Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Civilization of the Animals

Vegetarian Review, March 1896

This is a most interesting, fascinating, and in some ways disappointing book. I took it up, expecting I confess, to be considerably bored by it; for we are all a little apt, perhaps, to become tedious when we write about “the animals,” whose own account of themselves would be so much more valuable than ours. But Mr. Shaler, although, as I think, mistaken in some conclusions of vital import to the future, has great qualifications for his task, at any rate in its historical aspect. He has much knowledge of animal life and, what is better, much sympathy with it; he has a picturesque style, he has humour, and above all a real enthusiasm for his subject, and it is this enthusiasm that makes his essays so attractive. “Domestication” is a perfect passion with him, he would domesticate every creature that is capable of it; and I should surmise that even the advertisements of “thoroughly domesticated” cooks and housekeepers must be read by him with a thrill. “The process of domestication,” he says, “has a far-reaching aspect, a dignity, we may fairly say a grandeur, that few human actions possess. If we can impress this view, it will be certain to awaken men to a larger sense of their responsibility for the creatures which we have taken from their olden natural state in to the social order.”

The immense importance of the part played by animals in the origin and development of human civilization is most powerfully and vividly depicted. “On the ages of the geologic past,” says Mr. Shaler, “comes this great procession of life, in the endless succession of species. Until this modern age, the throng goes forward blindly, groping its way towards the higher planes of life. At length certain of the more advanced forms attain to a measure of intellectual elevation. Still, for all this advance, the life is not organized so as to attain any large ends; no society arises from it. Suddenly, in the last geological epoch, man, the descendant of a group which like all others, had led the narrow life of the preparatory ages, appears upon the scene. . . . and with the association of the higher forms under the leadership of man, there began an entirely new and unprecedented condition of the world’s affairs. In place of the ancient law of nature, there came the control of our species, which had been, in a way, chosen to be the overlord of life. Under this human control we are shown how the strength and swiftness of the horse, the fidelity of the dog, the sagacity of the elephant, and the various qualities of other domesticated kinds, were gradually and laboriously enlisted in the service of man, and how the tribes that availed themselves of these auxiliaries inevitably displaced those that neglected them. “It is hardly too much to say,” thinks Mr. Shaler, “that civilization has intimately depended on the subjugation of a great range of useful species.”

A “subjugation” it undoubtedly was, in so far as this acquisition of the animals was effected by superior force and cunning. But here comes in a thought which is skilfully woven by the author through the thread of his story—the thought of the great influence exercised, and still to be exercised, by Sympathy, in our dealings with the animals. He contends that it was not for material purposes only that primitive man won the wild creatures from the wilderness, but also in some measure from a sympathetic motive; and in like manner it was a sympathetic instinct, and not a lack of native courage and independence, that made certain species of animals—for example, the elephant—peculiarly docile to man. And this association, if Mr. Shaler’s theory be correct, has reacted powerfully on mankind itself; for the responsibility of the care of domestic animals, and the duties attached thereto, had an important educational effect on the early barbarous tribes bringing them from the improvident childlike ways of primitive people to more thoughtful, settled, and systematic habits of life. “Man’s contact with the domesticated animals,” says Mr. Shaler “has been and is ever to be one of the most effective means whereby his sympathetic, his civilized motives may be broadened and affirmed.” And again he remarks, with regard to the function of Sympathy in the future, “We find a basis for the hope that, with time and care, man may bring his subjects of the lower realm into a more intimate, affectionate, and helpful relation than is dreamed of by those who look upon them as mere brutes.” I heartily endorse this admirable sentiment, and only wish that all the conclusions drawn by Mr. Shaler were in accord with it.

There is no space in this brief article to refer at any length to what is one of the most interesting features of Mr. Shaler’s book—his remarks on the comparative intelligence of the chief domestic species, and the way in which man, by the process of selection in breeding, has developed and fashioned the more or less plastic qualities of the animal to suit his own demands. While admitting that the capacity for domestication of itself implies a considerable amount of intelligence, Mr. Shaler is of opinion that the most highly organized in this respect are the elephant and the dog, and next to these the pig; he thinks that the sagacity of the horse has been somewhat overrated, and he classes on a still lower plane the ox, sheep, goat, and camel. In the case of the pig, the present degradation of that naturally alert and quick-witted animal must be laid to the charge of man, whose only object has been “to obtain the most rapid growth along with the greatest weight of fat”—with what result we see. In view of the growth of railroads, electricity, and other mechanical forces, Mr. Shaler foresees the probable disuse, at any rate for common employment, of the horse, the ass, the camel, and perhaps also, though he hopes this loss may be averted, of the elephant.

Let us now turn from the historical to the ethical side of Mr. Shaler’s book in which, I regret to say, his position is a less intelligible and satisfactory one. No complaint can be made against the ground which he takes up in his chapter on “The Rights of Animals,” viz.: that such rights being a product of modern thought—the latest link, as it were, in the chain of sympathy—must be founded not on any abstract idea of justice, but on the gradual awakening of public conscience as embodied in law; this, it seems to me, is a sound and trustworthy principle. But what Mr. Shaler has apparently failed to realize is the immense change that has already come over the minds of enlightened people, and is effecting even the less thoughtful, on the subject of man's relations towards the animals, the other animals, as they should more properly be styled, for they are in very truth our own kith and kin. Let us grant that the domestication of animals has served to stimulate the half-developed sympathies of man in the past; but is it not evident that, if an equal benefit is to be derived from future intercourse, the “domestication” itself must be of a higher order? Civilized and humanized man cannot be educated by the same process as the savage; and our relations towards the animal world, if we are to profit by them, must keep pace with the advance of our own sympathies. All this would doubtless be admitted by Mr. Shaler, and is implied or even stated by him in principle; but when we come to the practical application of his principle, then appears the line of cleavage between the scientist and the humanitarian.

