I've recently been re-reading Richard Adams's 1977 novel The Plague Dogs. My considered literary conclusion is that it is weak. The political agenda is too strident, and the book's insistence on telling much of the tale from the perspective of a dog character who suffers hallucinations and general mental confusion due to a laboratory experiment makes it often disconnected and unclear. Even the narrator indulges in liturgical, biblical, and literary free association to the point of babbling, which should have been squelched ruthlessly by an editor. If you want to read something by Adams, read Watership Down, which is excellent, or even Shardik, which has serious literary flaws but demonstrates talent and power. Adams's collection of folk tales, cum frame stories, The Unbroken Web, is also top-notch.
One really enjoyable thing about The Plague Dogs, besides the fact that it has a happy ending (I like happy endings), is Adams's detailed and affectionate portrayal of the people, places, and dialect of the Lake District of England. There is also one truly well-drawn character--the tod (fox).
The book got me thinking about the fact that so often, from at least the 1970's onward, those urging us to be kind to animals were downgrading humans and endorsing cruelty to humans. In the introduction, Adams explicitly credits the now-infamous, infanticide-endorsing Peter Singer as an influence on the book. (To be clear, I should say that I haven't researched whether Singer had publicly endorsed infanticide by the time The Plague Dogs was written.) At the climax of the book, Adams brings in a deus ex machina in the form of two real, living (at that time) people--the famous nature conservators Sir Peter Scott and Ronald Lockley.
Before they save the day, Scott and Lockley are given several pages to indulge in disconnected rants about man and animals. Adams assures the reader in the introduction that Scott and Lockley heartily endorse the sentiments he has put into their mouths. One presumes he must have checked this with them to avoid lawsuit.
So here is Adams's Scott on...human overpopulation:
Altogether, in terms of educating people, we've gained a hell of a lot since the turn of the century--look at leopard-skin coats and stuff humming-birds on ladies' hats--but the trouble is we've lost more, simply on account of the human population explosion. Too many people, animals getting crowded out of their habitats--(p. 374)
So let's be sure not to be too happy about the fact that humans are now kinder to animals. We have to counterbalance that with the fact that there are "too many" humans. Darn it, those humans insist on existing and having children.
Adams's Lockley is aboard the population control train. The two men have been agreeing that animals sometimes need to be culled, that their numbers need "keeping down," if they overpopulate. Lockley casually observes, "[H]umans need keeping down, too, come to that" (p.373).
The anti-humanism continues. Scott admits that humans may be the cleverest species, but he says that this gives man more responsibility to manage the animals wisely. (Almost sounds sensible, there, for a moment. Or even biblical.) Lockley jumps in at this point, however, and argues that man is not really the cleverest animal because he cannot comprehend and make use of all the data that is used by a migrant bird. He continues by saying, "[A]nd of course in the total, real world we and our intellects are superficial. The birds and animals are the real world, actually, tens of thousands of years of instinctive living in the past; and in the future they'll outlive our artificial civilization. Our intellects are just the veneer, the crust over our base instincts, but just now they happen to have a good deal of power in the world..." (p. 376)
One would like to think that Lockley or anyone else would have been insulted rather than complimented to have this incoherent mishmash of something like Rousseau, something like Freud, and something like nonsense put into his mouth, but evidently not. Why is it a matter "of course" that our intellects and our very selves are "superficial" and that non-human animals are the real world? Is such a statement even meaningful? Are human beings unreal? Would it not be more scientific and empirical to regard man and his intellect as being as much a part of nature as the migratory instincts of birds? And by what crystal ball does one discern that the non-human animals will outlive human civilization?
What is "of course" is that anti-humanism and human population control were popular among the intelligentsia at the time that The Plague Dogs was written, so Adams, in the usual way of an avant garde artist and independent thinker, is just jumping aboard the bandwagon.
I'm much struck by something in all of this: From reading a fair bit of Adams, I know that he had a great sense of the evil of cruelty, including cruelty to humans. Adams was horrified by what he saw of child slavery when he was a soldier in WWII in India. He put some of that into the almost unbearably painful slavery sections of Shardik. It is one of the strengths of Shardik that it shows the process of corruption and rationalization by which a man who initially loves children comes to endorse (though at first from a safe distance) atrocities against helpless and innocent human beings and then the process by which he is brought to repentance. Similarly, one section in The Plague Dogs represents the meeting between a Holocaust survivor and the brain-injured dog. To be sure, the analogy between animal experimentation and the Holocaust is, to put it mildly, problematic. But the passage nonetheless shows Adams's sensitivity to man's cruelty to man.
How does a person like that casually endorse human population control? Lockley's callous reference to "keeping down" human population is a gesture in the direction of programs and policies that are simply heinous. It takes a massive failure of imagination--something his readers might think Adams had almost too much of--for Adams to be unable to see this.
The clue, I think, lies in the insistence that man is just another animal. Adams's Scott reveals the anti-Christian bias behind the anti-humanism when he says, "I'm sure the old notion of 'God made man in His own image' has a lot to answer for'." Scott is wrong there. It is quite difficult to place on man the great obligations to kindness and care that Adams does if one rejects anything like the imago dei. Why should the fact that man is "the cleverest" of all animals (if the animal rights activist even is willing to go that far) make man responsible to be kind and wise if man is just another animal? Are great apes morally responsible to be kind because they are more intelligent than so many other animals?
But, while holding that man is just another animal leaves the animal rights activist with precious little in the way of a grounding for the ethical obligations he wants to place on man, it also frees him to insist, without guilt, that man may be treated like an animal. If man overpopulates, his numbers can be "kept down," presumably by schemes dreamt up by those who are especially clever among their fellow men. This is not merely theoretical. Today coercive population control programs are in place in China and in third-world countries. And in case you were hoping that population control chic was finally getting old and un-cool, Wesley J. Smith tells us of a shiny new transhumanist argument for coercively restricting the freedom of humans to breed unchecked.
So pro-animal activism is particularly likely to have a nasty underbelly of anti-humanism when it is based on the premise that humans are just another animal among many. Unfortunately, there are also Christian liberals who presumably don't believe this premise but who naively make common cause with environmentalists, animal rights activists, and other groups who do and whose policy prescriptions reflect it.
We humans, made in the image of God, do indeed have responsibilities to be kind to the other creatures God has made. Where exactly these fall, I'm not going to dictate dogmatically to others. I'm a happy, guilt-free meat-eater myself. (Interestingly, the anti-meat campaign apparently hadn't gotten going so much in 1977, and Adams's Scott and Lockley are carving beef sandwiches off the bone while having their conversation.) But wherever they fall, those obligations are based on man's difference, man's specialness, man's ability to do right and wrong. If it were otherwise, there would be no human obligations at all.