Second Nature is Jonathan Balcombe’s second grand-slam home run (his first was Pleasurable Kingdom). Others have loaded the bases; Balcombe brings them all home. Fighting for animal rights, we do need to know who animals are if we are to include them in our sphere of moral concern. And Balcombe introduces us to a wide range of research on animal cognition, sensations, emotions, experiences, personalities, and virtues. He demonstrates beyond any doubt that science is firmly on the side of animals, not their abusers. Roughly two-thirds of this lively book is devoted to exploring animals’ lives, which are rich and intensely felt in ways that we have only begun to understand. The final third examines how people interact with their fellow denizens on this planet. Balcombe provides new perspectives on eating meat, factory farming, vivisection, and other areas of concern. In all, this is a grand tour of animals, why we should care about them, and how we can move forward in sparing them from human mistreatment.
The book is full of testimony to the wonderful inner life and consciousness of animals. Did you know that dolphins have names for themselves? They use personal whistles to identify each other and call each other by name. Spectacled parrotlets have names too. Their parents designate each chick and each other with unique calls, and they respond to their names when called. Humpback whales thank you when you do something nice for them. When divers freed a whale from being entangled in rope, the whale didn’t just swim away. Instead, the animal approached and nuzzled each diver. Rats and many other animals cooperate with each other and return favors. And group decisions are often democratic: Deer vote on group movements by standing up, African buffalo vote with eye signals, and whooper swans vote with head movements. These are just a handful of the many fresh insights provided in Second Nature.
Have you ever noticed that the portrayal in the media of animals in nature tends to obsess on the relentless struggle to survive, along with the violence of predators as they take down their prey? Nature seen through that lens is indeed “red in tooth and claw.” Perhaps people inherently find that view to be entertaining—murder and violence are hardly rare in movies and on television. But Balcombe points out that this version of nature is one way that society justifies treating animals cruelly. The latent message: Institutional animal abuse is no worse than the cruelty of nature. Not true. While times of hardship do exist, animals living free in nature also spend considerable time experiencing the joy of living. Colors, songs, smells, emotions, the warmth of the sun, a cool drink of water, companionship among friends and family-life is full of pleasant experiences. And there is no reason to think that animals enjoy these sensations with any less intensity or vigor than people do. Even more so, perhaps. Dogs’ sense of smell may be a million times more sensitive than ours, for example—not a half-dead wisp of sensation, but full-throttle awareness.
Given all of that (and much more), we turn our attention to the cruelty inflicted on animals by human hands. Sharks are relentlessly portrayed as killers to be feared and reviled, but for every human killed by a shark, people kill roughly 5 million sharks. What is the deadliest weapon ever invented? The fork. Eating meat is the single largest source of animal suffering and a great deal of human suffering as well. Meat consumption is not sustainable in a world of 6 billion people. Balcombe’s essay on these and other issues is illuminating and highly recommended.
But we are indeed making progress. Veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages have now been banned in Europe and several U.S. states, acknowledging the intrinsic value of animal life. The E.U. officially recognizes animals as sentient, and the Dutch Party for the Animals, dedicated to the proposition that animals should be treated with respect, is gaining seats in local parliaments and is on the verge of national representation as well. Cruelty-free consumer choices are everywhere, many animal ethics and law courses are now being taught at universities, and animal rights and protection groups are quickly growing in numbers and effectiveness.
In his book, Balcome says, “The era of our First Nature—in which we view animals as things to be used and taken for shortsighted gains—is coming to an end.” A new era is beginning, one that is ethical, based on science, and less selfish, and which grants animals the respect that they deserve. This emerging “second nature” is evolving with the speed of cultural change as we establish basic rights for sentient animals. Balcombe recalls the words of Anne Frank, and I cannot improve on them: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” That start can be as easy as making compassionate decisions with every purchase and every meal.
You can order Second Nature through the Barnes & Noble portal in the PETA Mall and get a great book while directing badly needed funds to PETA: http://petamall.com/books.asp.