Giving Animals More Rights Improves the Quality of Human Life

Expanding our moral sphere to include animals isn't just good for animals. Professional skeptic Michael Shermer explains the various ways that it's also good for us.

Michael Shermer: Yeah I think animal rights is the next wave after the same-sex marriage. We just got done with that. And that’ll be pretty much over in terms of social attitudes within a few years to a decade. No one will even talk about it anymore. What’s next? Animal rights, but also I think — you don’t want to say environmental rights, but the rights of future generations to have a sustainable earth, a planet to live on. I think we do owe a moral obligation to future generations and animals for a balanced ecosystem. And I think we’ll get there. I think we’re on our way there. But in terms of animal rights, where do we start? We start where Jeremy Bentham, really the founding father of animal rights and rights in general, natural rights concept is that it’s not can they talk or reason. Can they suffer? So we begin in case of animals because they can’t tell us I want the right to vote. We’re not talking about that. Can they live a life without suffering? That we have improved. All the laws against animal cruelty, dog fighting, bear baiting, you know, cat nailing to the post and all the cruel things people used to do to animals. We’ve largely gotten over that. Bullfighting is on the way out. Cockfighting is illegal in most countries. So the next step then, I think, I’m on board with Temple Grandin — that is the modification of the meat industry.

So that cattle are not, they don’t suffer as much. I think we need to get away in the long run from factory farms. It’s not healthy anyway. The food is not good for you. It really isn’t. You’re really better off eating organic foods, foods that are grown or raised on small farms. The EU is really good about this, like chicken cages can’t be too small and the cows have to be free to walk around and I’m still concerned about like taking the calf away from the female cows because that’s how they get them to generate more milk. It’s not good for them. They don’t like it. They scream and cry and those are the kind of things that we’re making a lot of progress on and have a ways to go. In the long run, you know, in a century or two maybe we’ll have synthetic meat. I kind of see that. You know the Google guys are working on that problem. I think that’s just a — it’s just a molecular machinery problem. And so I think we can get there in time. That one’s going to happen slower than same-sex marriage, women’s rights, civil rights simply because these are different species and we care less about them. But as the moral sphere continues to expand, we’ve already banned the use of chimpanzees in medical research as of this year. That’s it. They’re all being retired and they go to Club Med for chimps. Great. How about monkeys? Let’s keep the sphere out a little bit more. All marine mammals, whales, dolphins, cetaceans, and so on and just keep going. It’ll take a while, decades, you know, but we’re getting there.

I think the idea of being a carnivore, we’ll look back on that as like we look back at the Romans as, "How barbaric of them." It’s totally understandable why we eat meat. I love to eat meat, you know, and I’m not quite vegetarian, vegan, you know. I’m what’s called a reducitarian. There’s an actual group, the reducitarians. Reduce your meat eating. Okay, hey it’s a goal. And the reason for that, that I like, is because it’s practical. Because, you know, if you go, "I’m going vegan. That’s it, I’m not going to eat another piece of meat," and then you have a steak and you go, "Oh no, I feel so bad. I’ve sinned. I have to go confess my sins." It’s practically like a religion and I don’t like that. So let’s just see if we can reduce the factory farm carnage. Just eat less meat. And if you’re going to eat meat, meatless Mondays or whatever. How about just meat Mondays and no other meat for the week? And if you eat meat, then just eat, you know, not the factory-farmed meat but the organic meat that came from a small farm. Increments. I call this protopia. Instead of aiming for utopia, where everything is perfect forever and we’re all just sinless — okay forget that. That’s not going to happen. Just see if we can make today slightly better than yesterday and tomorrow slightly better than today. Just incrementally protopia.

Professional skeptic Michael Shermer sees major moral progress happening. In the next decade, he says, nobody will discuss gay marriage as though it were a controversial topic; and many of the ways we currently treat animals will be considered barbaric. Practices meant to entertain humans at the expense of animal well-being — bear baiting, bull and cock fighting — are already on their way out of fashion. But we will not only stop causing animals abject pain, but also them with a more comfortable way of life, allowing them to enjoy human rights like freedom and self-determination. The results will be positive for animals as well as human health, Shermer explains.

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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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