The Worst Crime in History


The Worst Crime in History

Today, the majority of large animals on planet earth are domesticated farm animals that live and die as cogs in the wheels of industrial agriculture. Earth is home to about 7 billion humans, weighing together about 300 million tons. It is also home to several dozen billion farm animals – cows, pigs, chickens and so forth – whose total biomass is about 700 millions tons. In contrast, if you took all the large wild animals left on earth – all the penguins, baboons, alligators, dolphins, wolves, tune fish, lions and elephants – and put them on a very large scale, they will weigh together less than 100 million tons.

The disappearance of wildlife is a calamity of unprecedented magnitude, but the plight of the planet’s majority population—the farm animals—is cause for equal concern. In recent years there is growing awareness of the conditions under which these animals live and die, and their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.

It is undeniable that the regime of modern industrial agriculture is designed to the benefit of humankind, and that the animals inevitably end their lives in the slaughterhouse. But isn’t this regime beneficial in many ways to the animals too? Aren’t cows and chickens better off under human care? After all, they get all the food, water and shelter they need, without making the least effort. They are similarly protected against predators and diseases. And though it is certainly painful for a chicken to end its life slaughtered by a human, how is it worse than being slaughtered in the wild by a fox or an eagle?

To understand why this line of thinking is flawed, and why the condition of domesticated animals is uniquely miserable, we need to rely on the insights of the new science of evolutionary psychology. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the main problem with industrial agriculture is not the slaughter or exploitation of animals, but the disregard of their subjective needs.

Ever since the Agricultural Revolution, the living conditions of domesticated animals have been determined by two main factors:

  1. Human desires. For example, human desire for meat, milk, wool and muscle-power.
  2. The need to ensure the survival and reproduction of the animals. If the work-horse dies of exhaustion, or the dairy cow produces no calves, this is bad news for the farmers, who will soon find themselves without milk and without someone to pull their carts and plows.

In theory, the need to ensure the survival and reproduction of the animals should have safeguarded their well-being. But this is not so in practice. First, farmers don’t need to ensure the survival and reproduction of all animals. All too often, it pays to exploit a work-horse until it dies, and then just buy a new one. Even more importantly, whereas human agriculture has an interest in ensuring the survival and reproduction of farm animals, it has no built-in interest to provide for their emotional and social needs, unless these needs are essential for survival and reproduction.

But how can animals have emotional or social needs that are not essential for survival and reproduction? Doesn’t the theory of evolution argue that needs evolve only if they contribute something to survival and reproduction? Here we reach the heart of the problem. According to evolutionary psychology, the emotional and social needs of cows and chickens evolved for millions of years in the wild, when they were indeed indispensable for survival and reproduction. Yet over the last few thousand years-the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms-humans have created an artificial regime of agriculture, which enables animals to survive and reproduce even when their emotional and social needs are ignored. However, animals continue to feel these emotional and social needs, and if these are not fulfilled, the animals suffer greatly.

For example, cattle is a social animal, and cows and bulls in the wild must know how to communicate and cooperate in order to find food, evade dangers, find mates and rear offspring. Young calves must therefore learn the norms and taboos of cattle society, or they will fail to survive and reproduce. Calves, like the young of all other social mammals, acquire the necessary social skills through play. Evolution has accordingly implanted calves with a strong desire to play, and calves—just like puppies, kittens and human children—spend much time playing and fooling around if you only give them the chance.
What happens if we now lock a young calf in an isolated cage; give him food, water and medications; and when he matures we extract his sperm and inseminate a cow? From an objective perspective, the calf no longer needs to play and form social ties with other cattle in order to survive and reproduce. But from a subjective perspective, the calf still feels a very strong urge to play and form social ties. If this urge is not fulfilled, the calf will suffer greatly. For a need shaped by millions of years of evolution in the wild continues to be felt by domesticated animals even when it is no longer necessary for their survival and reproduction in industrial farms.

At this point one might ask whether animals really have emotions and desires at all. Perhaps we imagine that they feel things – like a desire to play – because we erroneously humanize them? However, ascribing feelings to calves does not humanize them. It merely "mammalianize" them, which is entirely permissible, because they are mammals. Feelings and emotions are mechanisms that evolved in all mammals in order to encourage adaptive behaviors. The areas in the human brain which are related to basic emotions like fear, anger and mother-infant bonding are very similar to those we find in other mammals.

Indeed, the very definition of mammals is based on the loving bond between mother and offspring. The name "mammal" is taken from the mammary gland, which secrets milk. A mammalian mother has such love for her offspring, that she literally nourishes them with her own body, and they cannot survive without her. A mammalian mother who for some reason feels no love for her offspring, or an offspring that feels no attachment to the mother, are unlikely to leave their DNA for posterity.

The centrality of emotions for mammals have been proved already back in the 1950s, in a series of famous and heart-wrenching experiments conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow. Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers several hours after birth. The monkeys were isolated inside small cages, in each of which Harlow placed one infant monkey and two "dummy mothers". One was made of metal wires, and was fitted with a milk bottle from which the infant monkey could suck. The other was made of wood covered with cloth, which made her resemble a real monkey mom, but it provided the infant monkey with no food whatsoever.

In the 1950s the psychological study of all animals, including even humans, was dominated by the behaviorist school. Behaviorism discounted the importance of emotions, and argued that behavior is shaped mainly by material needs such as food and shelter. Hence it was assumed that the infant monkeys would cling to the nourishing metal mother, while ignoring the barren cloth one. However, to everyone's surprise, the infant monkeys showed a marked preference for the cloth mother, spending most of their time with her. When the two mothers were placed in close proximity, the infants held on to the cloth mother even while they reached over to suck milk from the metal mother.

Harlow suspected that perhaps the infants did so because they were cold. So he fitted an electric bulb inside the wire mother, which now radiated heat. Most of the infant monkeys continued to prefer the cloth mother. Follow-up research showed that Harlow’s orphaned monkeys grew up to be emotional wrecks even though they had received all the material needs they required. They never fitted into monkey society, had difficulties communicating with other monkeys, and suffered from high levels of anxiety and aggression.

One of Harlow’s orphaned monkeys clings to the cloth mother even while sucking milk from the metal mother. © Photo Researchers /

The conclusion was inescapable: monkeys must have emotional needs and desires that go far beyond their material requirements, and if these are not fulfilled, the monkeys suffer greatly. Harlow's infant monkeys preferred to spend their time in the hands of the barren cloth mother because they were looking for an emotional bond and not only for milk.

In the following decades, numerous studies showed that this conclusion applies not only to monkeys, but to other mammals, as well as birds and perhaps some reptiles and fish. It brought about a revolution not only in our understanding of animals, but even in our understanding of ourselves. Back in the 1950s, human children in orphanages were raised under a very strict regime that provided for their material needs, but discounted their emotional needs. Children were discouraged from playing and having too much contact with one another or with visitors, in order to curtail unruly behavior and to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The psychological results were calamitous. Today we know that to live a happy life, humans in general and children in particular need a lot of contact with others.

Yet even though we know this we continue to subject billions of domesticated animals to the same conditions as Harlow's infant monkeys. Farmers routinely separate calves, kids and other youngsters from their mothers and playmates, to be raised in isolation. The dairy industry in particular is founded on the separation of offspring and mother. Cows, goats and sheep produce milk only after giving birth to calves, kids, and lambs, and only as long as the youngsters are suckling. To continue a supply of animal milk, a farmer needs the cow to produce calves, but must then prevent the calves from monopolizing the milk. In industrial dairy farms a milk cow usually lives for about five years before being slaughtered. During these five years she is almost constantly pregnant, and is fertilized within 60-120 days after giving birth in order to preserve maximum milk production. Her calves are separated from her shortly after birth. The females are reared to become the next generation of dairy cows, spending much of their childhood isolated in small cages in order to limit the danger of infectious diseases. The males are handed over to the care of the meat industry.

So yes, industrial agriculture takes care of the material needs of animals. But it has no intrinsic interest in their emotional and social needs. The result is suffering on a truly massive scale. It is debatable whether this is indeed the worst of all the crimes ever committed by humankind. But it is certainly something that should trouble us greatly. 

Excerpt from chapter 17, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind