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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…