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Richard Dawkins Redeems Himself, Sort of

New Animal Person reader Fredrik commented yesterday on a post about Richard Dawkins and his book, The God Delusion. You may recall that Vegan Screenwriter posted part of an interview with Dawkins in a comment last month and it broke my heart. Dawkins said he saw no reason to not use animals for their meat as long as they’re treated humanely. And thus he toppled from the pedestal on which I put him. But it appears that his thinking has evolved regarding our moral obligation to nonhuman animals. In a podcast, which I’m going to try to locate, he admits that he still isn’t a vegetarian, but thinks we ought to be.

Fredrik recalls the interview and writes:

Dawkins also gave a NEW argument, at least to me, for why we should
be vegans. I’m not as eloquent as Dawkins, but in short, it’s based on
speciesism. "We" claim that we have the right to use animals because
they are different than us, just as white men used skin color as a
justification for slavery. However, from a genetic perspective the gaps
in genes between us and our closest animal relative is arbitrary. We
just happen to be the lucky survivors in the evolutionary race. As a
thought experiment, it’s perfectly acceptable to imagine a world where
all the genetic "gap species" were still alive. Thus, between us and
the bonobo (I think?) there would be a continuum of living beings, all
almost identical to their genetic neighbor. In such a world, it would
be impossible to draw a line between us and the bonobo where we could
say "From hereon oppression begins", and justify it with any kind of
argument. The primates on either side of the oppression line would be
identical except for one gene. The differences in appearance,
intelligence and senses (if such a word exists) would be so small that
no test except a careful DNA test could tell them apart, and I’m not
sure even DNA tests are accurate enough. Thus, they would be identical
to each other, yet one of them would be doomed to be oppressed while
the other would benefit from our protection. Since this would be a
totally unacceptable and morally indefensible stance, we’d have no
choice but to grant the bonobos the same rights as humans, to not be
used as property. Of course, the though experiment is easily expanded
to include ALL living beings since we share a common ancestor.

What do you think? The only counter-question I could imagine is the
fact that we also share DNA with plants. The thought experiment would
also have to include plants and where would WE draw the line for what
is acceptable to eat or not?

I like the thought experiment! Of course, if you begin with the premise that killing sentient beings without necessity is morally unjustifiable, you don’t really need it. However most people simply don’t grasp the idea that killing animals is morally unjustifiable, unless of course we’re talking about cats, dogs and maybe horses and dolphins. They have actually bought into the idea that animals are here for us to use as we wish. And I think the thought experiment is a great idea for them. I’ll have to try it and report back what happened. As you know, people say all kinds of wacky things to convince themselves it’s okay to eat bacon and eggs.

Stay tuned . . .

And let us know what you think of the thought experiment.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Dawkins interview is here, I think:,1974,Richard-Dawkins—Science-and-the-New-Atheism,Point-of-Inquiry

    I haven't listened to it yet, so I'm not sure. But on a different message board, someone said that the relevant part starts about 35 minutes into the recording.

    I'm a long-time Dawkins fan, so I, too, am disappointed to learn that he is not a vegan. Actually, I knew that already. I still consider his book, The Selfish Gene, to be among the best non-fiction books I ever read.

    Incidentally, I'm also disappointed that two other big heroes of mine — Penn & Teller — made a short anti-AR show as part of their otherwise-excellent "Bullshit!" series on Showtime.

    I was into skepticism and debunking long before I got into animal rights. People like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, Richard Feynman, and James "The Amazing" Randi are an inspiration to me. Their staunch opposition to pseudoscience, quackery, paranormal phenomena, UFOs, religion, and other forms of irrational thinking served to "prime" my interest in critical thinking. And critical thinking, in turn, led me to animal rights.

    February 18, 2008
  2. Fredrik Fälth #

    Thanks for bringing my reply up from the archives!

    However, I wonder where and when it would be a good time to introduce this argument to someone. It's quite complicated in its build-up and you need both plenty of time and an open-minded (and reasonably educated) recipient. I'm not saying it's worthless, nor inefficient, but sadly it will probably just serve as an interesting thought experiment.

    It's interesting, I have a similar story to Alex C. I'm a also a longtime skeptic and my training in critical thinking has been a good help while transitioning first to vegetarianism then veganism. Now, I always preach the importance of critical thinking in veg forums I visit. Why? Any false claim made to promote veganism may end up taking us two step backwards. For example, false health claims may lead to sickly vegans which, in turn, lead to the dreaded ex-vegan.

    February 23, 2008
  3. smally #

    Isn't this argument an example of the continuum fallacy?

    Also, it shares a premise with speciesist arguments: that genetic similarity is morally significant.

    February 24, 2008
  4. "Of course, the though experiment is easily expanded to include ALL living beings since we share a common ancestor."

    We share a common ancestor with plants. So what does Dawkins propose to eat?

    February 27, 2008
  5. John,

    Considering Dawkins eats animals, I think it's all theoretical for him. It's tough to take him to task when he isn't taking himself to task.

    February 28, 2008

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