Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Column on Animals vs. Artifacats

Animals versus Artifacts

Tibor R. Machan

So I am reading my latest copy of Science News, the magazine that keeps
me reasonably up to date about what?s going on in all the sciences. I have
been reading this publication for over twenty years?it gives you a pretty
good run down on what?s new in a great variety of disciplines and always
tells you where to go for details.

OK, so I am munching on my dinner and reading through all these summary
presentations of new stuff when I run across one of the magazine?s more
extensive reports, this time on how, to quote the subtitle, ?Cultural
artifacts are crawling with damaging microbes.?

The gist of the story is that a great many ancient paintings, sculptures,
and ruins are being threatened by various micro-organisms that have
festered within them for centuries and are now beginning to cause major
damage. In several decades or at least centuries, some of these paintings,
sculptures and historical artifacts will simply fall apart, so virulent is
the assault on them by all kinds of tiny critters. The report also makes
no bones about the fact that scientists are hard at work trying to fend of
the damage, thinking of ways to destroy?albeit in environmentally friendly
ways?what is doing the damage.

No, this time there is no intimation at all that some human agency is the
ultimate cause, although I am sure some folks were eager to link it all to
exactly such agency, just as some have been so eager to find human agency
behind Katrina, Rita, last year?s tsunami and perhaps even the recent
devastating Pakistani earthquake. Sadly, misanthropy is all around us, yet
in this case there was no sign of it at all?the culprits are indeed
microorganisms, tiny animals, and scientists are making no secret of their
hope and intentions of destroying them so they cannot devastate, for
example, the Maya temples at Ek? Balam in Yucat√°n, Mexico.

But as I read through the report I suddenly stopped. What about the
alleged rights of these microbes? According to some animal liberation
theorists and activists, these little critters have every right to go
about their business of devouring the human artifacts as we do when we
devour the food stuff we find about us in the world. Indeed, by some
accounts laid out in the animal liberation, animal rights movement, we
have no right to feed off what other animals find nourishing for them. It
amounts to violating the rights of such animals or, put in a different
terminology of certain theorists and activists, interfering with their
liberty to thrive.

Oh, some might way, when animal liberation or animal rights are being
talked about, the issue isn?t about microbes and bacteria, like those that
are doing damage to the historical artifacts. It?s all about great apes
and other animals that are nearly as mentally developed as are human

No, that retort will not work. Actually, both the animal rights and the
animal libertarian movement go much farther down on the evolutionary
ladder, all the way to laboratory mice, for example, used in testing
medicines or other stuff, such as cosmetics, people use for their

The crucial point is that some of the reasoning offered in support of
this is that as long a living being has certain identifiable interests, it
is fully entitled to carry on to its heart?s content and we must stay out
of its way. But by this reasoning, of course, the microbes and other tiny
critters that are the targets of these scientists? diligent efforts to
impeded the animals? assault upon the historic artifacts must also be left
alone. They have interests big time?namely to eat up those paintings and
ruins and whatever. Given that the argument that for many animal
liberationists clinches the case for prohibiting interference with any
beast that it has interests, that it can do well or badly at living
depending on various activities it embarks upon, we must abstain from
intruding on the activities of the bacteria that do damage to the

Alas, there was no mention of this potential conflict between the
scientists or the historical preservationists, and the animal liberation
movement. And I am a little worried that my calling attention to the issue
could, actually, alert some members of PETA to take some drastic action
against the scientists. (So keep this under raps, please, if you are

My point is simply that the scientists bent on protecting historical
artifacts have, at least so far, their priorities intact. But they do so
mainly from habit. One wonders if they are prepared to deal with animal
liberationists, should they hear about their murderous plans.
Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University, Orange, CA, He
authored Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature?s Favorite (Rowman &
Littlefield, 2004).

No comments: