TRIBUTE TO CARL SAGAN

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1997:

Carl Sagan, astronomer, pioneer
in exobiology, and author of many best-selling
books, died of pneumonia on December
20, 1996, at age 62 from complications
resulting from a bone marrow transplant
which, ironically, had cured him of
myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disease he
had battled for two years.
Sagan actively and sympathetically
participated in public discussion of animal
rights for at least the last 20 years of his scientific
career. He viewed intelligence as the
definitive requirement for the possession of
rights, rather than the capacity to suffer, but
did not draw the line at the limits of human
intelligence. He remained aware of animal
suffering, raising it in works that might otherwise
have been quoted in defense of unrestricted
animal use.


In his 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning
book, The Dragons of Eden, for instance,
Sagan argued that, “The reason we prohibit
the killing of human beings must be because
of some quality human beings possess, a
quality we especially prize, that few or no
other organisms on Earth enjoy. It cannot be
the ability to feel pain or deep emotions,
because that surely extends to many of the
animals we gratuitously slaughter.”
In that book he also asked, “If
chimpanzees have consciousness, do they not
have what until now has been described as
‘human rights’? How smart does a chimpanzee
have to be before killing him constitutes
murder?”
At a time when most other scientists
and public commentators were dismissing the
concept of animal rights as sentimental hogwash,
Sagan wrote, “The cognitive abilities
of chimpanzees force us, I think, to raise
searching questions about the boundaries of
the community of beings to which special ethical
considerations are due, and can, I hope,
help to extend our ethical perspectives downward
through the taxa on Earth and upwards
to extraterrestrial organisms, if they exist.”
Also in The Dragons of Eden, discussing
the morality of abortion, Sagan
offered that, “a consistent application of these
ideas must avoid human chauvinism….Since
the evidence for intelligence in dolphins,
whales, and apes is now at least moderately
compelling, any consistent moral posture on
abortion should, I would think, include firm
strictures against at least the gratuitous
slaughter of these animals.”
In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
(1992), Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan
jointly tackled the notion of human superiority
to animals. Of the many characteristics
often raised as being exclusively human,
such as tool use, use of language, expression
of complex emotions, and so forth,
which purportedly justify our special status
over other animals, they found none unique.
They concluded, much as Darwin did a century
earlier, that the differences between
humans and nonhumans are of degree, not of
kind, and were more invented excuses for
human behavior than signature attributes dictating
the nature of the human/animal relationship.
As they put it, “A sharp distinction
between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if
we are to bend them to our will, make them
work for us, wear them, eat them—without
any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret.”
One of Sagan’s favorite facts was
that the active genes of humans and chimpanzees
(including bonobos, or so-called
pygmy chimps) differ by a mere 0.4%; they
are our closest relatives, and we are theirs.
This proximity led Sagan to believe chimps,
and in fact all primates, deserve special protection
from harm. Throughout his career,
from the earliest space flights to the ongoing
Bion experiments, Sagan opposed most uses
of primates by his fellow scientists. In 1994
Sagan and Druyan stood as two of the first
prominent figures in science to endorse The
Great Ape Project, organized by A n i m a l
Liberation author Peter Singer, which works
to extend the rights of life and liberty to the
great apes.
Sagan also had great reverence for
cetaceans, strongly objecting to their slaughter.
In The Cosmic Connection ( 1 9 7 3 ) ,
Sagan called whaling “monstrous and barbaric,”
a view he reiterated in Cosmos (1980).
Sagan accepted human use of animals
for clothing, food, and research, advocating
“humane treatment” rather than “nonexploitation.”
At that, though, he found
some uses were unacceptable. In one of his
final articles for the magazine P a r a d e, “In
the Valley of the Shadow,” published on
March 10, 1996, Sagan said, “In my writings,
I have tried to show how closely related
we are to other animals…and how morally
bankrupt it is to slaughter them, say, to manufacture
lipstick.”
He also wrote in this article that
despite the fact that his life had been apparently
saved by a bone marrow transplant
developed through using animals, he still felt
“very conflicted on this issue.”
During the last two and one-half
years of his life, Sagan served as faculty
advisor to the Cornell University student
group Cornell Students for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (CSETA) and the magazine
AnimaLife––positions he assumed after
CSETA’s previous advisor retired and other
faculty members declined the advisory role to
avoid involving themselves in controversy. A
staunch supporter of the free exchange of
ideas, Sagan stepped forward to protect
CSETA’s right to exist and be heard.
––Peter Wilson

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