A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals
Selections From The Ark Number 203 - Summer 2006
The Myths We Live By
by Mary Midgley. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, ISBN 0415340772, 2004, £11.99.
This book of essays was recommended to me by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in answer to a question about the Church’s response to animals (see The Ark 201, p.21). I can see why this book would impress such a fine scholar and churchman. It is not an easy book to read – not that the language is technical or difficult, it is not. But the ideas it contains are so dense and complex that a little goes a long way. The style is that of a conversation with learned old aunt who shares with you the wisdom she has acquired over a lifetime both of philosophical studies and of observation of the world.
Many of the essays concern animals directly, with such titles as ‘Are you an animal?’, ‘Denying animal consciousness’, ‘Beasts versus the biosphere?’ and one I like particularly, ‘Biotechnology and the yuk factor’. All shed light on human behaviour and support the advancement of feeling as well as of reason. Dr Midgley asks which is the more scientific view in classifying animals – the one which sees them as including people in a wide living family of creatures, or the other ‘which excludes humanity, where the word ‘animal’ stands for the inhuman, the anti-human’ and notes the tangle that results from the ambivalence in our attitude to the species-barrier. One of the false myths mankind has lived by, she declares, is that of seeing humanity as ‘and’ nature, or worse, ‘against’ nature, instead of our being a part of nature.
Finally, among many other excellent points made in this book, the following is one which is worth repeating at length:
‘Quite often we are moved by a strong Darwinian or Franciscan sense of kinship with other creatures, which can be just as influential as the distancing and revulsion that replace it at other times. What is really worrying at present is the impression many people have that the revulsion is somehow more scientific than the affection and respect. This idea rests on two very strange suppositions: first,that science ought not to be inspired by any emotion, and secondly, that disgust and contempt are not emotions, whereas love and admiration are. ...
In general, most people now admit that it is wrong to ill-treat animals. But reformers who want to draw attention to ways in which we seem to be ill-treating them have to use our existing moral language, which is of course largely adapted to describing relations between humans. When therefore it is suggested that we ought to be conerned also about the suffering of other animals, this idea can have the disturbing effect that I mentioned earlier – it can sound monstrous. This happens particularly easily when the creature in question is a familiar one, but is not integrated into human life as a companion or servant. People hearing protests on behalf of such creatures often take refuge from their scandalised reaction in laughter: “Are you really making all this fuss about guinea-pigs – or pigs – or (still stranger) rats?”’
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