Skip to main content

Second Nature – Jonathan Balcombe ****

That four star rating is a compromise – this is a book with a five star theme and important messages, but it’s just not very well written, so that drags the rating down.
The first key part of the message is that animals feel much more than we credit them with – the whole gamut of emotions – and because of that we should treat them better than we often do. The second part is that we ought to consider eating less meat, for our own health, because of the impact on global warming of meat production, and because of animal welfare (though as Jonathan Balcombe himself points out, this is often better in Europe than the US – there is a movement in the right direction).
The problem with the book is the way this message is put across. Firstly, a huge proportion of the book consists of repetitious examples. How this animal, after this animal, after this animal all demonstrate feeling this way. It often comes across as a massive attempt to persuade by anecdote, anecdotes which after the 100th get a bit boring. Secondly, there’s the way Balcombe tries to argue we ought to treat animals better, because human beings don’t have a special position.
This is hard to take seriously. He employs the old ‘we haven’t evolved that much’ argument – clearly he hasn’t read my book Upgrade Me. It’s a painfully narrow biological view that suggest a creature that has gained the ability to fly, to ‘run’ continuously for hours at 70 miles per hour, to communicate almost instantly to the other side of the world and to receive (through books) communications from people who died thousands of years ago hasn’t evolved. We are a totally different kind of creature.
I think a useful way of looking at this is to think of human responsibilities instead of human rights. The outward looking concept of responsibilities is, I would say, a much more productive approach than the usual one of rights. We all ought to take our human responsibilities seriously. But if you think we are no different from the other animals, you ought to be able to apply the same thinking to them. Let’s take cats. When are they going to take seriously their responsibilities to the hundreds of millions of birds they terrify, torture and kill each year? (I notice that when Balcombe is going on and on about how caring animals are, he doesn’t mention this kind of behaviour.)
So, yes, we ought to respect that fact that animals are sentient and to treat them well. Yes, we ought to look at ways to reduce meat consumption. Yes, we ought to do away with sadistic activities like bull fighting and hunting for ‘sport’. But Balcombe is on a hiding to nothing when he tries to suggest there isn’t some sort of hierarchy. Not necessarily a biologically based one, but a hierarchy nonetheless. People are different from animals and need to be put higher in the chain of responsibilities. A dog is different from a fish, and again needs to be put higher. And so on. There’s no advantage to be gained from pretending otherwise, and it makes it difficult to take the important messages of this book seriously.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…