Unkind to Animals

Animal Liberators: Research and Morality

by Susan Sperling
University of California Press, 247 pp., $19.95

Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research Research; the Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council; and the Institute of Medicine

by the Committee on the Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical
National Academy Press, 102 pp., $11.95

Now I know something of how American Indians and Trobriand Islanders must feel. I have been a subject of “ethnographic” research by a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at the University of California. Not in person, admittedly, for I was not privileged to be one of the nine animal rights activists with whom Dr. Sperling had “extended conversations” during the fieldwork phase of this study, which lasted from June to September 1984. I count myself as one of her subjects nonetheless, because she quotes me as frequently as she does any of those she did interview. (Although to establish this I had first to decipher the author’s practice of dividing her index references to my book, Animal Liberation,1 between “Singer, P.” and a hitherto unknown alter ego, “Singer, J.”)

There is an old joke to the effect that the distinction between anthropology and sociology consists in whether we are looking at “them” (in which case it is anthropology) or “us” (when it is sociology). What then is an anthropologist doing studying the animal liberation movement in the United States? (Sperling writes of both “animal liberators” and “animal rights activists,” and I shall use the terms interchangeably.) Sperling’s reason is that the distinction between human beings and animals is just the kind of cosmological category-making anthropologists like to study when they visit other cultures. So why shouldn’t an anthropologist examine the way this distinction is drawn by a group within our own society, a group that appears to challenge the standard way in which the categories are demarcated in Western society? Put this way, the idea seems splendid, but as we shall see, in this instance, the anthropological perspective has acted as a distorting lens on the subject of the research.

Sperling’s book suffers from another distorting influence too. During her graduate training in anthropology, under the supervision of Phyllis Dolhinow, a primatologist, Sperling carried out research on langur monkeys. Some of this involved separating infants and their mothers. Harry Harlow had already carried out a long series of maternal deprivation experiments on rhesus monkeys, and had found that the infants showed a variety of abnormal, depressive, and neurotic behavior. Dolhinow’s team wanted to know if the same thing would happen with langurs. Sperling believes that this work was justified because “we were testing hypotheses about an important issue: the well-being of a young primate who temporarily or permanently loses contact with its mother.” She was surprised when Dolhinow, whose work “had always seemed a model of humane concern,” was subsequently criticized by the local animal rights movement. In the acknowledgements that appear at the start of Animal Liberators, thanking people for their support for the project, the first person mentioned is Phyllis Dolhinow. One might well wonder whether such a background augurs well for an objective study of the animal liberation movement; but Sperling’s preface disarms such criticism by a passing reference to the “futility of ethnographic objectivity,” which, we are informed, has been “the subject of a refined…

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