelt was removed while the animal was alive.

    So, in 1940, had I attended a screening of Der ewige Jude with a good intentioned and deeply patriotic German friend. Had I said afterwards that I smelled a rat. Of course my friend would accuse me of having no proof, and of making an unfounded speculation – even end the friendship as I had shown myself to be a wicked person in league with the filthy Jew against the good and pure. And through the same emotional blindness it took many Germans years and years to accept that the footage of the concentration camps of the Holocaust were not allied propaganda films.

    Mike, if you can convince me anyone would have a good reason to skin a raccoon alive. And I mean a good reason. Until then I will have my suspicions.

  22. JMRC:

    How about the argumentum ad Singer?

    Peter Singer has built up a huge capital based on his ethical coherence. He earns a good living from his books and teaching, much more than most philosophers and is widely admired.

    Why would Singer blow that by lying about conditions in factory farms? Even supposing that Singer is an entirely self-seeking person, his self-interest dictates that he is scrupulously honest in his books, since the sale of his books (and the promotion of his career) depends on people looking up to him as an example of righteousness and if we catch him lying, he’s out of a job.

    Now, I suppose that we could imagine that Singer is in the pay of the animal rights lobby and that they pay him so well to lie that his philosophy career matters little to him.

    We could also imagine that Singer, while well-intentioned, has been deceived and misled by nefarious animal rights lobbyists.

    Otherwise, I would tend to trust Professor Singer.

    By the way, although I am a vegetarian, I agree that there are some “holier than thou” nuts running around in the animal rights crowd, but if we can’t trust Peter Singer, who can we trust?

  23. We can also refer to the work of Temple Grandin, who is well known for her work in improving the treatment of livestock. She works with the industry, so seems unlikely to be in the pay of PETA.

    Another source of information is the laws regarding the treatment of animals. For example, there has been a flap recently over a CA law that requires chickens to have a slightly larger area in the factory farms. Currently, chickens can be boxed without enough room to even turn around.

    Now, there could be a vast conspiracy falsely portraying the factory farms badly, but they could easily address this by inviting journalists and researchers to film the farms. However, what is going on is attempts to pass laws to prevent people from filming or taking pictures what happens on such farms. In Florida, a law was proposed to make it a crime to even take a photograph that included any farm land, even if the photographer was on his own or public land.

  24. Mike LaBossiere,

    “She works with the industry, so seems unlikely to be in the pay of PETA.”

    Why is there so much paranoia at who is in the pay of what industry or organisation.

    “Now, there could be a vast conspiracy falsely portraying the factory farms badly, but they could easily address this by inviting journalists and researchers to film the farms.”

    You would think. They’re paranoid. In Europe the farmers are quite open to visits. Generally there’s nothing to see. They should invite animal welfare activist on the farms. Farmers tend to believe in animal welfare too.

    Scandals are very expensive for farmers. The horse meat scandal in Europe a few months back cost a lot of innocent people in the chain their jobs and businesses. But if it’s something worse – like a farmer using banned or dangerous growth promoters – or cutting some corner that results in a disease outbreak then, then the impact can be huge. So farmers are nervous of each other – it only takes one to cause a catastrophe.

    “However, what is going on is attempts to pass laws to prevent people from filming or taking pictures what happens on such farms. In Florida, a law was proposed to make it a crime to even take a photograph that included any farm land, even if the photographer was on his own or public land.”

    One universal truth about farmers is they tend to be the most arrogant pains in the asses you can find. Those laws are very bad public relations. And it’s not going to put off the activists – it will make it more fun.

    Farmers also have to worry about other farmers. European farmers like to promote the idea they have higher animal welfare standards than America, and South America. If they could they’d have meat exports banned on the basis of animal welfare. “We have higher welfare standards – and they have poison meat” is a recent marketing technique.

    Farmers can be stupid. If there’s a legal limit on the minimum space required for a chicken, it doesn’t mean you should fit each chicken to that space. You can put thousands and thousands of chickens in a shed and still have plenty of room for them to walk around.

  25. swallerstein,

    “Peter Singer has built up a huge capital based on his ethical coherence. He earns a good living from his books and teaching, much more than most philosophers and is widely admired.

    Why would Singer blow that by lying about conditions in factory farms?”

    I’m not accusing Singer of anything. And his position is that all farming of livestock is unethical and cruel. He’s never going to praise the conditions on a livestock farm. And you will find excesses on small scale farms as well as large. It’s complicated, sometimes animals are far worse off on small farms than large. And there are conditions that may look unremarkable or good to the untrained eye, that are in fact bad for the animals. Unless the farms cease to exist, Singer will always have farms with poor conditions. And just as long as you have abortion clinics, anti-abortion activists will have photos of bloodied fetuses.

    Recently there was a piece in the Guardian newspaper, Daniel Dennett ordering his dinner. He ordered the steak but insisted on the animal having been grass fed (traceability is so good nowdays in Europe they often have a photograph of the farmer on the packaging and even the name of the cow – so finding out what the animal was fed on is easy – it’s also easier to send the farmer to jail if he tries any wise guy stuff). Dennet explained to the other diners, how his choice was more ethical as the grass fed animal had had a better life than if it was shed fed.

    But is this true.Does Dennet know what he’s talking about. Does he think because a cow is walking around a field it’s closer to nature, thus having a better life. Dennet doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The life of a grass fed cow can be far worse than one in a shed. They may be out in fields with little or no shelter. They may be cold and wet. They could be on land that is not ideally suited to cattle – the weather may turn bad, the farmer may not have enough grass and the animals may starve. I have seen grass fed cattle under appalling conditions – and it’s not large heavily industrialised farmer, it’s usually the small farmer with poor land. Shed cattle may miss the sight seeing opportunities of walking around a field but what is sight seeing to a cow. Dennet’s assumption is that because a field is closer to what he imagines a cows natural habit to be, then the cow would be happier – but that would be like assuming that if humans went back to living in trees like our closest relatives the apes, we’d be happier because it’s closer to our natural habit. This would only be true if the prelapsarian idyll ever existed. If humans are more comfortable in our unnatural habits, why assume cattle or other domesticated animals would be less happier in theirs?

    Dennet of course, is being a jackass, A jackass of the worst kind. Sanctimonious and superior. He’s being more ethical in requesting grass fed – he’s literally having his steak and eating it. He can tuck into his meat without guilt – even feel good that he’s doing the cow a favour. I would have thought Dennet was brighter. It’s the worst kind of moral equivocation: “I’m doing something less bad, it is in fact good – and my sins are forgiven”. It’s like the fat person who gorges on “diet” foods. Dan has done nothing for animals, he has served himself – a big juicy part of an animal. He has helped the grass raising farmer – before people started making the distinction, grass raised beef was considered in most cases to be an inferior product.

    “By the way, although I am a vegetarian, I agree that there are some “holier than thou” nuts running around in the animal rights crowd, but if we can’t trust Peter Singer, who can we trust?”

    Trust Singer if you like. I think he’s correct in taking that position – you’re either in or you’re out. I have a problem with Dennet’s position. It leads to dangerous silliness as well as sanctimony. Bio-petrol made from corn doesn’t help the environment, and it causes serious food shortages in parts of the world – even for animals. The people who use bio-petrol feel good about themselves – they feel they’re doing their bit. And if they’re doing their bit, they can treat themselves to a little more environmental harm – Like Dennet and his steak; he feels the more he eats the more he’s helping animals.

    I think we’re in the last few decades of eating meat that comes from live animals.

  26. JMRC:

    Dennett strikes me as one who always comes up with a brilliant reason to justify and even to celebrate what he is going to do anyway and who exudes comfortableness about himself.

    Singer strikes me as one who questions himself and is slightly uncomfortable about himself.

    On a gut level at least, I trust Singer, not Dennett.

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