Do you ever think about the happiness of animals? If you have a pet, then you probably think about their happiness all the time. My wife and I have a dog and we go out of our way to ensure she gets walks, has some entertaining things to play with when we are working, and gets to socialize with other dogs. She may not be human, but we still care about her happiness.
But I almost never think about the happiness of other animals. There is a commercial that says that good milk comes from happy cows, and that happy cows come from California. But I don’t ever actually think about whether dairy cows are happy. I almost never think about whether factory farmed chickens are happy, or if any other animal raised for slaughter and human consumption is happy. But some people, like Peter Singer
and Yuval Noah Harari think I should.
In his book Sapiens, Harari writes, “when evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness of only the upper classes, of Europeans, or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.” Perhaps we should be thinking about whether other animals on the planet are happy, and whether our actions make them less happy. Perhaps there is nothing inherently special about humans that makes us more deserving of life and happiness than any other sentient animal and creature, and perhaps we should think about that when we think about factory farming and animal suffering.
We clearly care about our pets and see them as members of our families, complete with many emotions that we experience ourselves. We see a consciousness and an ability to experience the world in the minds of our pets, but we still think of them and other animals as less than ourselves. This is how we have ended up with a factory farming system that creates short, brutal lives for animals that the animals themselves may not find to be worth living. We have created systems with huge amounts of suffering, and if we think about global happiness, the unhappiness of factory farmed animals, Singer and Harari would argue, should be part of the equation. I don’t personally think about animal happiness too often, but I do think Harari is correct. I do think we should think about life and work to make it better – or at least not cause life to deliberately suffer – whether it is human or not.
“This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”
Harari wrote that passage while discussing industrial farms and milk production in his book. He argues that industrial agriculture does a good job of providing for the objective needs of animals, but a poor job of providing for their subjective needs. It isn’t too terribly hard to ensure that a dairy cow has sufficient food and water, sufficiently sanitary living space, and is inseminated so as to have a calf and begin producing milk. It is difficult, however, to successfully operate an industrial scale milk production facility that allows cows to just be cows and experience the typical subjective experiences that make a cow life worth living.
Animals in industrial agricultural settings today have been separated from the worlds that their brains and bodies were evolved to live within. “Evolutionary psychology,” Harari writes, “maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction.” We can provide a life for animals that meets their objective needs for survival, but that may not meet the needs their brains and bodies were adapted to before they were brought into a human centric industrial setting.
This evolutionary psychology framing for the needs of animals as shaped in the wild is also helpful for viewing humans. We are still animals, and our needs and psychologies were shaped over millions of years as human beings evolved in harsh, wild conditions. We can explain our late night ice cream binges partly on our evolutionary psychology. We can explain sexual promiscuity (possibly to some extent) on evolutionary psychology. We can also explain our tribalism in terms of evolutionary psychology. Even though we live in a different world today where I can safely sit inside at my computer for hours, I still have fears around social status, threats, and not being able to find a mate. Like a dairy cow, much of my objective needs can be met fairly easy, but that doesn’t mean that my subjective needs, the ones seemingly built into my brain through evolution before humans lived in our current setting, can just as easily be fulfilled. In some ways humans have turned ourselves into factory farmed animals, making it easy to meet our objective needs but creating a world that does little to help us address our subjective needs developed through evolution in the wild. The lesson of evolutionary psychology that Harari applies to farm animals can also be applied to us.
Yuval Noah Harari writes almost romantically about ancient human foragers in his book Sapiens. Describing the difference in knowledge, skills, and abilities between modern humans and ancient hunter-gatherers, Harari is absolutely glowing in his descriptions of ancient humans. He praises them for the knowledge, self-awareness, and connectedness between their bodies and the natural world. Something he argues modern humans have lost.
He writes, “Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives, and bird nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk, and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners.”
I think this paragraph is generally accurate, if a bit hyperbolic, but troublingly, I think this paragraph is also subject to survivor bias. The humans who lived and survived the longest in a dangerous wilderness environment were probably as fit as modern day triathletes. They probably were more aware of seasonal changes and small details in nature that helped them find food and avoid predators. But I don’t see why we would extend those traits to all foragers. It is unlikely that every human was great at all of the skills Harari lays out, and it seems to me that it would be unlikely for all of them to be agile, fit, super proto-homo sapiens. Many probably fell short in a few areas, and if they fell too short in too many areas, then they probably died, leaving us with the survivorship bias that Harari ends up with. Ultimately, this gives us an overly-romanticized perspective of foraging humans.
I recently wrote about a quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens in which Harari argued that humans jumped up the food chain so quickly that we never psychologically adapted to becoming the most dominant species on the planet. An important aspect of this assertion is how humans were able to make the jump up the food chain. Evolution is a slow process, typically driven by genetic and epigenetic changes to the genome that take a long time to prove useful for survival and spread throughout a population. So how did humans evolve so quickly?
The answer, according to Harari, is that homo sapiens didn’t wait around for genetic changes. The species evolved outside of our genes, with the help of our brains. Sapiens began to cooperate in large numbers, and that changed how sapiens related to the rest of the planet. “the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories.” The Cognitive Revolution and the increasing power of the human brain allowed ancient humans to first change relationships and interactions among themselves, which then changed how they existed in the world more broadly.
I think this can be seen in the way humans have organized themselves politically. A certain amount can be achieved and done when living in small tribes dominated by a single patriarch. More can be done within an autocracy, where a single powerful ruler has managed to bring all the small patriarchal tribes under unified control. And humanity has demonstrated that even more can be achieved through representative democracies. Changing myths allows for changing political organizations and structures, which changes the way people interact with each other and the world.
Harari continues, “Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.” Our myths unlocked new potentials and created an evolution beyond the genome for our species. We didn’t have to wait for small genetic changes. We created social systems and structures for coordination and cooperation based on myths, and those changes supercharged our evolution and competition among other species of the planet.
In recent years our DNA sequencing techniques and abilities have become dramatically better. We are able to get DNA from ancient sources in a way that we previously had not been able to, and we are then able to sequence that DNA more accurately are carefully than ever before. What this has started to reveal is a greater diversity of ancient human species, a greater spread of various human species, and more diversity and intermixing of human species than we had previously thought. A lot of this research is cutting edge and evolving daily, but for the last decade this research has been shifting how we view ancient humans, which in turn shifts the way we view ourselves.
In Sapiens, published in 2011, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever.” It is somewhat strange to think that one species of human existed for 2 million years, or close to that figure, and eventually was outcompeted by a different species of human. Homo sapiens, our modern human species, eventually outcompeted all the other species of humans, including those which existed for hundreds of thousands to millions of years before our species evolved and began to spread.
Since Harari’s book was published we have learned more about species he briefly mentions such as Homo denisova and how widely those species managed to spread across the Earth. Additionally, research during the COVID-19 Pandemic suggested that some individuals may have genetic mutations stemming from the genome of Homo neanderthalensis, which changed their immune response to the disease. To me, research on ancient humans through DNA is a powerful and humbling reminder that my life and experiences are not unique just to me and this moment. It reminds me that human evolution has been a long and complicated process, with many Homo Sapiens and other human species that could think, talk, and experience the world in similar ways coming before me. Harari also stresses that Homo Sapiens may not be the final version of humans to evolve and dominate the planet, or last the longest on the planet. He continues, “this record [the estimated 2 million years that Homo erectus survived] is unlikely to be broken even by our own species. It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.”
Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.
Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.
The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.