Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part IV

Chapter 25. To Understand Biology/ Preface to Animal Machines

[1960, 1964]

CARSON AGREED TO CONTRIBUTE an introduction for the Animal Welfare Institute’s educational booklet, Humane Biology Projects, which addressed the need for reform of biology instruction in the nation’s high schools. The Institute opposed animal experimentation and worked to change the callous attitude toward systematic cruelty that often accompanied classroom biology projects.

A.W.I. head Christine Stevens was also instrumental in introducing Carson to the work of British activist Ruth Harrison, whose book Animal Machines exposed the inhumane methods of raising livestock and the deplorable conditions in which they were kept before slaughter. In 1963 Carson wrote the preface to Harrison’s book.

Carson’s ideas about the humane treatment of animals place her fully in the tradition of Albert Schweitzer and his philosophy of the reverence for life. Her contributions to these publications emphasize the unity of all life, and the need to cultivate an emotional response to the living world.

Through the next several years Carson quietly aided the work of Stevens and the Animal Welfare Institute, writing to members of Congress in support of legislation banning the use of certain leg traps and against the inhumane treatment of laboratory animals. But she had to be careful not to draw too much attention to her support for causes that might link her in the public mind with fringe groups and extremists, lest she jeopardize her all-important work concerning the misuse of pesticides. Had this not been a real political consideration, Carson undoubtedly would have been an outspoken advocate of the humane treatment of animals.

To Understand Biology

image I LIKE TO DEFINE BIOLOGY as the history of the earth and all its life – past, present, and future. To understand biology is to understand that all life is linked to the earth from which it came; it is to understand that the stream of life, flowing out of the dim past into the uncertain future, is in reality a unified force, though composed of an infinite number and variety of separate lives. The essence of life is lived in freedom. Any concept of biology is not only sterile and profitless, it is distorted and untrue, if it puts its primary focus on unnatural conditions rather than on those vast forces not of man’s making that shape and channel the nature and direction of life.

To the extent that it is ever necessary to put certain questions to nature by placing unnatural restraints upon living creatures or by subjecting them to unnatural conditions or to changes in their bodily structure, this is a task for the mature scientist. It is essential that the beginning student should first become acquainted with the true meaning of his subject through observing the lives of creatures in their true relation to each other and to their environment. To begin by asking him to observe artificial conditions is to create in his mind distorted conceptions and to thwart the development of his natural emotional response to the mysteries of the life stream of which he is a part. Only as a child’s awareness and reverence for the wholeness of life are developed can his humanity to his own kind reach its full development.

Preface to Animal Machines

image THE MODERN WORLD worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen. Yet the evils go long unrecognized. Even those who create them manage by some devious rationalizing to blind themselves to the harm they have done society. As for the general public, the vast majority rest secure in a childlike faith that “someone” is looking after things – a faith unbroken until some public-spirited person, with patient scholarship and steadfast courage, presents facts that can no longer be ignored.

This is what Ruth Harrison has done. Her theme affects practically every citizen, for it deals with the new methods of rearing animals destined to become human food. It is a story that ought to shock the complacency out of any reader.

Modern animal husbandry has been swept by a passion for “intensivism”; on this tide everything that resembles the methods of an earlier day has been carried away. Gone are the pastoral scenes in which animals wandered through green fields or flocks of chickens scratching contentedly for their food. In their place are factorylike buildings in which animals live out their wretched existences without ever feeling the earth beneath their feet, without knowing sunlight, or experiencing the simple pleasures of grazing for natural food – indeed, so confined or so intolerably crowded that movement of any kind is scarcely possible. [ … ]

As a biologist whose special interests lie in the field of ecology, or the relation between living things and their environment, I find it inconceivable that healthy animals can be produced under the artificial and damaging conditions that prevail in these modern and factorylike installations, where animals are grown and turned out like so many inanimate objects. The intolerable crowding of broiler chickens, the revoltingly unsanitary conditions in the piggeries, the lifelong confinement of laying hens in tiny cages are samples of the conditions Mrs. Harrison describes. As she makes abundantly clear, this artificial environment is not a healthy one. Diseases sweep through these establishments, which indeed are kept going only by the continuous administration of antibiotics. Disease organisms then become resistant to the antibiotics. Veal calves, purposely kept in a state of induced aenemia so their white flesh will satisfy the supposed desires of the gourmet, sometimes drop dead when taken out of their imprisoning crates.

The question then arises: how can animals produced under such conditions be safe or acceptable human food? Mrs. Harrison quotes expert opinion and cites impressive evidence that they are not. Although the quantity of production is up, quality is down, a fact recognized in a most significant way by some of the producers themselves, who, for example, are more likely to keep a few chickens in the back yard for their own tables than to eat the products of the broiler establishments. The menace to human consumers from the drugs, hormones, and pesticides used to keep this whole fantastic operation somehow going is a matter never properly explored.

The final argument against the intensivism now practiced in this branch of agriculture is a humanitarian one. I am glad to see Mrs. Harrison raise the question of how far man has a moral right to go in his domination of other life. Has he the right, as in these examples, to reduce life to a bare existence that is scarcely life at all? Has he the further right to terminate these wretched lives by means that are wantonly cruel? My own answer is an unqualified no. It is my belief that man will never be at peace with his own kind until he has recognized the Schweitzerian ethic that embraces decent consideration for all living creatures – a true reverence for life.

Although Mrs. Harrison’s book describes in detail only the conditions prevailing in Great Britain, it deserves to be widely read also in those European countries where these methods are practiced, and in the United States where some of them arose. Wherever it is read it will certainly provoke feelings of dismay, revulsion, and outrage. I hope it will spark a consumers’ revolt of such proportions that this vast new agricultural industry will be forced to mend its ways.