Archive for Philosophy

Should communication between pea plants raise tough issues for vegetarians?

I was just about ready to get back into my review of In Defense of Food this week. That is, until yesterday morning, when Michael Pollan tweeted,

Cool piece on how pea plants communicate with one another, possibly raising some tough issues for vegetarians. p2.to/1jpp

The basic science in the blog post, I have to say, is genuinely interesting. The idea is this:

[A] team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.

Curiously, having received the signal, plants not directly affected by this particular environmental stress factor were better able to withstand adverse conditions when they actually occurred. This means that the recipients of biochemical communication could draw on their “memories” — information stored at the cellular level — to activate appropriate defenses and adaptive responses when the need arose.

Stuff like this is fascinating to me, and I’d love to know more about it. However, I probably won’t look to the New York Times to further enrich myself because the Times seems to have a rule that requires all discussions of plant responses to external stimuli to include a discussion of the ethics of eating plants and its implications for vegetarians (see also this article from December 2009 and this one from March 2011).

I often hear vegetarians dismiss this argument as a disingenuous display of concern for plants, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that, at least when the argument is made well. Some animal rightists argue that killing animals is incompatible with generally accepted ethical principles. The “right” way to make the “plants like to live” argument is to argue that the very same line of reasoning amounts to an argument against eating plants. If the argument could be made soundly, it would present a problem for the argument against eating animals–unless the person making it were also willing to give up eating plants. The point is that an argument based on a need to be logically consistent doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously if it isn’t itself logically consistent. This an instance of the reductio ad absurdum, which I’ve written about in another context. Such an argument, it should be noted, has nothing to do with whether the person making the argument cares about plants or animals, and everything to do with proving that an argument fails to meet its own standards of consistency.

That said, I believe there are good reasons to give a pig more consideration than a pea plant. More than anything, I see this as an argument that arises from imprecision.

The New York Times piece asks,

Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?

I find myself unmoved by this argument because my “intense feelings of pity and compassion” for animals do not arise from the simple fact of the animals’ capacity for “basic learning and communication” nor from their “swift response to stress.” Such an argument would be even more foolish than the New York Times‘s Michael Marder implies. Indeed one could easily envision computers or robots that had similar traits, but most people’s reasons for not eating these entities are entirely selfish. They probably don’t taste very good, they contain toxic substances, they’re hard to chew, they’re likely to scratch our throats and mouths, and they tend to be a lot more expensive than most foods. I doubt any vegetarian would argue that a computer deserves better than to be eaten.

More broadly, I would reject the idea that the existence of plant survival mechanisms is evidence that plants take an interest in living. Indeed, if one considers the process of natural selection, it shouldn’t be surprising that an organism that’s alive today has mechanisms that have increased its chance of survival. According to the theory of natural selection, those organisms with survival mechanisms should be more likely to have survived. That’s exactly how natural selection works.

The question, then, is what makes animals different? I would argue that the difference lies in the fact that animals tend to respond to stimuli in ways that we can relate to. When we watch a video of a pig writhing at slaughter, it’s easy to believe that we’d react similarly if we were exposed to similar stimuli. Because we associate both the stimulus and the reaction with pain, it’s not unreasonable to guess that the pig is experiencing something similar to what what we know as pain. But that’s not quite enough to draw that conclusion; one could envision a robot programmed to react similarly. The most important piece of information is that science tells us that the pig–unlike a robot–has the capacity to experience pain and suffering similarly to humans. The pig’s suffering is similar in all of those ways to an experience that we want to avoid, but it’s much harder to relate to the pea plant in dry soil. In that respect, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to give the pig more consideration than the pea.

I want to emphasize here that I’m not arguing that an organism should be considered based simply on its overall similarity to humans. Instead, I argue for consideration based on sentience and the interests that arise from it but that sentience can only be meaningfully understood by comparing certain traits (for example, nervous systems and responses to stimuli) to their human counterparts. This means that some traits (e.g. intelligence) are not directly relevant. (If anybody wants to propose an alternative, I’m interested to hear about it in the comments.)

Might this line of reasoning lead to a stronger argument for sparing a pig than, say, a chicken? Perhaps, but the issue is complicated by the fact that it takes many chickens to provide the same amount of meat as a single pig. In any case, I think there’s a good case for giving either more consideration than a pea plant. I’d feel less comfortable saying the same of an ant or an oyster, and that doesn’t particularly bother me.

Inevitably, some will say that this line of reasoning is anthropocentric. Perhaps so, but I don’t see that as much of a criticism at all. Specifically, insofar as it gives precedence to sensations similar to those that we know as humans, I don’t think it’s any more anthropocentric than making decisions based on what we know (and can know) as people. And I much prefer that to the alternative.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: My Review

When I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the first time two summers ago, I was taken aback by a relatively innocent passage in his section on the Supermarket Pastoral food chain:

Taken as a whole, the story on offer in Whole Foods is a pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables grow on well-composted soils on small farms much like Joel Salatin’s. “Organic” on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we may know better than to believe this too simple story, but not much better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief. (137)

I had certainly never looked at organic food this way. I grew up eating organic food, my parents having discovered organics several years before the US Department of Agriculture began its certification program. When I asked what this word “organic” meant, my mother told me very simply that it meant the food was grown without pesticides. Over the years, I had to tweak that definition for such considerations as chemical fertilizer, but that was pretty much what I thought of when I saw foods labeled organic. I saw no “rich narrative,” no “well-composted soils on small farms,” and no heroes or villains. Nor did I see any reason to be surprised (as Pollan was) by a microwaveable organic TV dinner. That’s not to say that I was born with a detailed understanding of the workings of organic farming. I knew next to nothing about farming, but I never saw any reason to fill in the blanks with these kinds of stories.

I suspect that Pollan is right that Whole Foods would like us to think of these stories. Regardless, I’d venture to guess that he and I experience shopping at Whole Foods about as differently as two people might experience the same grocery store, given his fascination with stories and my own devout literalism.

Having been through The Omnivore’s Dilemma two more times since my initial reading, I’ve come to believe that Pollan’s passion for stories explains a lot about the book. For one thing, it does much to explain the book’s popular success. Not only does Pollan like stories, but he’s good at telling them. In naming The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the ten best books of 2006, the New York Times called Pollan “the perfect tour guide,” praising his writing as “incisive and alive.” Even B.R. Myers of The Atlantic, in a review that condemned the work as “a record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms,” conceded that “Pollan writes of the role of corn in American life in such an improbably thrilling manner that I have to recommend the book.”

At the same time, his fixation with stories helps to explain why the book troubles me in some ways. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, stories aren’t just a way to communicate facts while keeping the reader engaged. One might even say that the facts are secondary to the stories. Rather than base stories on the facts, Pollan chooses stories to fit an overarching reactionary thesis: The best way to eat is following nature and tradition, and our attempts at progress only make things worse. The facts, then, are worked into his narratives, but sometimes they don’t really fit.

Science is one victim of Pollan’s reactionary thesis. Nutritional science receives part of the blame for America’s health problems. “We place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success” (303), he writes. Yet much of his evidence that “we place our faith in science” lies in our susceptibility to weight-loss diets and food fads that aren’t supported by scientific consensus. Moreover, he seems oblivious to the successes of nutritional science in curing nutrient deficiencies, some of which existed in traditional diets. (To be fair, I do recall Pollan devoting an entire sentence to this point in In Defense of Food.)

Science also receives unfair treatment in the agricultural context. Pollan attempts to summarize parts of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament, which he calls the organic movement’s bible. Yet he makes Howard’s work out to be some sort of anti-science treatise, when it just isn’t. Pollan concludes from Howard’s treatment of humus, “To reduce such a vast biological complexity to [nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium] represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst” (147). While Howard offers plenty of criticism of modern agricultural science in particular, he does not criticize the scientific method more broadly. Indeed, he even calls aspects of conventional agriculture unscientific, proposes a few scientific experiments, and expresses his hope that science be among the tools of the agricultural investigators of the future. Howard’s work isn’t an argument against science. It’s an argument for better science.

Pollan’s chapters on the fast food chain are probably his strongest, but even there he occasionally oversteps. For example, he suggests that E. coli O157:H7 live only on feedlot cattle, when the scientific literature indicates that this deadly strain of bacteria is about as prevalent in grass-fed cattle. Later, he goes on to include one of the active ingredients in baking powder on a list of “quasiedible substances ” (113), apparently because of its chemical name. In both of these instances, he criticizes something new — feedlots in the first and baking powder in the second — with the effect of making something traditional seem more appealing.

The primary beneficiary of the reactionary narrative is the pastoral food chain, as represented by Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Even as Salatin describes his farm is a “postindustrial enterprise” (191), he explains that in some sense his farming methods aren’t really new at all; they imitate the ecological relationships that exist in nature. To Pollan the farm is “a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty” (124). Its product, he says, “looks an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch” (127).

Pollan credits Salatin’s farming methods with revitalizing Polyface’s soil without chemical fertilizers. In particular, he writes,

The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season. (210)

It’s hard to tell whether he grasps the fact that the nitrogen in the chickens’ feces comes from the food they eat, eighty percent of which is grain-based feed from off the farm. What is certain, though, is that he doesn’t raise the question of what is happening to the land where that feed is grown. We would expect from the earlier chapters that the corn and soy in the feed was grown on a farm that was less classic, less pastoral, and less beautiful than Polyface, so it’s striking that Pollan should choose not to look further. He also doesn’t bother to discuss the question of whether that feed grain might be more efficiently used to feed people directly. Either of these questions would be raised in a more fact-driven work, but there’s simply no room for them in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the answers might not fit the thesis.  (Of course, when Pollan later mentions “a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” (361), he’s talking about the vegetarians.)

As for the chickens, Pollan buys into Salatin’s argument that they are a purely artisanal product. He doesn’t mention that they are the same Cornish Cross hens that in the context of his Whole Foods meal represented “the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding,” and which “grow so rapidly…that their poor legs cannot keep pace” (171).

Pollan also points out that Salatin’s pastures remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There’s no mention, however, of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from Salatin’s hugely inefficient distribution system, which involves large numbers of cars traveling long distances to the farm. (This omission comes even after he’s told us about the fossil fuels used to transport his industrial organic fruits and vegetables from distant farms.) When Pollan tells us that one customer drives 150 miles each way to the farm, it’s merely to be taken as proof of the quality of Polyface meats. There’s no mention of any environmental impact.

Where Pollan’s dedication to his reactionary thesis is perhaps most obvious is in his discussion of vegetarianism. For although there are prominent conservative vegetarians (Matthew Scully among them), vegetarianism today is rooted in a progressive idea. It requires us to accept that we can do something, namely eat, better than our ancestors did it. Indeed, Pollan writes,

Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream. I’m not completely sure why this should be happening now, given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn. (305)

Vegetarianism is something new, and his preferred hypothesis for its recent success is the weakening of our traditions:

But it could also be that the cultural norms and rituals that used to allow people to eat meat without agonizing about it have broken down for other reasons. Perhaps as the sway of tradition in our eating decisions weakens, habits we once took for granted are thrown up in the air, where they’re more easily buffeted by the force of a strong idea or the breeze of fashion. (306)

Being something new and representing a challenge to age-old traditions, vegetarianism simply doesn’t fit with Pollan’s reactionary message. In the reactionary view, it doesn’t make much more sense than high-fructose corn syrup or factory farms. As such, it doesn’t receive serious consideration.

Even before his section on the ethics of eating animals, there are signs that he won’t take his debate seriously. He tells us, for example, that his friends’ son is “fifteen and currently a vegetarian” (271), as though vegetarianism is merely a teenage phase. He also makes no secret of the fact that he’s already made the decision to go hunting even before tackling the ethical issues associated with eating animals.

Pollan gives up meat for a while, inspired by an argument of Peter Singer: “No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering” (312). Yet he identifies himself as “a reluctant and, I fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian” (313), so it’s not at all clear that the experiment does anything to lessen his bias.

As a vegetarian, Pollan struggles with the social ramifications of eating differently. He points out that “my new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship” (313) and decides, “I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners” (313). Yet he’ll find himself able to justify only a very limited kind of meat-eating, which likewise represents a “personal dietary prohibition.” He then proceeds to discuss his alienation from traditions like the Passover brisket, apparently not allowing for the possibility that traditions might evolve over time. This rigid view of tradition is an odd one considering his plans to hunt an unkosher pig.

Pollan then moves on to a discussion of animal rights philosophy. He claims to be debating Peter Singer, but he’ll quote Matthew Scully when it better suits his point, never acknowledging any significant difference between the writers. Other times, he’ll just quote Singer out of context.

Pollan eventually argues for meat-eating on the grounds that it serves the interests of domesticated species, which would cease to exist if people didn’t eat them. He doesn’t do much in the way of building up the argument, only hinting at how the interest of a species might be defined and not even beginning to explain why such an interest is more important than the individuals.

Instead of building that argument, Pollan relays a story intended to show that animal activists are out of touch with nature. As Pollan tells it, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service need to kill feral pigs to save Santa Cruz Island’s endangered fox, and the animal rights and welfare people oppose the plan out of a single-minded concern for animal welfare. However, the very same Humane Society op-ed that Pollan cites to prove this point actually includes a substantive discussion of the project’s ecological goals. Moreover, Pollan does not address any of the more scholarly objections to the project, such as Jo-Ann Shelton’s argument that the restoration of Santa Cruz Island is motivated by human interest.

Pollan then launches into a section called “The Vegan Utopia,” where he points out practical difficulties of a vegan world. First, he reminds us that harvesting grains kills animals. It’s a true statement that people who care about animals should keep in mind, but Pollan goes on to suggest that we would minimize animal deaths by basing our diets on large ruminants. That claim is an apparent reference to a study that was quickly debunked. He then argues that a vegan world would force places like New England to import all of their food from distant places. It’s a dubious claim in view of existing production of soy, wheat, and vegetables in New England. He even goes so far as to suggest that the vegan food chain would be more dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers than our current food system. Thanks to the inefficiency of feeding grain to animals, that claim is almost certainly false.

As Myers has pointed out, Pollan does not mention a single thing he ate in his time as a vegetarian. Over the course of the book, Pollan describes at least ten meat-based meals, four of those in exquisite detail, so it’s telling that he doesn’t consider vegetarian cuisine to be worth writing about.

Pollan goes hunting, shoots his sow, and even enjoys the experience. Yet when he finds himself disgusted by the sights and smells of cleaning the pig, Pollan can’t help but take one more jab at vegetarians. He expresses pity for the “tofu eater” for his “dreams of innocence” (361), seemingly rejecting the idea that we should even try to do better.

In spite of all these points of contention, I should acknowledge that Pollan gets plenty right in the book. There’s a lot that’s wrong with modern industrial food production. Making bad changes to our food supply has had profound negative consequences for the environment, public health, and animal welfare. On these topics, Pollan can remain faithful to his reactionary thesis while still representing the facts reasonably well. And so a reader learns about things like the psychology of supersizing, the environmental toll of growing corn to feed ruminants, and the miserable life of a battery-caged layer hen.

I suspect that many people find the information about industrial animal agriculture more powerful because they come from an author who so roundly rejects vegetarianism. After relaying the horrors of forced-molting and cannibalism in battery cages, Pollan writes,

I know, simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry trade magazines, makes me sound like one of the animal people, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to (remember, I got into this vegetarian deal assuming I could go on eating eggs), but this is what can happen to you when…you look. (318)

It’s much harder for a reader to dismiss a message as the sentimental ramblings of one of the “animal people” when it’s coming from somebody who enjoys beating up on vegetarians.

In this way, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a book that bring awareness about important issues to a wide audience. The fact of it being such an enjoyable read further expands that audience. However, it should be at most a starting point for those learning about where their food comes from because the underlying reactionary premise sometimes leads Pollan astray. We live in a world that is increasingly unnatural and unlike the one that shaped our cultural traditions. Our population is growing, our planet is warming, and our values and lifestyles have evolved. It doesn’t make sense for our food chain to remain in the past. As innovations like battery cages and high-fructose corn syrup show, not all ideas are good ones, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make progress. The future will present us with new challenges, and we’d do well to keep an open mind to new solutions.

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The end of Pollan’s vegetarianism

After completing his factually dubious (see here and here) takedown of the “vegan Utopia” in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan is ready to eat meat again. He writes to Peter Singer to make sure that his arguments for eating meat from a “good farm” are good enough, and he shares Singer’s response:

“I agree with you that it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all … ,” Singer wrote back. Since the utilitarian is concerned exclusively with the sum of happiness and suffering, and the slaughter of an animal with no comprehension of death need not entail suffering, the Good Farm adds to the total of animal happiness provided you replace the slaughtered animal with a new one. (327)

It’s not clear to me whether Pollan’s point about the Good Farm adding to animal happiness is a paraphrase of something that Singer wrote, or whether Pollan has deduced this from Singer’s remarks. Singer’s point seems ambiguous, and it may well only mean that the Good Farm is good for the animals that live on it, not that it’s good for animal happiness overall. As I wrote recently, the Good Farm uses land that might otherwise be home to happy wild animals. I doubt there’s really any objective way to compare “the total of animal happiness” in two different scenarios, though.

Pollan continues,

However, this line of thinking does not obviate the wrongness of killing an animal that “has a sense of its own existence over time, and can have preferences about its own future.” In other words, it might be okay to eat the chicken or the cow, but perhaps not the (more intelligent) pig. Yet, he continued, “I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms.”
[…]
What this suggests to me is that people who care about animals should be working to insure that the ones they eat don’t suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless — for animal welfare, in others words, rather than rights. (327)

It’s hard for me to see Pollan’s conclusion following from Peter Singer’s concession that he is not “sufficiently confident” in his argument. As I understand Singer, he’s saying that eating meat from the Good Farm occupies a sort of moral gray area; it may or may not be ethical. (This also seems to be his take on the issue in Animal Liberation). Pollan believes Singer suggests much more than that. To Pollan, it’s not merely ethically defensible to eat meat from the Good Farm. It’s the right thing to do if you care about animals.

He goes on,

In fact, the “happy life and merciful death” line is how Jeremy Bentham justified his own meat eating. Yes, the philosophical father of animal rights was himself a carnivore. (328)

This appeal to historical authority is a weak substitute for an argument. It’s quite common for ideas to evolve over time. After all, democracy doesn’t mean the same thing in the United States today that it did 200 years ago.

Of course, Pollan wants to hunt the animal for his meal, so he needs to address the issue of whether it’s ethical to kill a wild animal. He writes, “[I]n theory at least a utilitarian can justify eating humanely raised and slaughtered animals. Eating a wild animal that had been cleanly shot presumably would fall under the same dispensation.”

I’m not convinced. The argument for eating meat from the Good Farm relied on replacing the killed animal with a new one. The hunter doesn’t do that. Under certain circumstances, the hunter might allow the habitat to support an animal that wouldn’t otherwise survive. The argument there seems much hazier than the one for the Good Farm, and Pollan hasn’t made that argument. Instead, he’s asserted that hunting “presumably would fall under the same dispensation” as the Good Farm.

Pollan goes on to appeal to Singer to support his point:

Singer himself suggests as much in Animal Liberation, when he asks, “Why … is the hunter who shoots a deer for venison subject to more criticism than the person who buys a ham at the supermarket? Overall it is probably the intensively reared pig who has suffered more.” (328)

As before, I don’t think Singer really suggests what Pollan says he does. Singer’s point is that hunted meat isn’t as bad as factory-farmed meat. That’s a far cry from saying that it’s ethically defensible.

Of course, Pollan is planning to hunt a pig. The pig, you’ll recall, was the example he gave us of an animal that might have a conception of the future (in which case it should not be killed under Singer’s ethics). This says something about his view of the ethical questions. As in the case of the meat from the Good Farm, his standard of ethical action seems to be based on plausible deniability. We don’t know that pigs have a conception of the future, so it might not be unethical to kill them. Of course, if a pig does suffer when killed, it makes no difference to that pig that the hunter wasn’t entirely sure that it would suffer. In the utilitarian view, then, hunting a less intelligent animal — one that is less likely to suffer — would be a better choice. In this sense, Pollan’s foray into moral philosophy looks more like an effort to construct a defense (I didn’t know the pig would suffer!) than an effort to do what he can to reduce harm.

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Animal Happiness: the conclusion

Michael Pollan concludes the section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma on animal happiness with a paragraph summarizing his argument against applying human morality to nature. He begins,

The fight over the pigs at Santa Cruz Island suggests at the very least that a human morality based on individual rights makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world. (325)

It’s my hope, that at the very least, my lengthy post about the pigs of Santa Cruz Island will convince you that Pollan hasn’t adequately demonstrated this.

Pollan goes on to ask, “Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we’ve decided it should be in human society?” What’s striking about Pollan’s discussion of the interests of species is the absence of discussion about how that might be derived from the interests of individuals. Pollan has cited three examples of collective entities which he says have interests, but all of these (I have argued) derive their morally significant interests from the interests of individuals. Why should the interest of a species not be determined similarly?

Pollan has also noted that the focus on the individual can lead us to consider disturbing questions, such as that of whether we should eliminate carnivorous species. Yet his argument for preservation of species as an end in itself — rather than as a means to satisfying individual interests — might also have troublesome consequences. It might, for example, obligate us to perpetuate existing transgenic organisms or to prevent extinctions due to natural causes.

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to tell where Pollan’s argument for preservation of species might lead because he doesn’t do much in the way of building up the argument. He merely suggests that a species might take an interest in its survival or the health of its habitat, but he never settles on a more precise definition. He also never addresses the issue of how we might prioritize the individual and collective interests. If this argument of Pollan’s is difficult to refute, it’s not because it’s a strong argument. It’s because it’s not much of an argument at all.

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The goats of Wrightson Island

In the comments, Scu (who runs the blog Critical Animal) points out that the story of the feral pigs of Santa Cruz Island has an even more ludicrous predecessor in Pollan’s work. In a 2002 New York Times Magazine article called “An Animal’s Place,” Michael Pollan recounted a similar story on a small island in the Indian Ocean. Here’s the story of Wrightson Island, as told by Michael Pollan:

In 1611 Juan da Goma (aka Juan the Disoriented) made accidental landfall on Wrightson Island, a six-square-mile rock in the Indian Ocean. The island’s sole distinction is as the only known home of the Arcania tree and the bird that nests in it, the Wrightson giant sea sparrow. Da Goma and his crew stayed a week, much of that time spent in a failed bid to recapture the ship’s escaped goat — who happened to be pregnant. Nearly four centuries later, Wrightson Island is home to 380 goats that have consumed virtually every scrap of vegetation in their reach. The youngest Arcania tree on the island is more than 300 years old, and only 52 sea sparrows remain. In the animal rights view, any one of those goats have at least as much right to life as the last Wrightson sparrow on earth, and the trees, because they are not sentient, warrant no moral consideration whatsoever. (In the mid-80’s a British environmental group set out to shoot the goats, but was forced to cancel the expedition after the Mammal Liberation Front bombed its offices.)

A rather significant correction ran several weeks later:

Correction: December 15, 2002, Sunday An article on Nov. 10 about animal rights referred erroneously to an island in the Indian Ocean and to events there involving goats and endangered giant sea sparrows that could possibly lead to the killing of goats by environmental groups. Wrightson Island does not exist; both the island and the events are hypothetical figments from a book (also mentioned in the article), ”Beginning Again,” by David Ehrenfeld. No giant sea sparrow is known to be endangered by the eating habits of goats.

That correction appears with the original article on the New York Times website. Michael Pollan also republishes the article on his website, but rather than owning up to his mistake, he prefaces the anecdote with the line “Consider this hypothetical scenario:”.

Doesn’t a story lose its force when it’s so completely fictional? We’re dealing with a fictitious entity (the Mammal Liberation Front) bombing an unspecified environmental group to protest the killing of goats on a nonexistent island. Are we really supposed to find this compelling?

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The pigs of Santa Cruz Island

Attempting to paint the animal rights view as out of touch with commmon-sense environmentalism, Michael Pollan shares the ongoing story of an ecosystem restoration project that requires the killing of feral pigs, formerly domesticated animals that have made themselves at home in the wild.

Pollan explains,

As I write, a team of sharpshooters in the employ of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy is at work killing thousands of feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island, eighteen miles off the coast of Southern California. The slaughter is part of an ambitious plan to restore the island’s habitat and save the island fox, an endangered species found on a handful of Southern California islands and nowhere else. To save the fox the Park Service and Nature Conservancy must first undo a complicated chain of ecological changes wrought by humans beginning more than a century ago. (324)

The pigs, he tells us, have attracted golden eagles to the island, and these eagles also prey on the island fox. The only problem with the plan is opposition from animal welfare and rights groups. Pollan tells us,

A spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States claimed in an op-ed article that “wounded pigs and orphaned piglets will be chased with dogs and finished off with knives and bludgeons.” Note the rhetorical shift in focus from the [species] Pig, which is how the Park Service ecologists would have us see the matter, to images of individual pigs, wounded and orphaned, being hunted down by dogs and men wielding bludgeons. (325)

If you actually take the trouble to read the op-ed in question, you might find a more complicated story. Pollan doesn’t tell us, for example, that the piece gives us reason to doubt the motives of the project:

But the park’s former superintendent, Tim Setnicka, who once advocated for the pig eradication program, now says it’s based on propaganda and junk science. Setnicka wrote:

“To help sell the fox restoration program, for which we had no money, we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs. This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig removal project. We didn’t really remind folks that by 1991, we had shot all the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, so there were no pigs for eagles to eat. Of course, the golden eagles eat pigs, but they eat many more foxes, which are easier for them to catch.”

Nor does Pollan mention that the Humane Society proposed an alternative to the project. The op-ed explains,

Even if we accept the premise that the Santa Cruz Island pig population really does need to be controlled or reduced, there are more humane and less draconian approaches. The Humane Society of the United States offered to help with a contraception program for pigs, using a vaccine developed by the Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center and approved for experimental use by the Food and Drug Administration. But the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy simply said no.

While it’s true that the bit that Pollan quotes focuses on the individual pigs, Pollan would like us to believe that the individual pigs are the sole concern of the Humane Society, but that seems doubtful if the Humane Society offered to help with a contraception plan. If the animal protectionists were concerned with the individual suffering, perhaps it was because they believed that the project’s ecological goals could be accomplished with less suffering.

Now, it should also be pointed out that proponents of the pig hunt argued that the pig contraception program would not have worked. I can’t claim to know either way. Nor, for that matter, was I able to verify the claim that Tim Setnicka said the project was based on “junk science.” Nonetheless, it’s striking that Pollan chooses to ignore these questions rather than address them, taking a few words out of context to support the point he wants to make.

By basing his argument on the words of an advocacy organization, Pollan also shifts the debate from the intellectual works of the animal rights philosophers to a more politicized setting, where both sides are trying to spin the issue to win over a less informed populace. To use this political debate as an argument against the liberal individualist view is akin to trying to discredit conservative political philosophy by quoting Glenn Beck.

Instead of focusing on advocacy organizations, Pollan might have addressed the arguments in a fascinating piece by Jo-Ann Shelton, a professor in the Environmental Studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara. Shelton argues, based on the earlier eradication of feral sheep on Santa Cruz Island, that “proponents of the eradication of feral species continue to adhere to an age-old paradigm that assigns value to animals in accordance with human interests.”

Shelton questions whether an ecosystem can be effectively restored and provides evidence that the project is motivated not by ecological considerations but by human interests:

To save the few remaining foxes, bald eagles are being brought in to drive out the golden eagles (Polakovic 1999; Todd 2004). These experiments in restoration reveal the problems inherent in suddenly removing elements from a biotic community on a species by species basis. They should instruct us of the complex interactions of the various elements of the present day Island ecology and the need to take into account the contributions of the introduced animals. They should certainly lead us to question whether restoration, as distinct from conservation, is a feasible goal, and, if not, why animals are being shot in pursuit of it.

Like the Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service wishes to recreate a pre-Columbian scene. However its mandate, as stated in the General Management Plan, is not simply to restore wilderness, but to open it for the pleasure of human visitors (National Park Service 1985, pp. 81 and 82). This mandate is flawed by an internal contradiction, because humans of European descent are, of course, as much an anachronism as sheep and pigs in a pre-Columbian landscape. Nonetheless, the Park Service, in accordance with its charge, has constructed camp grounds and hiking trails and encourages people to enjoy the experience of placing themselves in a scene which approximates the pristine wilderness of an earlier period. Ironically it has also left standing structures built by the ranchers, in order to retain the “historic scene” of the ranching era, but without the ranch animals (National Park Service 1985, pp. 36, 37, 41, 44 and 45). The projected increase in annual human visitors to the Island will contribute to the degradation of the land and adjacent ocean water. The Park Service has no tolerance, however, for other non-native species, and had planned to shoot the feral sheep, pigs and horses once it took possession of the east end.

This kind of discussion of the motives and efficacy of the proposed pig eradication plan is entirely absent from Pollan’s exposition in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Nor does Pollan address criticisms of the logic underlying ecosystem restoration plans. Shelton writes,

Species introductions and environmental change take place without anthropogenic influences. Had Santa Cruz Island remained until this day entirely free of any European human invasion, it would still not be the same as it was in 1400 AD. And even if we were able now to restore its 1400 AD scene, its proximity to the mainland will produce repeated introductions of “exotic” plants and animals through the actions of winds, currents, and human visitors. Therefore restoration will be an on-going process, managed by humans, and requiring constant intervention. The result — the conservation of native species — is arguably desirable, but the process of achieving and maintaining a pre-European scene will be only as “natural” an activity as is landscape architecture.

