Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Dominion, by Matthew Scully

Dominion may be the best book about animal rights I've ever read - and I'm surprised to be writing that, since I'm not in its target demographic. Dominion is intended as an antidote to secular, left-wing, crunchy-granola, PETA/Greenpeace/Peter Singer type animal rights activism; the idea being, apparently, that a lot of people - and especially conservatives - find that sort of thing irrelevant and kinda crazy. The author is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, an established neo-con, and also a long-standing vegetarian, and he decided to write a book about the ethical treatment of animals in a way that might appeal to his kind of people.

It starts with a re-appraisal of what God meant when he granted 'dominion' over animals to man, and the moral weight he brings to bear on his subject is distinctly Christian. Scully announces straight-up and points out consistently that he doesn't think man is just another animal; he doesn't try to level the playing field between the two but rather believes that it is precisely the superiority of the human species that gives us a greater responsibility where our treatment of animals is concerned.

First of all, the bulk of the book is about wild animals, not domestic ones - in particular whales, primates, and elephants. This is something I have not read very much about, so the in-depth discussion of the safari industry, game hunting, and plight of the whales was new to me...and very disturbing. For the general reader, I think it's important that he starts off and spends so much of his time on issues that most people can agree on; blood sports enthusiasts are a minority population, the average person wants to save the whales and the elephants, so knowing what's going on in the lives and populations of these creatures is interesting, pertinent, and non-offensive. In particular, he focuses on the new "hunting as wildlife conservation" philosophy that seems to be going around these days - which I've picked up on, and found a certain practical truth to be found in the notion that people will only work to preserve something if it stands a chance to make them a profit. The problem with this theory, as the author points out, is the utterly disastrous results of its application.

He does move on to the issue of factory farming and scientific research that uses animal subjects. Most of what he has to say is just a new spin on the old lament: the things that go on in these factory farms are ghastly. Animals are treated there in ways that no compassionate human being could approve of. But he speaks from a religious point of view. He believes the factory farms are a true betrayal of God's command to exercise dominion over the creatures of the earth. I got chills reading the chapter in which he responds to those who defend their pleasures and luxuries - their furs and gourmet meals - by naming them according to the seven deadly sins.

He emphasizes that scientific discoveries of recent years prove beyond a reasonable doubt that animals have feelings and memories - and that the higher animals, like monkies, dolphins, and elephants, can suffer psychologically as well as physically. Much of what Scully says in his book can be reduced to one simple injunction: do not cause unnecessary suffering.

I loved Dominion because it was comprehensive, and because there really is a sort of simple, direct, moral weight to it that I have never seen before in this kind of book. I recommend it highly, and especially to anyone who has ever had qualms about the plight of animals but had little taste for the obvious alternatives.

Read it.

1 comment:

e said...

i'm putting this on my summer reading list.