The intellectual progress made in the 18th century was followed, in the 19th century, by some practical improvements in the conditions of animals.
A British parliamentary bill was introduced in an attempt to prohibit the ‘sport’ of bull-baiting. It was opposed on the grounds that conduct which injures only an animal cannot possibly be worth legislating about. As the Times editorial thundered, in terms which may remind you of a more recent debate, Tyranny? ‘Whatever meddles with the private personal disposition of man’s time or property is tyranny.’
In 1821 an MP, Richard Martin, proposed a law to prevent the ill-treatment of horses. This too failed, but the following year Martin succeeded with a bill that made it an offence wantonly to mistreat certain domestic animals. For the very first time, cruelty to animals was a punishable offence, though the bill had to be framed so that it resembled a measure to protect private property for the benefit of the owner, rather than to protect the animals themselves. But, however limited the scope of the new law, it was not long before Martin, together with other notable humanitarians, formed the RSPCA in order to gather evidence and bring prosecutions.
Twenty years before the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote these words in his diary: ‘Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true, to consider him created from animals.’ Twenty years later he published the evidence on which this judgement was based. Even then he was careful not to draw too much attention to the way his findings could be applied to humans for fear that this would add to popular prejudices against him. It was only in The Descent of Man, thirteen years later still, that this aspect of his thought was made explicit.
Human beings now knew that they were not the special creation of God as previously understood, but animals themselves. Moreover the differences between us and other animals were now seen to be not so great, and the similarity not just physical.
The new ideas were winning acceptance, but many more battles lay ahead, and sadly, in spite of these insights, we probably inflict more pain on animals now than at any other time in history.
So why? Why is it that so many people stop short of the point at which they would challenge, let alone change, their deeply ingrained attitudes and their deep attachment to the habit of eating the flesh of other animals? It’s as if, just at the point when change is called for, and the argument seems overwhelming, a qualification is made, or a new consideration is introduced. And for this reason, ours has been called the era of excuses.
A classic excuse is set out by William Paley. It is the Divine Excuse, or the appeal to scripture. ‘Some excuse seems necessary’, he wrote, ‘for the pain and loss which we occasion to brutes . . for our pleasure or convenience. . it would be difficult to defend this right by any argument . . we are beholden for it to the permission recorded in scripture.’
Lord Chesterfield appealed to Nature and the way that the strong must always prey on the weak.
Benjamin Franklin cited the same principle.
Thomas Arnold found the whole subject such a painful mystery that, as he said, ‘I dare not approach it’.
The philosopher, Schopenhauer, knew too much of eastern ways to deny that humans can exist without killing, but, without further explanation, insisted that animal food is necessary for survival ‘in the north’. He did however propose that the death of the animal should be made easier by the use of chloroform. What neither he nor other sympathetic philosophers seems to have considered is that it is one thing to put down a single creature lovingly, gently and painlessly, but a very different and necessarily painful matter to rear and slaughter animals on a commercial basis.
As for Darwin, having demolished the intellectual foundations of earlier attitudes to animals, he continued to maintain those same attitudes, to dine on the flesh of the beings he said were capable of love, memory, curiosity, reason, and sympathy for each other; and he refused to sign a petition urging the RSPCA to press for control of animal experiments. TH Huxley, Darwin’s greatest champion, maintained the seeming contradiction, that to speak of the relation between man and the brutes is to speak of both a vast gulf and an essential oneness.