Posts Tagged ‘animal rights’

Carl Sagan and Animal Rights

November 9, 2011

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

Arab Rationalist & Animal Rights Poetry

November 30, 2010

I want to share with you an interesting and inspirational story of a fellow animal rights advocate and rationalist from Syria, Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri. He was born in 973CE (died 1057CE) and after losing his eyesight at a young age to smallpox became a philosopher, poet, and freethinker. He was a thorn in the side of the Islamic religious authorities, having once said, “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.” He may have even have wrote one of his later books, Paragraphs and Periods (Al Fusul wal ghayat), as a parody of the Qur’an with it’s “divine” poetry unmatchable by human hand. His snark was not just reserved for Islam though,

“They all err – Moslems, Christians, Jews, and Magians:
Two make Humanity’s universal sect:
One man intelligent without religion,
And, one religious without intellect”

He also wittily poked at creation myths,

“You said, “A wise one created us “;
That may be true, we would agree.
“Outside of time and space,” you postulated.
Then why not say at once that you
Propound a mystery immense
Which tells us of our lack of sense?”

When he was about 30 years old Al-Ma’arri adopted what we would recognize today as a vegan lifestyle*, avoiding all meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. He condemned blood sport, eschewed use of leather and fur, and even wore wooden as opposed to leather shoes. He was also fond of nudism, perhaps he started the first “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign. My favorite poem, I No Longer Steal from Nature, couldn’t be more awesome

You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!

Even by todays standards he was pretty hardcore! After doing the research for this post I’m inspired to track down a book of his writings to learn more about this very interesting figure.

*To be honest I did find a reference to him wearing wool, I’m not sure why he let this one thing slide. It certainly doesn’t jive with his philosophy of not stealing the products of another labor. Given his cultural context I think he was still pretty progressive.

The Tragedy of Dolphin-Safe Tuna

November 25, 2010

A horrific example of the failure of greenwashing and a speciesist approach to animal protection is the problem of dolphin-safe tuna. It hit the public consciousness when various environmental organizations such as the Earth Island Institute and Greenpeace started awareness and lobbying campaigns to stop the then common tuna fishing methods being used in the Eastern Pacific Ocean which they considered cruel and environmentally unsound. You see, schools of yellowfin tuna tend to be associated with dolphins in the EPO, possibly either for protection or to help locate prey, by following these dolphins fishermen were able to easily locate the tuna. Then they would encircle the school of fish, dolphins and all, with purse seine nets. While many crews made efforts to allow the dolphin to escape, numerous dolphin died of asphyxiation, from stress, or were bludgeoned to death, hundreds of thousands of dolphins were killed each year.

The legal campaign was successful and eventually “dolphin-safe” labeling was codified in US law. To prevent unnecessary suffering or death, the new dolphin-safe guidelines essentially banned the technique of “dolphin fishing”, the intentional chasing or encirclement of dolphins. This policy applies only to US boats or boats catching tuna to be sold in the US, for other nations “dolphin fishing” is still common and many foreign vessel have filled the gap US vessels left when many of them were decommissioned or started fishing the west pacific. Since then tuna fishers wishing to sell their tuna in the US have had to go through much greater trouble and expense to locate free swimming schools of tuna, known as “school fishing”, or resort to Fish Aggregation Devices (FAD) also know as “log fishing”. These are floating objects are designed to aggregate marine life to one spot for easy netting, though the reason they attract such a wide variety(over 300 species) of marine life in not fully understood and may vary by species. The more high tech FADs are be equipped with GPS and sonar to allow for remote monitoring of number of fish and one ship can service multiple FADs, a very efficient method to generate large catches. This efficiency comes at a price though. While it does kill less dolphins, compared to netting tuna associated with dolphins, netting tuna around FADs creates significantly more non-cetacean “bycatch”, an industry euphemism for the “unintentional” victims of their nets.

