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Book review: Dominion August 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Matthew Scully offers what is often termed “the Christian Right defense” of animal welfare in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Expecting to open the book to an account that, while perhaps academically interesting, would be irrelevant for a secularist like myself, I was surprised at how little Scully’s argument relies on Christian faith. He engages in a mere ten pages of biblical exegesis in a 400-page book, and that to refute Christians who conveniently interpret Genesis as an invitation to “go forth and subdue.” The rest of the book is relevant for any believer in the virtues of compassion and mercy.

In defending mercy toward animals, Scully shows none of it to those who exploit them: the game hunters, whalers, factory farmers, and scientists who have a deluded and self-interested vision of animal welfare if they have one at all. He is at his best exposing the idiocy of tired truisms so often trotted out to dismiss concern for animals, as in this rejoinder to those who think that concern for animal cruelty comes from a soft urban mindset that shrinks before the harsh reality of rural life: “Another way of looking at this is that the ‘urban’ types are not steeped in the ways of blood spilling and have no financial and emotional attachments to the practices in question. In other contexts, that’s usually called objectivity.” And responding to the criticism that people who care about animals don’t care about people: “…as if for every dolphin spared from the net a homeless person must go unfed, or as if the people who make such accusations are themselves to be found devoting every spare moment to the uplift of their fellow man.” The sarcasm doesn’t drip, it courses from the page.

He is less convincing when addressing the question of cruelty in the natural world. Rightly pointing out that the fact of cruelty between animals does not justify similar behavior from rational, reflective humans, he fails to consider the possibility that some human use of animals for food or sport hunting may be a less cruel fate for them than what would lie in wait in the natural world. He dismisses the possibility of raising the world’s supply of livestock humanely in one sentence. He rejects the potential solution to protecting endangered species offered by making their protection profitable for, say, game parks in South Africa. Granting his point that it would be better if people just protected animals out of the goodness of their hearts, we probably need to realize that not everyone will have enough goodness to work with, and give them other incentives.

Finally, Scully does not tend to brevity, making Dominion at times a bit of a slog. Ultimately it’s worth the effort, though, to relish his biting wit and no-holds-barred argumentation.

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