November 9th marks the 77th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth. Today we celebrate the life of a great scientist and promoter of animal rights. Over the years Sagan spoke out against anthropocentrism and called on us “to extend our ethical perspectives downward through the taxa on Earth and upwards to extraterrestrial organisms, if they exist.” For two and a half years Sagan served as faculty adviser for Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (CSETA) and was somewhat controversial for some of his views on animals. In his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors he remarked, “Humans–who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals–have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and “animals” is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them–without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeeling toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious.They are just too much like us”.
Carl Sagan had much to say on cetacean intelligence as well and was also a major critic of whaling going so far as to call it “monstrous and barbaric” and “murder”.
He also held critical attitudes toward at least some vivisection, especially primate research and was a supporter of the Great Ape Project which attempts to extend basic rights to Great Apes. Having received bone marrow transplants developed using animal models, he questioned the justice of medical research, saying he felt “very conflicted on this issue”.
PETA used to have him on a list of prominent vegans but have since removed him for lack of evidence. Sagan by reports wasn’t a big meat eater but wasn’t vegan either, he advocated “humane treatment” rather than “non-exploitation” and generally took a measured approach to controversial issues in his life.
Near the end of his life in 1996 Sagan wrote “In my writings, I have tried to show how closely related we are to other animals…and how morally bankrupt it is to slaughter them, say, to manufacture lipstick.” We would all do well to contemplate Carl Sagan’s words and their implications on our and other lives. He was an important and intelligent man with much to contribute to science, philosophy and general culture. Happy Birthday Carl, you are missed!
*please note this is a re-post from last year