BOOKS: Social Creatures: A Human and Animal Studies Reader

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2008:

Social Creatures:
A Human and Animal Studies Reader
Edited by Clifton P. Flynn
Lantern Books (128 Second Place, Garden Suite, Brooklyn,
NY 11231), 2008. Paperback, 458 pages. $50.00.

A cynic might conclude from Social
Creatures: A Human and Animal Studies Reader,
assembled as a sociology text, that animal
advocacy has either died of old age or is
terminally moribund, that no one involved has
had an original insight or useful idea since
approximately 1998, and that the cause of death
was Latinate writing, also implicated in the
decline and fall of the Roman empire.
Editor Clifton P. Flynn and probably most
of the contributors may regard this anthology as
evidence that animal advocacy has arrived as a
respectable topic of academic study, since it
now has an ossified canon authored by
Ph.D.-holding professors, some of whom long
since became emeritus.

Unfortunately, very little of this
material will strike the students upon whom it
will be inflicted as any more immediate, urgent,
or emotionally and intellectually compelling than
anything else gleaned from little-read journals
and stuffed between covers to be recycled as
required reading.
This is not to say that the contents are
worthless; only that they are mostly now period
pieces, offering studies of the attitudes of
university students, for example, whose
generation is now reaching middle age.
Among the canon included in Social
Creatures are several selections that were
clearly influential in their time, and still
echo in public as well as academic discourse.
The oldest chapter is an excerpt from Animal
Liberation, by Peter Singer (1974), often
credited with providing the intellectual
framework for the animal rights movement. Tom
Regan’s 1985 essay The Case For Animal Rights,
disputing Singer from a pro-animal perspective,
has also had enduring influence.
Carol Adams’ excerpt from The Sexual Politics of
Meat (1990) may be the essay most relevant to the
issues presently before many university students,
even if Adams wrote it before some of them were
The fatal flaw in Social Creatures–
apart from the frequently deadly dull academic
writing–is that popular culture has already
raced far ahead of academia. Several essays
exploring the relationship of animal abuse and
crimes against humans, for example, merely
quantify themes that are today explored in
routine police beat reporting.
A second obvious example is “Loving them
to death,” a 1999 study of “Blame-displacing
strategies of animal shelter workers and
surrenderers,” by Stephanie S. Frommer and
Arnold Arluke.
“Frommer and Arluke argue that┼áblame
management strategies make it possible for the
cycle of surrendering and killing to be
perpetuated,” writes Flynn in introduction.
Indeed. But even in 1999 this was no
news. Ed Duvin and Patrice Greanville had made
all the same major points 13 years earlier. The
central ideas in their critiques became tenets
of the “no kill movement,” advanced by national
conferences beginning in 1995. By 1999 much of
the curriculum of the no-kill conferences had
already crossed over into mainstream shelter
In original context, much of the content
of Social Creatures presented a challenge to
conventional ideas about animals and the
animal/human relationship. Today much of it
summarizes conventional thinking.
Breaking edge writing about animal issues
has advanced from sociology into political
science. Campus activists today campaign to
enact into law the advances in public perception
that have been won since the ideas in Social
Creatures might have been new to most
undergraduates. Much of the most
precedent-setting lawmaking is accomplished
through the passage of ballot initiatives–which
require broad societal agreement about the goals
in order to succeed. The movement, in short,
has moved on.

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