Humans are just one species of animal. They share over 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Yet they often imagine themselves to be a different sort of creature, in some way superior, a view upheld by Christian theology. There is thus an ambivalence in human’s treatment of other animals.
It is difficult to see a single developing pattern in the attitude of humans towards other animals. In many early societies there seems to have been a belief in a good deal of overlap. Humans could turn into animals and vice versa, myths told of these changes and animals had human spirits. Then, with the domestication of animals some thousands of years ago, other species became both closer and further from humans. As they brought in the cats and dogs, penned the sheep and cows and goats and buffaloes, so animals paradoxically became separated off from humans. Often a three-fold classification developed.
Pets, that is companions of humans such as cats and dogs, as well as those they rode such as horses, were the inner circle. They were like children or very close relatives, dependent and submissive. Physical incorporation of pets through eating was forbidden. A second ring was formed by domesticated animals; sheep, cows, yaks, buffaloes and pigs. They were like cousins, close, but not family. They could, and usually were, brought close into one’s life by eating them. Finally there were wild animals, who were like enemies or non-kin. These were again divided into the edible, deer, wild game of various kinds, and the normally inedible meat eaters like leopards, tigers, bears and wolves.
So for thousands of years humans and animals were both inter-dependent, but also separate. In particular, certain religions assumed that a human-like God had created different species. In the Christian myth, God had created the animals on one day and humans on another. He had made Eden and filled it with animals and placed a man as its ruler. Animals were at the disposal of humans and they were created as formed and separate species.
The whole idea of a vast gulf between humans and animals collapsed in the middle of the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin outlined the long-term evolution of species and showed that humans were but one late, and minor, branch of a tree which included all the others. Ever since then we have become increasingly aware of how much we overlap. Almost all the things which were supposed to divide humans from animals have vanished. Some animals use tools, have a sense of humour, use simple forms of language, have self-awareness and perhaps even a sense of their own mortality. They feel, think, hope and fear.
As it becomes daily more obvious that animals suffer and think much like us, it might have been expected that there would be a growing sensitivity and care towards them. There are signs of this in organizations to promote vegetarianism or to prevent cruelty. Yet they just touch the edge of the problem. For it would not be difficult to argue that, as we witness the extinction of many species and the factory farming of animals and fish, there is more exploitation and systematic cruelty in the world now than there has ever been. We still manage to suppress our affinities to whales, pigs, cows, chickens and continue to torture, slaughter and eat them.
As we consume our steaks, sausages, hamburgers and fried chickens, millions of us have little idea (or interest) in the conditions of our fellow creatures. Perhaps it will not be until some new and superior species emerges on earth, some computerized android, which breeds humans in tiny cages, force feeds them, drains their bile, eats them, that we will seriously begin to crusade for the abolition of animal to animal cannibalism. Meanwhile the greatest predators on earth munch their way through the animal kingdom. For we are caught in the dilemma that we are a meat eating species, which gains much of its protein from consuming other animals. It is impossible to imagine that we will change, but we may, with sufficient will, find ways to minimize the pain we inflict on our fellow species.