Speciesism: Who Cares if “inferior” beings Die out?

March 5, 2018

From Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, 
they are so placid and self-contain’d, 
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, 
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, 
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, 
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, 
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, 
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.


In the early 1970s, animal-inclined philosophers coined the term “speciesism” to describe the practice of regarding different species as having unequal moral value — with humans, of course, being most valuable of all. The word caught on, at least among people inclined to care about that sort of thing. Putting animals in different, lesser categories — food, pet, wild, pest — is what people do.

The question has remained, though, of whether speciesism is just a philosophical construct that describes how society works, or an actual psychological trait akin to other -isms like sexism and racism. In a world with more captive animals than people, with many wild animal populations plunging and biodiversity in crisis, it’s a question worth exploring.

“Philosophers have debated these claims, but relatively little empirical work has been conducted,” write psychologists Lucius Caviola, Jim Everett and Nadira Faber of the University of Oxford in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their findings, says Caviola, “demonstrate that speciesism exists as a psychological phenomenon and that it shows the same properties as other forms of prejudice.”

The new study comprises several separate experiments. In the first, Caviola’s team asked 1,108 Americans enlisted through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online task marketplace how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like “humans have the right to use animals however they want to.” Based on their responses, the researchers winnowed the statements into a simple six-item test of speciesist inclinations.

Next the researchers tested whether, as would be expected of a prejudice, these inclinations remained stable over a one-month period. They did. Participants then took tests that measured biases based on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. These tended to track species biases. “We found significant positive correlations of speciesism with racism, sexism, and homophobia,” wrote the researchers.

Below – New Jurassic Park trailer – “Save the Dinosaurs”.

In the movies, saving dinosaurs gets some attention.


There are two environmental crises right now: climate change and biodiversity loss. Why are people, particularly journalists, only paying attention to one of them?

That disconcerting question is raised by a new analysis of research funding, scientific publications and press coverage over the past quarter-century. In that time, academic interest in both climate and biodiversity have swelled — but in the mainstream press, biodiversity is an also-ran, receiving no more attention now than in 1992.

What we ought to make of that trend isn’t immediately evident. It certainly isn’t a call for climate change to receive less attention, says Pierre Legagneux, a biologist at the University of Quebec in Rimouski and lead author of the analysis, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. But in a time of mounting species extinctions, extirpations and population declines, it’s worrisome.

“The science, the challenges and the problems associated with biodiversity issues are not likely reaching the public,” write Legagneux and colleagues, who call this shortfall a “biodiversity communication deficit.”

The researchers found that climate change received 3.3 times more coverage than biodiversity between 1992 and 2016, with interest diverging sharply after 2006; in 2016, newspapers mentioned climate eight times for ever mention of biodiversity. While their analysis — which focused on English-language scientific press, funders in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, and 12 prominent online newspapers — was not exhaustive, it appears emblematic.

In 2012, some 126 nations joined the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a biodiversity-focused effort coordinated by the United Nations and patterned after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Member nations have been slow to pay their dues; the IPBES cut its budget by one-third for 2018, postponed its planned reports, and scrapped essential capacity-building and policy-support funding. Meanwhile a recent analysis of Google searches found declining interest biodiversity — something those researchers attributed to biodiversity being too wonky and complicated a concept to resonate with most people.

That’s quite possible, say Legagneux and colleagues, who think biodiversity’s proponents ought to improve their messaging — rather than “biodiversity decline,” think “the burning library of life” — and make more explicit its links to food production, human health, and other things people care about. Perhaps climate change receives more attention because it’s perceived as more urgent, but the urgency of biodiversity loss is being neglected.

10 Responses to “Speciesism: Who Cares if “inferior” beings Die out?”

  1. Jeremy Nathan Marks Says:

    Reblogged this on DEMOI Independent Learning and commented:
    Powerful observations and analysis. I, for one, worry about biodiversity loss and think the metaphor of a “burning library of life” is a powerful, poignant and pithy description of what we are witnessing and countenancing.

  2. Keith McClary Says:

    Thawing library of life: Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    I dimly remember reading Whitman’s Song of Myself—-probably in one of those “cultural elective” courses meant to civilize us science majors. We liked those courses because we got to meet new girls.

    Beautiful piece of writing, and strengthens the argument that the human species is an aberrant and abhorrent blot on the long history of life on earth, as does all the material in this excellent Crock post. We are indeed the asteroid, and that clip is one of Peter’s best ever—-it should be worked into as many Crock posts as possible.

    Keith mentions the irony of the Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault having problems with thawing, and that’s a blow to maintaining biodiversity, but my big worry is for the littlest guys—-the algae, fungi, bacteria that underpin the whole system—-far more important than elephants, rhinos, lions, and polar bears.

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    We don’t need no steenking food chain!

  5. CJ Martin Says:

    “Who Cares”
    There are millions that do, but this matters little. We live at a time when the immortal monsters of our creation, corporations, bureaucracies and religions, rule the domain of humanity, and by default the planet. That they have naturally evolved under the little understood laws of complexity matters not at all. We have born non living structures that are remaking the face of the earth. This evolutionary catastrophe is possible to contain but because that we are unable to even fully define it, how can we possibly do so?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      We ARE able to pretty much fully define it—-many dozens, even hundreds, of books written and studies done over the past few decades on politics, economics, human evolution, political neuroscience, and psychology have all contributed to our understanding of the “web” of “immortal monsters” you describe.

      The problem is that they have naturally evolved as part of human evolution, and for a short period in earth’s history have been “adaptive”, i.e., allowed humans to explode in numbers. The laws of complexity say that this will continue until it becomes non-adaptive and natural selection puts the human species in its place. The real problem is that too many of us simply don’t want to see change, and won’t accept the need until it’s too late to avoid catastrophe.

  6. kertsen Says:

    Climate change is seen as a direct threat to human lifestyle and biodiversity is a side line. Do you want central heating or larks singing almost out of sight? Do you want a motor vehicle to travel at will ? or clean air as you walk to work ?

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