Shelton also raises a point that seems particularly relevant to the killing of the feral pigs. Referring to the removal of feral sheep from the island in the 1980s, she writes,

Another unanticipated result of the shooting of the sheep has been an increase in the population of feral pigs, which has grown from several hundred to several thousand (Pearl, Patton and Lohr 1994). In addition, golden eagles that have been attracted to the Island by the abundant supply of piglets are hunting to extinction the indigenous Santa Cruz Island fox (Van De Kamp 2000; Davison 2003; Schoch 2003).

In other words, the island fox’s woes trace back to the earlier effort to eradicate the island’s sheep population. One can only wonder what kind of unintended consequences the killing of the pigs might cause.

As Pollan tells it, the killing of the feral pigs was an ecological necessity, and the animal protectionists show themselves to be at odds with nature, focusing exclusively on the individuals and neglecting the species in their opposition. A closer look would have told a different story, one in which the “animal people” were less single-minded and the ecological science was clouded by political calculation and human interest. Only by giving us a very superficial look at the story is Pollan able to use it to support his point.

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The predation debate

(Updated 10/24/10 to correct a typographical error and 11/21/10 to fix another.)

After arguing that meat-eating serves the interest of domesticated species, Michael Pollan moves on to consider hunting in the wild. He writes,

The very existence of predation in nature, of animals eating animals, is the cause of much anguished hand-wringing in the animal rights literature. “It must be admitted,” Peter Singer writes, “that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is whether we should do anything about it.” (321)

Pollan doesn’t bother to tell us what Singer’s answer to this problem is, and that’s probably because it wouldn’t have suited his argument. Instead, he moves on to another writer who better allows him to make his point:

Matthew Scully, in Dominion, a Christian-conservative treatment of animal rights, calls predation “the intrinsic evil in nature’s design. . . among the hardest of all things to fathom.” Really? Elsewhere, acknowledging the gratuitous suffering inflicted by certain predators (like cats), Scully condemns “the level of moral degradation of which [animals] are capable.” Moral degradation? (321)

As a conservative Christian, Scully is hardly representative of the animal rightists. (How many animal rightists can you think of who write speeches for a candidate who supports shooting wolves from helicopters?) This doesn’t stop Pollan from stuffing Scully’s words into the mouths of other animal philosophers. He writes,

A deep current of Puritanism runs through the writings of the animal philosophers, an abiding discomfort not just with our animality, but with the animals’ animality, too. They would like nothing better than to airlift us out from nature’s “intrinsic evil”—and then take the animals with us. (321)

To Pollan, it apparently isn’t important that Singer doesn’t call predation nature’s “intrinsic evil,” and that he doesn’t say that we should “airlift” the animals from it. Reading Singer’s rejection of the idea that we should eliminate carnivores, I can’t help but think that Pollan misrepresents the philosophical discourse. Singer’s treatment of this question is not “anguished hand-wringing” but a matter of philosophical rigor. Rather than arguing that we should end predation, Singer is addressing what Charles K. Fink explains is sometimes called the “predation reductio”:

The predation reductio is an argument which attempts to refute ethical vegetarianism by deducing from it an absurd consequence involving the abolition of natural predation.  “Among the most disturbing implications drawn from conventional indiscriminate animal liberation/rights theory,” writes J. Baird Callicott, “is that, were it possible for us to do so, we ought to protect innocent vegetarian animals from their carnivourous predators” (258).  This charge, in one form or another, is often leveled against ethical vegetarianism.

If Singer had to answer the predation question in the affirmative, that would be a serious problem for his ethical theory. The question has to be asked precisely for this reason; Singer must be able to justify a negative answer for the ethical system to seem reasonable. Pollan seems to miss this entirely, instead mocking Singer for raising the issue: “(Talk about the need for peacekeeping forces!)” (321).

Pollan goes on to tell us why predation is a good thing. He explains,

But however it may appear to those of us living at such a remove from the natural world, predation is not a matter of morality or of politics; it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve — all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on those plants. (322)

Pollan would have us believe that the animal rightists’ focus on individuals would lead wild animal species to extinction. But the value of predation might also be explained from a more individualistic point of view. Indeed, the fact that the wolves allow for the continued existence of the herd of deer necessarily means that some individual deer benefit from predation.

When Pollan says that the wolf is “brutal” to the individual deer, he’s only telling us half the story. Certainly, when a wolf eats a deer, the deer that is eaten experiences brutality. That benefits not only the herd but the deer that remain alive. The deer that aren’t eaten face reduced competition for food, and this decreases the chance that they’ll starve to death.

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