Sunday, February 15, 2009

Michael Pollan as early modern political philosopher

In Michael Pollan's "An Animal's Place" (an essay written for the NY Times Magazine, and in many ways the intellectual scaffolding for his best-selling The Omnivores Dilemma ), he advances a variety of arguments concerning the ethics of eating animals. The whole essay is very interesting, and I want to make a broader post about his work sometime later, but right now I want to focus simply on the following passage:

For any animal, happiness seems to consist in the opportunity to express its creaturely character -- its essential pigness or wolfness or chickenness. Aristotle speaks of each creature's ''characteristic form of life.'' For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it that, cannot be achieved apart from humans -- apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of mutualism between species. Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago.

Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of especially opportunistic species discovered through Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk and eggs and -- yes -- their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves (evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as adults.)

From the animals' point of view, the bargain with humanity has been a great success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished. (There are 10,000 wolves in North America, 50,000,000 dogs.) Nor does their loss of autonomy seem to trouble these creatures. It is wrong, the rightists say, to treat animals as ''means'' rather than ''ends,'' yet the happiness of a working animal like the dog consists precisely in serving as a ''means.'' Liberation is the last thing such a creature wants. To say of one of Joel Salatin's caged chickens that ''the life of freedom is to be preferred'' betrays an ignorance about chicken preferences -- which on this farm are heavily focused on not getting their heads bitten off by weasels.

Now this is an extraordinary argument. Notice that not only does he claim to have access to the internal mind, hell, the essence of the animal, but he goes much further than just claiming he knows what is best. In accordance with the naturalism that pervades his entire argument, he makes the depoliticizing and deethical move of making the argument that all of this is "natural" and "evolutionary." Which, explicitly, means something that is "rather than political." This by itself would be problematic. And indeed, for now, let us also bracket his absurd and incorrect hypothesis on how evolution even works (though we will surely have to return to all of this). What I want to focus on is the rest of his description, his description of the moment of domestication (which is explicitly declared apolitical), which has a familiar form to readers of Hobbes, Locke, Kant, or Rousseau. His description follows the form of a state of nature story, of the compact/contract theory. The animals surrender some of their rights in exchange for the protections from the humans. It is a moment of declared 'mutualism,' of the creation of an 'alliance.' So this moment which is naturalized and depoliticized is also at the same time the most classical formulation of the political story. We are left then, with a very weird maneuvor. An apolitical political story. A contract that is never a contract but merely nature. Aristotilian ontology meets pseudo-evolutionary metaphysics (or maybe vice versa), the state of nature never disappears, the moment of artifice (and again, what else is domestication?) that defines the change from state of nature to civil society is repressed by Pollan. This is probably one of the scariest things about his pseudo-evolutionary metaphysics, the utter suppression of any political or ethical moment.
However, now might be the time to suspend that bracket before. His idea that "evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits" is an absurdity (at least through natural selection, and it has to be natural in order for this to be natural and not artifice, right?). Evolution maximizes positive traits, it just doesn't give a damn about useless traits (hello wisdom teeth). They are not selected for, but nor are they selected against. The domestication of animals almost certainly involved human intervention into evolution. Choosing to reproduce the animals that had the traits that made them the most domesticated while killing animals that continued to had wild traits. Pollan says that, "It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago.," rather it is the opposite. Now, that doesn't mean you can't defend domestication, but rather the defense of domestication cannot exclude human (and even non-human) artifice. You cannot exclude the political and the ethical. Pollan's creation story becomes a totalitarian nightmare, which is where biologism so often ends up.