An appeal from the president of Animal People (December 2011)


Dear Friend,

We all long for a day in which human beings see themselves not as lords and masters of the earth but as good stewards of creation. To get there, the way of thinking about animals as things to be used and abused must be replaced with a model reflecting a more gentle meaning of the word “dominion.”

Contrary to the connotation of the word that has seemed to justify the tyranny of humans over animals, dominion may be interpreted as “sovereignty” as it exists in human government. A legitimate government holds the collective power of its citizens, and is thus able to exert a measure of authority that serves the best interests of all. What we think of as legitimate sovereignty in the human sphere of government does not include murder and mayhem of the sort practiced by humans against the animal kingdoms.

The concept of dominion as brutal domination is sometimes blamed on western religion, because in eastern religions there is no strict line drawn between humans and other animals, and yet in practice, animals in lands where eastern religions have flourished have been subject to the same brutal domination as in the West. The problem of animal cruelty was not caused by any particular religious mindset–though religion has often been used as a justification for mistreatment of animals…continuing even today in barbaric sacrifices practiced by animist religions as well as by some Hindus and Muslims.

The problem is that throughout human history, until very recently, cruelty to animals was simply normal.


I was determined that my holiday message to you should contain a happy message, and so in late October, I began to read a newly published 696-page book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. It took six weeks of very late nights to finish it, and so this letter is late getting to you.


It was worth the time, though, and while I believe Pinker may over-reach in applying his thesis globally, there is good and surprising news about how and why a decrease in violence, including violence to animals (not an overall decrease but a decrease relative to human population), “happened in a narrow slice of history, beginning in the Age of Reason in the 17th century and cresting with the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th.” This Humanitarian Revolution continued through the 19th century, when slavery was abolished in the West, but it lost momentum during the first half of the 20th century, as the world entered another tragic cycle of war and genocide, with the World Wars the last convulsions of an old order in Europe. Even between the World Wars, however, the idea of an intergovernmental entity dedicated to peace was conceived for the first time. The Humanitarian Revolution energized again in the “Rights Revolutions” that arose in democratic countries in the 1960s and ’70s, which included civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights.

Steven Pinker traces the history of violence back to proto-humans who evolved into humans living in anarchic states, who were eventually subjected to a “pacification process” when states (often in the form of monarchies) emerged. These early governments forced a degree of order on their citizens–though such order did not reduce violence between states or cruel practices within states. Reducing violence required a very long civilizing process which involved the imposition of self-control, the beginning of commerce, and the invention of the printing press in the early Renaissance. According to Pinker, “Some of the early expressions of a genuinely ethical concern for animals took place in the Renaissance. Europeans had become curious about vegetarianism when reports came back from India of entire nations that lived without meat. Several writers, including Erasmus and Montaigne, condemned the mistreatment of animals in hunting and butchery, and one of them, Leonardo da Vinci, became a vegetarian himself.”

The printing press stimulated a rise in literacy and a sudden burst in the writing of books and pamphlets. The ability to communicate over long distances through a postal system–a side effect of global trade–led to the “Republic of Letters,” a self-proclaimed community of European and American intellectuals who exchanged ideas on various topics such as democracy and human rights, the abolition of slavery, an end to cruel punishments, and the treatment of animals. Comments Pinker, “The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution.”

ANIMAL PEOPLE’s core mission has always been to help continue the humanitarian revolution for animals through writing, publishing, and the exchange of ideas.

“The revolution in animal rights is a uniquely emblematic instance of the decline of violence,”  writes Pinker, “and it is fitting that I end my survey of historical declines by recounting it. That is because the change has been driven purely by the ethical principle that one ought not to inflict suffering on a sentient being. Unlike the other Rights Revolutions, the movement for animal rights was not advanced by the affected parties themselves….the animals have nothing to offer us in exchange for our treating them more humanely.”

Continued Pinker, “Progress has been uneven, and certainly the animals themselves, if they could be asked, would not allow us to congratulate ourselves too heartily just yet. But the trends are real, and they are touching every aspect of our relationship with our fellow animals.”

There are reasons why dramatic improvements in people’s attitudes about animals haven’t translated into actual reductions of numbers of animals used for specific purposes. Numbers of animals used in biomedical research dipped but then spiked as genetic studies called for greater numbers of designer animals. But this occurred as the result of an explosion in the numbers of studies being done by a thousandfold or more, as measured by published scientific journal articles. The numbers of animals used in each study are now a fraction of what they were just 30 years ago. In the interim, there is a new generation of biomedical researchers who accept strict animal welfare regulations and are more open to dialogue with animal advocates. Though per capita meat consumption is down in the U.S., a preference for fish and fowl over red meat means a greater number of birds and fish are killed for the same pounds of flesh produced by the slaughter of one large mammal (for example, 200 chickens equal the same amount of meat as one cow). Participation in sport hunting and trapping continues its decline, and even though the ethics of sport fishing remains largely unaddressed, there was a 14% decline in fishing participation from 2001 to 2006. The number of unwanted animals being killed in U.S. shelters continues to fall, and that is really good news.

The Humanitarian Revolution is far from being over. But the fact that almost all the gains in eliminating cruelty have occurred in such a “narrow slice of history” gives us something to ponder. We all look for meaning in our lives…in the world…in the universe. Some may find answers in religion or spirituality. I wonder if the rise of humane principles is related to the idea of “emergent properties.” As expressed in physics, emergent properties are patterns that emerge dynamically from underlying but imperceptible subatomic laws.

In his novel Years of Rice and Salt, writer Kim Stanley Robinson refers to emergent properties in humanistic terms: “I begin to think that this matter of ‘late emergent properties’ that the physicists talk about when they discuss complexity and cascading sensitivities is an important concept for historians. Justice may be a late emergent property. And maybe we can glimpse the beginnings of it emerging; or maybe it emerged long ago, among the primates and proto-humans, and is only now gaining leverage in the world.”

In Forty Signs of Rain, Robinson has his character wondering if the genetic code has late emergent properties:  “Unless it was infused with some other quality that was not rational, some late emergent property like altruism, or compassion, or love–something that was not a code–then it was all for naught.”

Steven Pinker resists the temptation to see a cosmic mystery unfolding in the decline of violence: “I can easily resist the temptation, but agree that the multiplicity of datasets in which violence meanders downward is a puzzle worth pondering. What do we make of the impression that human history contains an arrow? Where is this arrow, we are entitled to wonder, and who posted it? And if the alignment of so many historical forces in a beneficial direction does not imply a divine sign painter, might it vindicate some notion of moral realism–that moral truths are out there somewhere for us to discover, just as we discover the truths of science and mathematics?”

There are obvious and easily analyzed reasons for the rise in humanitarian sensibilities, but there still may be room for mystery.

And however much progress has been made, there is much more to do for the animals. But to reinforce our resolve, sometimes we need to acknowledge that our efforts so far have been worthwhile, and to take a moment to celebrate how far we have come. There is no better time than at the end of one year and the beginning of another.

During 2012, ANIMAL PEOPLE will celebrate our 20th anniversary. As a supporter of ANIMAL PEOPLE, we invite you to share in the credit for all the things we have done to advance the humanitarian revolution for animals through writing, publishing, and the exchange of ideas, and we ask you to help continue this work with a generous end-of-year donation today. ANIMAL PEOPLE is counting on you to help us move forward. Just as animal people today owe so much to those in the past who began protesting the cruel treatment of animals, animal advocates in the future will build their achievements on top of what we are accomplishing today.

Please donate today!

Sending bright wishes for the new year for all creatures,

Kim Bartlett, president of ANIMAL PEOPLE


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