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Response to Review no. 789

I would like to thank Hilda Kean for her review. Regrettably, however, she does not address the substantial contributions of my book. Instead she focuses on peripheral points, which are not central to the book’s detailed and overarching arguments. I would like to address some of Kean’s specific criticisms, and to offer a general defence of the work, but also to take the opportunity to outline the book’s major argument and contribution to an emerging field of historical inquiry.

My book has three principal aims. The first is to demonstrate where common historical assumptions about the origins of ethics of animal rights in the modern period are inaccurate. Second, I put in place an alternative argument based on extensive archival research. Anthropocentrism, I argue, was the key motif in considerations of human-animal relations, despite a widespread acceptance of the notion of human-animal kinship. Third, I ask a question of contemporary animal ethicists, who claim to place animals at the centre of their focus: to what extent can animal advocates claim provenance from 18th- and 19th-century movements if those movements were structured along fundamentally different lines? Demonstrating empirically that there were foundational differences, I challenge scholars in animal studies to defend their ethics without reference to a constructed historical narrative.

The widely accepted history of animal rights, or animal welfare, depends typically on two orthodox assumptions: that Jeremy Bentham transformed attitudes towards animals by basing ethics principally on the notion of suffering; and that the theories of Charles Darwin made plain the intrinsic relationship between humans and animals, which in turn transformed ethics regarding animals on the basis of kinship. Both of these interpretations place the animal at the heart of the history of animal ethics, dating the movement to the 1780s and the 1850s respectively. My book shows that both these interpretations are incorrect. Although Kean points out that I ‘construct’ myself as a ‘de-bunker’ of myths, she does not comment on the merits of the analysis in a substantial way. Instead, she criticizes me for castigating other scholars ‘for not quoting a passage in full from Bentham’. This was not my essential point, and distracts attention from what is actually the most important part of the book. It is not so much that scholars tend only to cite Bentham’s well-known line, ‘the question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?’ (1); it is rather that this selective quotation leads to an interpretation of history that is not borne out by the evidence. It is precisely because historians and others have played fast and loose with their historical imaginations that Bentham’s views in favour of killing, eating and experimenting on animals, where he thought circumstances were favourable to humans, have been overlooked (see pp. 127–40 in my book). Since so much of the historiography in this field rests on such a highly selective reading of Bentham, it is significant that this reading can be shown, empirically, to be false. This can be conclusively demonstrated by archival research.

The same is true of the theories of Darwin. My research reveals the extent to which the most ardent followers of Darwin were scientists likely to employ the notion of kinship to justify the practice of vivisection, since they tended to believe that human-animal contiguity did not change the status of human beings as preeminent. In contrast, the main opponents to vivisection based their arguments on a rejection of Darwinism, in favour of notions of human dominion and fears about the collapse of civilisation, wrought by the perceived threat of Darwinism to morality. To be sure, Kean’s view that dogs ‘were seen as sentient beings that should not be dissected by scientists’, certainly existed. However, I claim that it was not a significant element in the vivisection debate on either side, and that much of the substance of the vivisection debate has been overlooked in the historiography. I maintain that the debate cannot be understood without a thorough investigation into the ways in which vivisection was justified. I do not underplay the opposition to vivisection to anything like the degree to which support for vivisection has been underplayed in the historiography in general. It is in these terms only that I criticised Stephen Clark. The iniquities of 19th-century vivisection are not self-evident, any more than are the forms of opposition to it; rather, they are historical, and need to be understood in historical terms. A central position taken in my book is that the treatment of animals derives its meaning within a historical context. As I point out throughout, a failure to understand this only leads to a misconstrued argument which foregrounds the concept of cruelty as a universal. This, any historian ought to recognise, cannot be the case.

In this spirit, I aim to show where ‘conventional archival material’ has been misused or misread. This is not because I see the historian’s role as secondary, but rather because I identify where scholars who have used material ‘to imagine the past’ have let their imaginations run wild. It is not true that ‘there isn’t in fact very much’ in the archives. The archives hold much important material, and the historical imagination is bound by a critical appreciation of it. If the analyses of Benthamism and Darwinism that I provide are taken seriously, then current thinking and research is fundamentally on the wrong path. In throwing out the myths that surround these concepts, I have tried to put in their place a history of human-animal relations based on the ‘extensive archival work’ that Kean does identify in my book. As such, I see my book as a radical new beginning, attempting to re-draw the history of this period. It is inevitably provisional, and I express my hopes in the final sentence that ‘this book has made a significant beginning’ on a path to a ‘more intellectually rigorous approach, especially to history’ in the field of human-animal studies (p. 350). It is, self-confessedly, a starting point.

The historical narrative that I put in the place of the typical reliance on Bentham and Darwin assumes a much earlier starting point. I examine classical philosophical texts and look to their influence at the beginning of the 18th century. Contrary to Kean’s claim that I ‘devalue the impact of experience and sight’, the book sets out to show how ‘Plutarch’s aesthetic has coloured the humane movement since it started to gather momentum in the 18th century. The consciousness of activists, by and large, was affected through the eye’ (p. 43). I go to some lengths to express the importance of aesthetic responses to seeing pain and death. It is of central importance to the book’s argument about anthropocentrism that the seeing of animal pain and death caused anguish in the human, and that action was motivated by this anguish, rather than by animal pain per se. Plutarch’s observation, I argue, was that ‘the human flaw was in not being horrified by the sight of blood, or by death’ (p. 41, emphasis in original). Kean and I may disagree on what this means for the history of morality, but the eye is central to my argument, and indeed, a framing component of the book. The emphasis on aesthetics is combined with several other components: the long-running debates about the nature of the human and the animal soul; the importance of reason, throughout the period, for justifications of the human cachet; and the ongoing influence of Christianity’s adherence to the notion of a ‘great chain of being’. The latter concept established the kinship of humans and animals long before Darwin, and, like Darwinism, maintained an anthropocentric outlook. Nevertheless, my evidence shows that the notion of dominion could work just as easily for, as against, the welfare of animals. I point to countless individuals who focussed on animals, but I examine their rhetoric carefully to see the nature of their focus, and the degree to which it was animals or humans that were really the end in mind. Where genuinely innovative thought on the animal question occurred, as with John Norris in 1704, I was most clear in pointing it out (pp. 60–2). Overall, I maintain that the movement to protect animals did not lose its essentially anthropocentric outlook in this period. Even where 18th- and 19th-century individuals and organisations focussed on animals, the end in mind was typically the character, morality and salvation of the human, and the well-being of civil society.

Dismissing Richard Ryder’s concept of ‘speciesism’ from historical accounts of human-animal relations is not something I have taken lightly. I argue that any history of human-animal relations which sets out to find and expose the speciesism of our forebears merely constructs an elaborate anachronism based on a contemporary agenda. This, and I cannot emphasise this too strongly, is not to criticise the contemporary agenda, but to criticise the abuse of the discipline of history in its service. In this regard, my book is not a conservative response to animal advocacy, but an attempt to topple an orthodox and paradigmatic historiography. This does not impugn animal advocates. My book is not an ethical manifesto, but it does ask that animal advocacy justify itself without recourse to what I maintain to be ‘bad history’.


  1. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), XVII, 5n.Back to (1)