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  • Feb
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Are Speciesists Stupid?

Posted by at 3:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)


Excuse me for stating the obvious, but racists are dumb. That’s not just my opinion. It’s the conclusion of a provocative new study published in the journal Psychological Science. Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario, and his colleagues found that children with low intelligence are more likely to grow up to be racist adults. A previous study examining homophobia showed that people who are less adept at abstract reasoning are more likely to be prejudiced against gays.

All of this got me thinking: Does the link between brains and bias apply to how we view animals too? Are “speciesists“—people who believe that humans are superior to other animals—just not all that bright?

“There may be cognitive limits in the ability to take the perspective of others,” explains Hodson. In other words, the less intelligent you are, the harder it may be for you to put yourself in another’s shoes—and the more likely you are to hold prejudiced beliefs about other groups.

If someone is unmoved by the plight of elephants shackled, beaten and forced to perform in circuses or of animals poisoned and blinded in laboratories, perhaps they similarly lack the ability to consider the animals’ point of view.

The anecdotal evidence linking intelligence and empathy for animals is certainly intriguing. Some of the world’s greatest minds from throughout history—including Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy—have been vegetarian.

Albert Einstein, whose diet was primarily plant-based, said, “Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”

A few years ago, the BBC reported on a study that linked a high IQ with being vegetarian. More than 8,000 children in the U.K. were given IQ tests in 1970. When researchers followed up with the participants decades later, they found that people who had scored well on the tests were more likely to become vegetarian later in life.

Another study showed that vegans and vegetarians have more empathy—for both animals and people—than meat-eaters do. Researchers in Europe recruited vegan, vegetarian and meat-eating volunteers and placed them into an MRI machine while showing them a series of random pictures. The MRI scans revealed that when observing animal or human suffering, the “empathy-related” areas of the brain are more active among vegetarians and vegans. The researchers also found that there are certain brain areas that only vegans and vegetarians seem to activate when witnessing suffering.

So, could it be that your deer-hunting cousin or that woman at the store with the fur-trimmed jacket is just not smart enough to see that animals feel pain every bit as acutely, love their young every bit as deeply and long for freedom every bit as intensely as we do?

Maybe. But I like to think that such people just haven’t been given the tools they need to make a compassionate choice. As celebrated astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson says, perhaps “part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, it were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.'”

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but racists are dumb. That’s not just my opinion. It’s the conclusion of a provocative new study published in the journal Psychological Science. Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario, and his colleagues found that children with low intelligence are more likely to grow up to be racist adults. A previous study examining homophobia showed that people who are less adept at abstract reasoning are more likely to be prejudiced against gays.

All of this got me thinking: Does the link between brains and bias apply to how we view animals too? Are “speciesists”—people who believe that humans are superior to other animals—just not all that bright?

“There may be cognitive limits in the ability to take the perspective of others,” explains Hodson. In other words, the less intelligent you are, the harder it may be for you to put yourself in another’s shoes—and the more likely you are to hold prejudiced beliefs about other groups.

If someone is unmoved by the plight of elephants shackled, beaten and forced to perform in circuses or of animals poisoned and blinded in laboratories, perhaps they similarly lack the ability to consider the animals’ point of view.

The anecdotal evidence linking intelligence and empathy for animals is certainly intriguing. Some of the world’s greatest minds from throughout history—including Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy—have been vegetarian.

Albert Einstein, whose diet was primarily plant-based, said, “Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”

A few years ago, the BBC reported on a study that linked a high IQ with being vegetarian. More than 8,000 children in the U.K. were given IQ tests in 1970. When researchers followed up with the participants decades later, they found that people who had scored well on the tests were more likely to become vegetarian later in life.

Another study showed that vegans and vegetarians have more empathy—for both animals and people—than meat-eaters do. Researchers in Europe recruited vegan, vegetarian and meat-eating volunteers and placed them into an MRI machine while showing them a series of random pictures. The MRI scans revealed that when observing animal or human suffering, the “empathy-related” areas of the brain are more active among vegetarians and vegans. The researchers also found that there are certain brain areas that only vegans and vegetarians seem to activate when witnessing suffering.

So, could it be that your deer-hunting cousin or that woman at the store with the fur-trimmed jacket is just not smart enough to see that animals feel pain every bit as acutely, love their young every bit as deeply and long for freedom every bit as intensely as we do?

Maybe. But I like to think that such people just haven’t been given the tools they need to make a compassionate choice. As celebrated astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson says, perhaps “part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, it were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.'”

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8 Comments

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    thomas moore says...

    February 24th, 2012, 7:18 pm

    While i like to think animals are smarter than humans it would seem that humans are always killing them. So felony wrong.

    dee says...

    February 24th, 2012, 7:54 pm

    yes. it is obvious that ppl that think humans are the superior species are stupid! but don’t try to argue that point with them.they just won’t “get it”.

    Heather M says...

    February 24th, 2012, 10:07 pm

    Also some people are prejudice because their parents were prejudice and they were taught that but I also believe that people can change their minds given the correct information and taught in the right way.

    Tess says...

    February 25th, 2012, 2:04 pm

    I do believe that human beings hold a special place in this world, however this should make us more compassionate and caring to the rest of creation.
    People who have learned from birth to hurt others including animals, have something wrong with them and not all people can be ‘fixed’.
    God can change a person’s heart, unfortunately, we have discarded everything that Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount.
    What a tragic situation for all of the world’s creatures when we not only torture and kill other species but kill our own even in the womb!
    How can we justify any of this brutality?

    Marcia says...

    February 26th, 2012, 12:04 am

    Most people believe that God made people unique and above all of creation. I personally don’t believe that makes human beings better, but it does make them more responsible for how they treat those who are weaker or who cannot fight back on human terms. Unfortunately, human arrogance has made us the bullies of the universe–too greedy, arrogant, and mean to fulfill our obligations to protect and treat well the other animals who share this earth with us.

    Jo says...

    February 26th, 2012, 2:51 pm

    I have believed for a long time now that vegetarians and vegans are superior and more evolved than meat eaters. Through the ages there have been brutal and barbaric activities, crucifiction, beheading, slavery, all acceptable at the time. Fortuantely individuals and organisations stood up and said ‘this is not right’ and eventually things changed. We now largely enjoy freedom and equality. I hope that we eventually evolve to species equality, it can’t come soon enough.

    Kathy M says...

    February 26th, 2012, 6:38 pm

    There is no doubt in my mind that meat-eaters lack emotional intelligence. At the heart of the issue though is carnism, the belief system in which it’s considered ethical to consume or exploit certain animals and not others. The social conditioning of human beings to accept this ideology is so pervasive in the media, and through what I think of as generational brain washing, it is ingrained very deep in our culture. Like any belief system, it is very difficult to break through and encourage the believers to consider any other alternative.

    Joy M. says...

    February 27th, 2012, 4:05 am

    Most people can’t think on their own. They need a religious leader to tell them what to think. Unfortunately it’s the religious leaders job to keep the money coming in, so the leaders are going to keep on preaching what the human animal wants to hear, that non-human animals are here for humans to use. I would say that is very selfish and not very smart.

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