I was talking to a runner about graphic novels, once again recommending Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny (which I imagine would be exceptionally treasured by a young person questioning their gender identity or sexuality, but is still great for anybody who feels they don’t quite fit in), when he recommended Gerry Alanguilan’s ELMER. An excellent recommendation — I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The comic’s premise is that chickens suddenly gain intelligence roughly equivalent to humans. Then they fight against murder, oppression, and prejudice in ways reminiscent of the U.S. civil rights movement. The beginning of the book is horrifying, first with scenes depicting chickens coming into awareness while hanging by their feet in a slaughter house, then the violent reprisal they affect against humans.
But that’s why I thought it was so strange that two out of four sentences of his short bio on the back cover read, “Gerry really likes chicken adobo, Psych, Mr. Belvedere, Titanic, Doctor Who, dogs, video blogging and specially Century Gothic. Transformed.” For a moment I thought the first clause might be ironic because his author photograph for ELMER was taken in front of a busy bulletin board & one sheet of paper was a diet guide that appeared to have the vegan “v” logo at the bottom — maybe Gerry is making a point about what he gave up! — but with some squinting I realized it was a “Diet Guide for High Cholesterol Patients,” the symbol at the bottom merely a checkmark.
Why, then, would Alanguilan want to punctuate his work with the statement that he eats chickens, as though that is a defining feature of his life?
It’s commonly assumed among people who study animal cognition that other species are less aware of the world than humans are. That humans perceive more acutely, our immense brainpower ensuring that our feelings cut deep.
The differences are matters of degree, though. It’s also widely acknowledged that humans exists on the same continuum as other animals, with no clear boundaries — genetic, physiological, or cognitive — demarcating us from them. I thought this was phrased well by Frans de Waal in his editorial on Homo naledi and teleological misconceptions about evolution:
The problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human. This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red. The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different. But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese.
This is why, after reading Alanguilan’s brief biography, I began to wonder what percentage of human-like awareness chickens would need to have for their treatment in slaughterhouses, or the conveyer belt & macerator (grinder) used to expunge male chicks, or their confinement in dismal laying operations, to seem acceptable?
In Elmer, Alanguilan makes clear that their treatment would be unacceptable if the average chicken had one hundred percent of the cognitive capacity of the average human. But then, below what percentage cognition does their treatment become okay? Eighty percent? Ten? One? Point one?
I think that’s an important question to ask, especially of an artist capable of creating such powerful work.
(And I should make clear that my own moral decisions exist in the same grey zone that I find curious in Alanguilan’s author bio. I support abortion rights, an implicit declaration that the fractional cognition of a fetus is insufficient to outweigh the interests of the mother. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s worth making clear that I’m not purporting to be morally pure.)
It’s true that humans are heterotrophs. It’s impossible for us to live without harming — it irks me when vegetarians claim, for instance, that plants have no feelings. They clearly do, they have wants and desires, they have rudimentary means of communication. You could argue that eating fruit is ethically simple because fruit represents a pact between flowering plants and animal life, which co-evolved. A plant expends energy to create fruit as a gift to animals, and animals in accepting that gift spread the plant’s seeds.
But anyone who eats vegetables (where “vegetable” means something like kale or broccoli or carrots — Supreme Court justices are not scientists) harms other perceiving entities by eating.
Which is fine. I eat, too! Our first concern, given that we are perceiving entities, is to take care of ourselves. If you didn’t care for your own well-being, what would motivate you to care for someone else’s? Beyond that, I don’t think there’s a simple way to identify what or whom else is sufficiently self-like to merit our concern. Personally, I care much more about my family than I do other humans — I devote the majority of my time and energy to helping them. And I care much more about the well-being of the average human than I do the average cow, say, or lion.
Moral philosophers like Peter Singer would describe this as “speciest.” I think that’s a silly-sounding word for a silly concept. I don’t care about other humans because we have similar sequences in our DNA, or even because they resemble what I see when I look into a mirror. I care about their well-being because of their internal mental life — I can imagine what it might feel like to be another human and so their plights sadden me.
Sure, I can imagine what it might feel like to be a chicken… but less well. Other animals don’t perceive the world the same way we do. And they seem to think less well. I’d rather they not suffer. But if somebody has to suffer, I’d rather that somebody be a Gallus gallus than a Homo sapiens. I’d rather many chickens suffer than one human — I weigh chickens’ interests at only a small fraction of my concern for other humans.
Humans can talk to me. They can share their travails with words, or gestures, or interpretative dance, or facial expressions. And that matters a lot to me.
But integrity matters, too. For instance, it seemed strange to me that David Duchovny could both write the book Holy Cow, in which he depicts farmed animals attempting to escape their doom, and still announce that he is “a very lazy vegetarian, which means I will look for the vegetarian meal, but I will also give up.”
My main objection isn’t to people eating meat. It isn’t even to people who understand that animals can think (with differences in degree from human cognition, not differences in kind) eating meat. Not everyone lives where I do, within a short walk of several grocery stores that all offer excellent nutrition from plants alone. It’d be extremely difficult (and expensive) for humans living near the arctic to stay healthy without eating fish. Those people’s well-being matters to me far more than the well-being of fish they catch.
And, for people living in close proximity to large, dangerous carnivores? Yes, obviously it’s reasonable for them to kill the animals terrorizing their villages. I wish humans bred a little more slowly so that there’d still be space in our world for those large carnivores, but given that the at-risk humans already exist, I’d rather they be safe. I can imagine how they feel. I wouldn’t want my own daughter to be in danger. I ruthlessly smash any mosquitos that go near her, and they are far less deadly than lions.
I simply find it upsetting when people who seem to believe that animal thought matters won’t take minor steps toward hurting them less. It’s when confronted with stories about people who understand the moral implications of animal cognition, and who live in a place where it’s easy to be healthy eating vegetables alone, but don’t, that I feel sad.
If you had the chance to make your life consistent with your values, why wouldn’t you?