Speciesism: Introduction

August 31, 2020

Speciesism: Introduction

Bill Peirson

Companions, food, labourers, experimental models, investments, hunters, pets, pests, transport, transmigrants, sporting champions, cousins, possessions, producers, products, predators, prey, gods, friends, and mascots: these are just some of the ways we regard animals.

My present engineering research relates to re-establishing the habitats of migrating fish, disrupted by the construction of dams and weirs on Australia’s rivers and estuaries. This work required that I gain certification in animal care and ethics. I have been impressed by the careful documentation needed prior to experimentation on animals, but also troubled by the nature and frequency of such experiments within the research community.

I am not alone in my unease about our treatment of animals. Millions of Australians were profoundly disturbed by recent revelations of cruelty in the live animal export trade, and the horrific abuse of racehorses and greyhounds that, only a short time earlier, had been idolised as champions. Battery hens, over-fishing, cosmetics testing and other issues arising from large scale industrial animal use have long been in the public eye.

‘Speciesism is the belief of humans that all other species of animals are inferior and may therefore be used for human benefit without regard to the suffering inflicted’—so said the Collins online dictionary in August 2020. Some attribute this exploitation to a biblical model that stresses the spiritual differences between humans and animals. Indeed, on the ABC Science Show of 8 April 2020, Richard Dawkins made exactly this point as he reflected on how he had been impacted by reading Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books as a child. These books, he claimed, prepared him to downplay intrinsic differences between species that might lead one to treat animals as inferior— unlike children brought up reading the Bible.

When we look at the history of animal welfare, connecting the Bible to animal abuse is not as easy as such comments suggest. As Philip Johnson points out in this issue, Christians have been at the forefront of promoting animal welfare: key founders of the RSPCA in the UK and Australia were Christians motivated by the gospel message. Christian voices no longer dominate the animal welfare movement, but they can still be heard. Australian Animal Law specialist, Ruth Pollard, for instance, deplores the industrialised animal cruelty we too often tolerate, and calls on Christians to consider their God-given task as ‘trustees’ of the animal creation.

The Bible’s teaching on the animal creation and its relation to God and humanity is rich and complex, and we are pleased to be able to open this edition with an overview by biblical scholar Lindsay Wilson. By turns reassuring and unsettling, this careful survey enunciates some outcomes that were a surprise to me, and often very different to the popular view.

In addition to these key articles, Chris Bellenger and Hugh Mackay reflect on changing attitudes towards animals over past decades from the perspectives of veterinary surgeon and social researcher respectively. Adela Davis takes us into the strange world of medieval animal trials; Richard Lints delves into what it means that humans (and not animals) bear the image of God; Jerry Root explores the role of animals in C. S. Lewis’s fiction; Matt Frazer asks whether we would treat animals differently if they could talk; and Megan Best explains recent developments in the use of human embryos in research.

During the preparation of this issue, many of our authors expressed the hope that readers would be prompted to carefully consider their treatment of animals, especially as part of a life that honours God. Jesus’s beautiful attitudes include mercy (Matthew 5:7), while Proverbs 12:10 reminds us that goodness is reflected in the treatment of animals. It is time to re-examine our ways.

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