The Centre for Religion and the Biosciences of Chester University organised a day conference on September 23rd. 06 on the subject of Christianity and Animal Welfare.

Some 25 participants were given the opportunity to hear the philosophers Mary Midgeley of Newcastle and Stephen Clark of Liverpool University, Lisa Goddard, biochemist, now involved in doctoral research in Theology at the department of Theology and Religious Studies here in Chester and Margaret Atkins of Trinity and Leeds, a classicist with an interest in animal ethics.

This was an intensive and demanding day. Apart from the fact that I personally have not for very many years sat in a lecture hall, philosophy is a challenging subject in itself, so the first speakers needed much attention.

This was the first time I had heard Mary Midgeley speak and she has a wonderful breadth of knowledge. In Changing Visions of the Earth, her exposition of early understanding of the earth and the heavens, in which the earth is simultaneously worshipped as a generous mother and despised and feared as the antithesis of the ethereal heavens, illustrated well how we have come to the point today where we generally consider other beings as of little significance, available for whatever uses we can devise.

Mary was the only speaker to use the word “kinship” – this in relation to Darwin, who wanted to break down the barrier between humans and other animals, in contrast to the view of his contemporaries that this barrier was a defence against chaos. Mary mentioned the link humans make between animals and sin – they appear to embody human vices – thus, people may be “swine”, rapists are “animals”, et al. The study of animal behaviour and the discovery of the continental drift, which made the earth more intelligible, went some way to demolishing these pernicious errors. Thus, though it is unfortunately common to hear rats referred to as “vermin”, observation of their behaviour proves that they can be loving parents – even if many do not want to accept this.

Stephen Clark’s address was How Alien are (Other) Animals? He examined the question of how much we know of what animals feel, as this is crucial to, for example, the vivisector’s argument. But how much do we know of the feelings of our fellow human animals? And are we not part of the primate/mammalian genera, which date back millions of years? Would it not be likely that there is a convergence of feeling and of suffering?

But, if we can say we have doubts about how other creatures feel, it assuages our guilt and we can carry on more easily with whatever we are doing to them. Stephen made the point that experimentalists all require proof that an animal is suffering, but are reluctant (or unable?) to give an example of what proof would satisfy them. If a creature cowers, refuses to eat, vocalises in some way, why is this not a reasonable indication of suffering?

The power of speech is seen as something key in our attitude to other creatures. In the thinking of Descartes, in lacking words, (other) animals lack thoughts and therefore feelings. But a human infant, learning to speak, may not be capable of thought either; does it therefore lack the capacity to feel? Apes can be taught a form of sign language. This is viewed as merely adding a little more to the animal’s behaviour; no further conclusion is drawn from this skill.

Stephen talked about genetic engineering and the transfer of genes. A profusion of biodiversity could result, but the potential for the creation of monsters would be there, as would another sinister possibility – the creation of beings suited for certain ends. This has always happened in the breeding of other animals.

Stephen concluded with the thought that animals are not just “animals” – they are social beings, bound by ethical restraints, even if they do not reason about these. They can be self-aware, responsible and forward-looking. We are all “experiments in living.”