Speciesism up Next?

From the chapter “Homo sapiens, Pinnacle of Evolution?” of Richard Leakey’s 1995 classic, the Sixth Extinction—Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind:

Homo sapiens was soon to represent the ultimate product of evolution and to be separate from the rest of nature in some important sense, with the gradation of increasing superiority through the geographical races, from Australian to European.

For instance, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-inventor of the theory of natural selection, believed that evolution had been working “for untold millions of years…slowly developing forms of life and beauty to culminate in man.”

382304_10150410245381489_1896442457_nIn 1933, Robert Broom stated the following: “Much of evolution looks as though it had been planned to result in man, and in other animals and plants to make the world a suitable place for him to dwell in.” Broom clearly saw humans as special and separate, and the rest of the natural world ours to exploit as we please. Broom’s was not an isolated opinion; it accurately portrayed the contemporary thinking. Anthropologists of the time were in awe of the human brain and saw it as lord of all. Human progress through pre-history, according to the prominent British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith, had been “a glorious exodus leading to the domination of earth, sea and sky.”

Examples of what by today’s standards we would condemn as blatant racism were legion in scholarly writings of the early decades of the century, which placed in an evolutionary framework what had been seen as the product of creation in earlier times. One citation will suffice by way of illustration. In his Essays on the Evolution of Man, the imminent British anatomist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith wrote the following in 1923:

“The most primitive race now living is undoubtedly the Australian, which represents the survival with comparatively slight modification of perhaps the primitive type of the species. Next in order comes the Negro Race, which is much later and in many respects more highly specialized, but sharing with it the black pigmentation of the skin, which is really and early primitive characteristic of the Human Family of Primitive Man shares with the Gorilla and Chimpanzee. After the Negro separated from the main stem of the family, the amount of pigmentation underwent a sudden and very marked reduction and the next group that became segregated and underwent its own distinctive specialization was the Mongrel Race…”

Overt racism of this kind disappeared from text by mid-century, with curious effect. Viewed as more primitive than white Caucasians, the “inferior races” formed something of a bridge between the ultimate expression of Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal world. When all races were regarded as equal, the bridge disappeared, and a gap opened up, making modern humans even more separate from the world of nature.


[In other words, speciesism became even more entrenched. The question now is, how many more centuries will the animals have to wait before examples of overt speciesism disappear from the texts and ultimately from people’s minds?]

6 thoughts on “Speciesism up Next?

  1. Will speciesism go away? Too much of our culture, including religion, economics, law, and lifestyles, support speciesism to have much hope, at least for the near The science of evolution has been advancing but our response has not been encouraging.

    When Dart, Broom, and Smith were writing, the fossil record was scanty, and sophisticated and more accurate dating system were still in the future. Scholars tended to underestimate the variability possible within groups and added genera or species when not warranted. They line between pongids and hominids was unclear in very early and incomplete fossil specimens. But much of the early speculation took place in scholarly journals and in academe.

    More notice was taken in 1934, when Louis Leakey published his book “Adam’s Ancestors.” That clever title got attention and created consternation because the Bible suggested Adam could have had no precursors since he resulted from a special act of creation. The implication that humanity might be part of evolution made that concept more worrisome to the religious community.

    When Leakey died in 1972 (38 years later!), his defection from the faith and his dubious final destination were noted: “Louis Leakey died in London on 3 October 1972, aged 69. As with all of us, his choices were relevant to both his temporal and his eternal destiny. Honoured by the world which is passing away, he missed being the man who does the will of God and who lives for ever . . . ” http://creation.com/missing-the-mark-louis-leakey

    Fast forward to the 21st century. Conservative religous groups insist that “creationism” be taught alongside evolution in school, and “creation” museums/theme parks show dinosaurs in Eden (they were also among the passengers on Noah’s ark!). There are over 2 billion Christians in the world, and many still believe in the biblical narrative, despite the advances in science that support evolution and our part in it.

    Religion is not the only roadblock, and the gap between humans and other animals will remain, at least for a while. Abandoning speciesism would mean the need for cataclysmic change in culture and behavior. People are not eager for self-sacrifice, and greed and pleasure-seeking seemed to be part of our nature. Human beings, unfortunately derive pleasure from hunting, fishing, eating steaks, wearing furs, and going to circuses, rodeos, horse races, and bullfights, and wanting to benefit from vivisection. The results of those abuses generate and sustain businesses and jobs. Since the law defines animals as “property” and gives animals no legal status, anymore than most religions give moral status, the legal system and religious system uphold the economy. They all support maintaining the gap between ourselves and the other lives on the planet and justify our abuse of them.

    Not very optimistic viewpoint and it keeps animal rights advocates awake at night. One thing we can learn from the evolution of our species is that it ain’t pretty.

  2. Pingback: not Earth's obituary...but ours | Oceans of Opportunity

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