It is strange that Mr. Shaler, in so many ways a sympathetic friend of animals, should throughout acquiesce in the barbarous habit of flesh-eating, as an institution beyond question and beyond reproach. He sees clearly enough the folly and cruelty of “sport,” though even here, by the way, he is rather inconsistent in owning to an admiration for cockfighting and falconry, two practices which are happily becoming extinct; he sees that “in shaping our sympathetic relations towards animals in the light of our present knowledge, the huntsman will soon become unknown in civilized life.” But what of the butcher? Is he not to go the way of the huntsman? Are the cattleship and slaughterhouse, with all their inevitable horrors, to be features of that “more intimate, helpful, and affectionate relation,” towards which Mr. Shaler aspires? It has been well said by Edward Carpenter, in his “England’s Ideal,” that “to keep a man (slave or servant) for your own advantage merely, to keep an animal that you may eat it, is a lie; you cannot look that man or animal in the face.” Mr. Shaler tells us that he could once wring the necks of wounded birds without trouble of mind, but that “a better sense of what life means” has now made such work very repulsive to him; yet he speaks of the desirability of domesticating more species of game birds “on account of the excellent quality of their flesh”! Does he think that the difficulty is solved by delegating the repulsive task to a servant? Apparently so; yet that he is well aware of the instinctive and widespread dislike of the work of butchering, is shown by his remark that the failure to make use of horse-flesh “can only be explained through the sympathetic motives common to all men,” and that “none but the lowest savages are willing to send their faithful dogs to the pot.” But if we are going to extend our sympathies as Mr. Shaler suggests, obviously the use of all flesh-food will become disgusting and impossible.

How fatally Mr. Shaler’s moral philosophy is vitiated by his acceptance of flesh-eating, may be judged from his remarks on vivisection. He sees in the fact that “our tables bear the products of the slaughter-houses” a justification of vivisectional demonstrations in schools. Young people “have to be accustomed to behold the processes of destruction of life which are everywhere going on about them.” They have indeed! But is not that rather an argument for discontinuing those processes of destruction, where they are entirely unnecessary? To play off one barbarous custom against another, and so justify both, is a well-known dialectical practice, but it has been exposed so often that it has now worn rather “thin.” We note that, in his eagerness to defend vivisection, Mr. Shaler clutches at the common fallacious arguments that have been repeatedly disproved, as that “in almost all cases the animal is made unconscious,” that during the last half-century vivisection has brought us “a series of precious gains” in the treatment of disease, of which the latest is the serum cure of diphtheria, and so on—absurd statements which we commend to the care of the anti-vivisection societies. “The question of vivisection,” says Mr. Shaler, “is but a part of the much larger problem as to the relation of men to the lower life.” True; but if we solve this part of the problem wrongly, as Mr. Shaler does, we shall find that our solution of the whole problem is also erroneous. It would scarcely be possible to pen a sentence more inaccurate in fact, and more misleading in inference, than Mr. Shaler’s statement that “weighed as against the life of a human being, a host of the lower creatures must count as nothing.” No such grim alternative has ever arisen, or could ever possibly arise; it is simply a bogey raised by the vivisectionist “profession,” to scare the ordinary lay mind from the path of humanity and reason.

It would have been well, for his own sake, if Mr. Shaler had spared his sneers at what he calls the “sentimentalists,” the “well-meaning but misdirected people,” etc., i.e. those who take a more consistent and far-reaching view of the animal problem than he does. We may take it for granted that everyone is “well-meaning,” and there is no more certain sign of insecurity in argument than to have recourse to such epithets; what is wanted is a wiser combination of the qualities of heart and brain, and this combination Mr. Shaler himself is very far from exhibiting. Even in the matter of brain alone, his qualities, and those of the school to which he belongs, are not so overwhelmingly impressive as he fondly imagines. There is a great deal in the subject of civilization and domestication which seems never to have occurred to him, especially the darker side of those processes, as set forth, for example in the writings of such men as Thoreau, Richard Jefferies, and Edward Carpenter. While not questioning the general benefits of man’s protectorate over the animals, we have to remember that our self-conscious civilization has brought, both to men and animals, a loss of the old primal vitality and single-hearted joy of life; we have acquired the gains which Mr. Shaler enumerates, but at a cost of which he says nothing. What we need in the future is not to go on “domesticating” for ever on the same lines; the old domestication has played its part and is done with. We have now to face the more interesting problem of reconciliating Man with Nature, civilization with wildness; how to establish sympathetic relations with the wild animals, not how to breed, and vivisect, and eat them when domesticated. Mr. Shaler admits incidentally that “the relation of primitive savages to the [wild] animal life about them is on the whole more friendly than is that of cultivated men,” which amounts to saying that in some respects we are less sympathetic than savages. This is a reproach from which civilization has yet to free itself; and it is to be regretted that Mr. Shaler, while writing so admirably of the past, has missed the true significance of this problem of the future. Nevertheless his book, as I have said, is an interesting and valuable one.

“Domesticated Animals: their Relation to Man, and to his Advancement in Civilization.” By Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, Dean of the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University (Smith, Elder and Co.), 1886. Illustrated, 10s. 6d.

H. S. Salt