Scientists with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) came up with these estimates of bycatch rates per 10,000 sets of purse seine nets for the three fishing methods mentioned earlier. The method called “school fishing” of netting “immature yellowfin tuna found swimming in schools, will cause the deaths of eight dolphins; 2.4 million small tuna; 2100 mahi mahi; 12,220 sharks; 530 wahoo; 270 rainbow runners; 1010 other small fish; 1440 billfish; and 580 sea turtles.”

Using FADs and catching “immature tuna swimming under logs and other debris will cause the deaths of 25 dolphins; 130 million small tunas; 513,870 mahi mahi; 139,580 sharks; 118,660 wahoo; 30,050 rainbow runners; 12,680 other small fish; 6540 billfish; 2980 yellowtail; 200 other large fish; 1020 sea turtles; and 50 triggerfish.”

And using the old methods to net “mature yellowfin swimming in association with dolphins, will cause the deaths of 4000 dolphins (0.04 percent of a population that replenishes itself at the rate of two to six percent per year); 70,000 small tunas; 100 mahi mahi; 3 other small fish; 520 billfish; 30 other large fish; and 100 sea turtles. No sharks, no wahoo, no rainbow runners, no yellowtail, and no triggerfish and dramatic reductions in all other species but dolphins.”

Rod and reel fishing wasn’t mentioned and while it has low bycatch rates, it is expensive, time consuming, and the large amount of baitfish required would have to be considered. You may also notice that for the first two methods “immature tuna” are referred to where as for the “dolphin-fishing” method “mature tuna” are referred to. This is because the fish attracted to FADs or found free swimming tend to be younger and smaller than schools swimming with dolphins, scooping up these fish will have a greater effect on the tuna population as a whole causing subsequent catches to drop by as much as 25%.

As you can see the current reliance on FADs has resulted in larger kills of sea turtles, rays, juvenile tuna, and at least several endangered species and is a large factor in the decline of some shark populations, an important issue as of late. While some conservationist’s response to this issue is to return to the fishing method of encircling dolphins, the anti-speciesist response would likely be to recognize fishing is inherently cruel and stop altogether. As consumers we can choose the tuna-safe alternative and avoid culpability in the deaths of dolphins, sharks, and tuna.

Ex-Vegans and Cholesterol Skeptics

November 24, 2010

Once again ex-vegans are causing a stir. This time it’s Tasha of the quite popular foodie blog VoraciousEats (formerly VoraciousVegan). In a recent post she describes her health problems of depression, fatigue, dizziness, and other troubles, her subsequent abandonment of veganism, and near instantaneous recovery “My first bite of meat after 3.5 years of veganism was both the hardest and easiest thing I’ve ever done. Tears ran down my face as saliva pooled in my mouth. The world receded to a blank nothingness and I just ate, and ate, and ate. I cried in grief and anger, while moaning with pleasure and joy…I had only eaten a small piece of cow flesh, and yet I felt totally full, but light and refreshed all at once.” Excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical.

I dont wish to disparage someone with genuine health problems but given the context and tone of the post it is clear that more than just a necessary dietary shift for health reasons has taken place but a total change of philosophy. Tasha arrives at the same “epiphany” as numerous new “happy meat” advocates, that a vegan diet is destructive to personal health and the environment.

That numerous ex-vegans mention reading the likes of Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith(discussed earlier), or even the long de-bunked Secret Life of Plants just prior to their conversion makes me a bit suspicious. Especially when people sometimes appear to self-diagnose by matching their non-specific symptoms to those of a writer with lifelong chronic health problems. The symptoms described by many ex-vegans are reminiscent of “symptoms of life” experienced by imagined sufferers of chronic fatigue, Lyme disease, or gluten intolerance all of which actually do afflict some people but have in recent times become widespread self-diagnosed fads. The non-specific nature of the symptoms mean we must be very careful in ascribing them to any particular pathology. While people can have genuine vitamin deficiencies and medical issues, these things need to be confirmed with a doctor (as Tasha appeared to do) and preferably a dietitian not a nutritionist as the latter is an unregulated title. If you do have a nutrient deficiency you can usually work with a dietitian to find out how to modify your diet or what supplements you need while still remaining vegan.

Importantly we must remember to not put put too much stock into anecdotes about health on the internet. Keep in mind, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Another thing that raises a red flag for me is that many are abandoning veganism not for a traditional western diet but for raw, gluten-free, or paleo diets which are themselves on the fringe with mostly controversial evidence to support them. The attitude of these ex-vegans also does not seem to reflect an anguished anti-speciesist forced into consuming flesh, rather they revel in it as noted by Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD, “I understand that someone who believes they require meat may need to tweak their overall perspective to make it feel ethically okay to eat it. But, there is a big difference between choosing to include small amounts of meat in your diet for health reasons versus absolutely reveling in meat consumption as is reflected in Tasha’s recent twitter post: “Bacon, bacon, bacon…how did I ever live without you for so long?” Or this: “Lunch – bacon egg cheese and jalapeno quesadilla. I’m so happy to be eating food that I love.””

Tasha removed all doubt as to her bias when she dropped this hammer, “I know that the lipid hypothesis is completely fallacious, these animal foods won’t hurt me or cause me ill health in anyway, in fact, the vitamins and minerals they provide, along with the nutritious cholesterol and wholesome saturated fat, will restore my health.” Nutritious cholesterol!? Wholesome saturated fat!? Im sorry but as already stated in this vegan dietitians review of The Vegetarian Myth, “we have no dietary need for either saturated fat or cholesterol—there is no RDA for either. The liver makes all the cholesterol our bodies require. And the two essential fatty acids required by humans—both unsaturated—are found in plant foods.”

The Vegetarian Myth is likely where Tasha got this idea. In her book Keith writes mockingly, “The Lipid Hypothesis—the theory that ingested fat causes heart disease—is the stone tablet that the Prophets of Nutrition have brought down from the mountain. We have been shown the one, true way: cholesterol is the demon of the age, the dietary Black Plague, a judgment from an angry God, condemning those who stray into the Valley of Animal Products with disease.” The resources Keith sites are less than impressive being mostly non-scientific and pseudo-scientific popular sources with little reliance on the medical literature. The lipid hypothesis is the now well supported hypothesis that a major factor in heart disease is the accumulation of lipids on the arterial walls or more generally elevated blood cholesterol levels but Keith is part of a wider movement of “cholesterol skeptics” represented in part by groups such as the Weaston A Price Foundation (“butter is a superfood”) and the The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS). In stating their *clearly* unbiased scientific opinion on their home page THINCS had this to say “For decades, enormous human and financial resources have been wasted on the cholesterol campaign, more promising research areas have been neglected, producers and manufacturers of animal food all over the world have suffered economically, and millions of healthy people have been frightened and badgered into eating a tedious and flavorless diet or into taking potentially dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives. As the scientific evidence in support of the cholesterol campaign is non-existent, we consider it important to stop it as soon as possible.”

Just like Anthropogenic Global Warming skeptics, THINCS are skeptics in name only. They place themselves at the fringe of science ignoring vast amounts of peer reviewed literature in the name of supporting or tearing down a hypothesis often seemingly with political or economic bias. Their web page is filled with emotionally charged language alleging a conspiracy to cover up the “truth”. The overreaction from the global warming alarmists or in this case health-nuts doesn’t help matters when they make unfounded health claims of their own or present flimsy evidence such as the China Study. Contrary to what the cholesterol deniers would have you believe there is plenty of evidence for the lipid hypothesis, though they do raise some reasonable concerns about over-prescription of statins and the need for much more research in nutrition, they come off as ideologues.

The debate over the evidence for the lipid hypothesis is still very complex, so we need to be careful about any health claims we make. The most rational position is to not make positive health claims but to just stick with the ADA, “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.” What we need is a measured and rational approach to nutrition, be skeptical of health claims for particular foods and to not overstep the literature.

I highly recommend this article by Harriet Hall over on Science-Based Medicine and this follow up for an in-depth look at cholesterol skeptics by a knowledgeable doctor.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary review of Uffe Ravnskov’s The Cholesterol Myths is also well worth the read

Please go read Theo’s post on our companion blog VeganSkeptic about this incident and how it illustrates a greater need for skepticism in the animal rights and vegan community.


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