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The Paper of the Apes

The New York Times’s animal-rights crusade.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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There they danced, sang, laughed, barked, growled, hooted, mooed, bleated and meowed, forming a kind of atavistic, improvisatory choir. Deep into the night, you could hear them from your tent, shifting every few minutes from sound to sound, animal to animal and mood to mood.  

Kingsnorth is convinced that global warming and human development will lead to ecological collapse, a hysterical idea that the profile never questions. He even claims to be so discouraged about our future that he has given up activism and essentially dropped off the grid. Well, not entirely: “For the past three years,” the story tells us, “he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. .  .  . He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent.” 

Had the interviewer been a bit more skeptical he might have discovered that Kingsnorth isn’t actually opposed to commerce, nor is DMP uncontaminated by technology. Although the piece doesn’t mention it, books and recorded music are sold on the DMP’s website. You can even pick up a “limited edition” vinyl LP album celebrating “uncivilized music.” Vinyl, of course, is made from oil.

In addition to its profiles of social radicals, the Times regularly publishes human-reductionist columns in its opinion pages. Two years ago, for example, it ran a Sunday opinion feature by the philosophy professor Michael Marder essentially arguing for plant personhood. 

What could justify thinking of plants as persons? Marder cited a study finding that peas communicate chemically through their root systems. This, he said, matters morally. “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” asked the headline. A plant, Marder insists, is “not only a what but also a who—an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good.” 

Marder then claims that this sophistication means we should not eat annuals. “The ‘renewable’ aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets. But it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends.”

Marder was not the first—nor will he likely be the last—to argue in the New York Times for elevating our moral view of plants. Back in 2009, Natalie Angier, a Times science writer, bathed in anthropomorphism as she asserted that plants are the most “ethical” life form. From her “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too”: 

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication—their feedback, you might say—are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Angier concluded: “It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.”   

But of course ethical behavior requires rational thought and free will—which only we possess. 

Some might maintain that the frequent criticism of human exceptionalism appearing in the Times (these examples are nowhere near exhaustive) simply reflects the increasing prominence of these ideas, which “the paper of record” has a duty to acknowledge. The claim would be more persuasive if the paper also regularly hosted defenses of the ancien moral régime.

But that’s not how the New York Times rolls. The paper is substantially agenda-driven. Progressives have long denied that any superior dignity attaches to human life, deeming the idea irrational, unscientific, and religiously based. So, naturally, the Times lends its space to views corrosive of any “outdated” belief in the sanctity of human life.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and the author, most recently, of The War on Humans.

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