Specious Species

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Specious Species

By Ken Shapiro, Ph.D., Animals and Society Institute

If lines between species are blurred naturally, in evolution, and, technologically, in genetic engineering, perhaps the use of the category, “species,” is not the best frame for ethical theory regarding our treatment of other animals. This suggests we re-invoke the term “moral individualism,” the idea that moral consideration should begin and end at the level of individual, not “species,” characteristics.

In our most recent Research Nutshell (Where to Draw the Line?), Jill Church and I discuss the “perennial question in ethical theory as well as in policy and practice: which species of animals deserve our consideration?” For followers of Singer, probably the majority of us, this is the same as asking: In what species are individuals no longer capable of feeling pain or suffering. The thrust of scientific literature has been to push this line further down the hierarchy of species – to include fish and even some invertebrates, such as the octopus discussed in the nutshell. Braithwaite answers in the affirmative the question in the title of her recent book – Do fish feel pain? (Oxford University, 2010).

There are two problems with this way of framing our ethical discussions of the animal question. The first is the assumption that species are arrayed hierarchically; the second that the lines between species are discrete or clear-cut.

Mary Midgley, a seminal thinker on these matters (Beast and man: The roots of human nature, 1978; Animals and why they matter, 1983), long ago suggested that evolution, traditionally understand as a tree, that is, as a hierarchical, linear array, was better described as a bush – a growth with no main trunk or single line of progression. In this view the array of species, the “great chain of being,” is no chain or ladder or tree, but rather is complexly organized, with patches of species, branches sprouting here and there at different levels. Features such as social organization and sentience, then, are not divisible neatly into groups of species that are clearly “higher” and “lower.”

Much recent literature in post-humanism (Wolfe, What is posthumanism?, 2010) argues that distinctions between traditional categories, such as human/other animals are blurred. Arguing from her own idiosyncratically synthetic perspective, Haraway (When species meet, 2008) provides examples of categorical breakdowns between humans and other species and machines to boot (respectively, pig valves and electronic monitoring devices in human bodies). Recent science supports these conceptual claims. Carroll (“Hybrids may thrive where parents fear to tread,” New York Times, September 13, 2010) notes that up to 10% of animal species occasionally breed with other species. In some instances, these hybrids can adapt better than either parent. Homo sapiens itself is a hybrid species, as from 1-4% of the gene sequence of European and Asian, but not Africans “was contributed by Neanderthals [Homo neanderthalensis]).

If lines between species are blurred naturally, in evolution, and, technologically, in genetic engineering, perhaps the use of the category, “species,” is not the best frame for ethical theory regarding our treatment of other animals. This suggests we re-invoke Rachels’ term “moral individualism,” the idea that moral consideration should begin and end at the level of individual, not “species,” characteristics (Created from animals, 1990).


Kenneth Shapiro (email) earned his BA from Harvard University and his PhD in clinical psychology from Duke University. He is cofounder of Animals and Society Institute. He founded Psychologists for the Ethical treatment of Animals and the Society and Animals Forum. He is founder and editor of Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies; cofounder and coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; and editor of the Human-Animal Studies book series. His most recent book is Animal Models of Human Psychology: Critique of Science, Ethics and Policy. He is one of the developers of AniCare and AniCare Child, the only psychological treatment models for animal abusers, and trains therapists throughout the country on the use of these models.