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Problems of Underestimation Problems of Underestimation
by Jan Sand
2007-04-12 09:35:29
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When I was a kid, which was quite a few years ago, I visited a dentist quite often. In those days children were considered not quite up to basic adult standards. The dental drill, commensurate with today's high-speed quality rumbled slowly towards the tooth nerve uncooled by water jets and exquisitely tortured the unanaesthesized victim's nerve system. Children screamed to no effect and were considered an unavoidable (but financially rewarding) nuisance by the dentist who became sadistic in his efforts to get his job done, whatever the brutality involved.

It was a time when children and fish, amongst others, were considered insensitive to pain. Lacking the adequate vocabulary to thoroughly disparage their torturers, babies were routinely operated upon without painkillers and fish, of course, who never felt the hooks, were equally inarticulate. Currently children have been discovered to be somewhat more sensitive and fish have yet to be written into an amendment to the constitution in the matter of brutality, whatever the sophistication of their nervous systems.

It is characteristic of human perceptions of the real world to deny the obvious in the name of mental comfort. The psychologist Skinner was one of the leading proponents of the attitude that animals were not conscious but were mere meat machines that reacted automatically to applied stimuli. Pain, therefore, as humans perceive it, was not to be considered on the same level as it applied to conscious humans. Biological experimenters were therefore relieved of any qualms of conscience on dealing with the creatures in their care and the pressures of advancing human knowledge easily over rode any compassion generated by the squeals and howls emitted by their anguished charges.

To a very large extent this system still prevails although there is a growing sense amongst a good many people that perhaps human arrogance in the matter requires closer examination. Some worthwhile scientific enquiry demands these procedures but a huge number of routine scientific and industrial processes are outrageously and unnecessarily cruel.

Religions universally relegate animals, as mere useful resources, to be disposed of in whatever manner their owners find rewarding since humans are special organic gadgets devised by a super being whereas animals are mere mobile varieties of protoplasm not to be considered as conscious beings. Recently a sector of orthodox Jews in Israel are enthusiastic for reviving the sacrifice of animals to their god, a return to mindless savagery in line with the general brutality which now seems to be growing throughout human culture. See here.

Reports by people who spend their lives closely observing animals are starting to surface indicating not only that animals are conscious but also that they have abilities quite like those normally accepted as present only in humans.

Dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants have been tested with mirrors to reveal that they are quite aware that they are viewing a reflection and therefore are fully conscious beings.

Beyond that many of these animals have been observed constructing and using tools and this behavior is passed on through generations and specific to localized groups of these animals.

A recent article in the Scientific American describes how ravens solve problems on a level to challenge chimpanzees. Since raven brains are quite a bit smaller than those possessed by chimps it leads one to wonder how brain size influences behavior.

Pigs are generally accredited by biologists to be mentally equivalent to dogs. I have read nothing of the intellect of horses but there is a general aversion in the USA and, hopefully, elsewhere, for the slaughter of dogs and horses for meat. Aside from Muslim and Jewish cultures (which have motivations not aligned with compassion) there seems to be little if any compassion about killing pigs for food.

In general, human societies pretty much forbid cannibalism and there are good biological reasons for this. A society in Asia that indulged in cannibalism was seen to be subject to prion diseases because of their eating habits. But a group in South America was cannibalistic in sympathy with the dead. People may have been repelled by this tribe's culture but felt no disgust in the massacre of whole villages to steal their territory.

Whatever their publicly proclaimed condemnations, "never again" has become a piece of ironic black comedy in the behavior of nations in the former Yugoslavia, The Congo, Darfur, and Rwanda, amongst many others. And of course, standard military procedures under the flag of "collateral damage" insulates soldiers from criticism for monstrous acts of civilian annihilation wherein merely being in the way removes a human being from normal considerations.

Many reports of official and unofficial acts of rape, slavery, torture, and simply dumping miserable people elsewhere testify to the relegation of some humans to the same status as now enjoyed by animals. The coming catastrophes generated by global warming where huge areas of the world will become unproductive and subject to disasters of weather are very likely to encourage desperate people towards practices like cannibalism to merely survive.

We live in interesting times.


    
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