Ep. 14 – David Wolfson on pioneering the field of farm animal law

“None of us on our best days could have envisioned how far we would have come at this point by now,” David Wolfson says. “Ringling Brothers: gone, Seaworld: changing, vegan food: everywhere, veganism: not so crazy anymore. Ten years ago it would be impossible to believe any of that stuff.”

In the United States today, 10 billion land animals are raised and killed for food annually. That’s over 19,000 animals per minute. About 1.1 million animals during the length of this podcast. Yet as far as federal law is concerned, farmed animals do not exist. They are not counted as “animals” under the country’s primary federal animal protection law, the Animal Welfare Act. Their status is finally changing at the state level, thanks to the remarkable work of our guest, corporate lawyer and activist David Wolfson.

“‘Change happens funeral by funeral,'” Wolfson says. “The idea that we persuade people who disagree with us to change our minds is not really how change happens. What happens is that people who have not [yet] formed their opinion change their minds as they grow up.”

In addition to his work leading Milbank globally, David teaches animal law and policy at NYU. He has previously taught animal law at Columbia, Harvard, Cardozo and Yale. He is the author of a number of seminal articles and chapters on animal protection law and represents pro-bono many of the leading animal protection groups, including The Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals, and Farm Sanctuary. With colleagues, he pioneered the first successful farm animal protection ballot initiative in Florida in 2002–a strategy that he has helped to replicate in many other states since then.

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Ep. 13 – Nicholas Christakis on the animal origins of goodness

“When you go to these elephants and you study their networks and you study their behavior, you find in elephants the same, I would argue, type of friendship that you find in us,” Dr. Christakis says. “I find that incredibly moving. If we can share this property with elephants for God’s sake, we can certainly share it with each other.”  (Photo: Via Yale Human Nature Lab)

For decades, researchers have debated whether or not animals make friends. “Friends” — the taboo “f word” — was generally put in quotes if it was used at all. But if you study the social networks of elephants, whales and other animals, it is clear that they have friends just like we do, according to the renowned sociologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis. Friendship, like other societal characteristics, evolved independently and convergently across species. Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, Dr. Christakis is a leading Yale sociologist and physician known for his research on human social networks and biosocial science. In this episode, he speaks with us about the ancient origins and modern implications of our common animality and his remarkable new book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.

In his new book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Dr. Christakis investigates the biological foundations of our impulse toward the good. “For too long,” he writes, “the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty. [But] our good deeds are not just the products of Enlightenment values. They have a deeper and prehistoric origin …. we come to this sort of goodness just as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations.”
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Ep. 12 – Novelist Lindsay Stern on “The Study of Animal Languages”

“We spent most of our evolutionary history surrounded by other beings, not having conquered the earth, and with a very limited material culture,” Stern says. “There are tremendous emotional costs to becoming the only act in town, costs that I think we feel in how we relate to one another and how we think about who we are. One way to look at these draconian, absurd experiments [on animals] going on all over the world is to see them as a symptom of that.”

In March of 2016, a group of scientists reported a discovery from the forests of central Japan. Writing in Nature Communications, Dr. Toshitaka Suzuki and his team announced that compositional syntax, the property of speech that enables it to “express limitless meanings,” was not unique to human languages. It had been observed in the vocal system of a bird. The paper sparked a flurry of tweets. It was also picked up the popular press, and for good reason. Given the putative role of syntax in expressing higher order thought in humans, its presence in an avian vocal system suggested that when a bird sings it is not simply naming a stimulus in its immediate environment but, rather, expressing a thought.

“It’s amazing, the parts of yourself you can reach [writing fiction],” Stern says. “It’s an endless surprise, and that’s part of what makes it frightening.”
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Ep. 11 – Diana Reiss on recognizing the dolphins in the mirror

“[T]here are places in the world where the spoken word doesn’t travel very far,” Dr. Diana Reiss says. “In these areas, there are people who convert their spoken words into whistle languages. They whistle the prosody, or the intonation, of the spoken language… You can look at a whistle sequence that looks like a dolphin whistle or a bird whistle, and it’s actually a human sentence that is communicating enough that another could decode it. When we look at whistles of birds or dolphins, they look simple and we don’t think about what kind of information might be in there.”

For thousands of years, humans have been enthralled with dolphins. In Ancient Greece, dolphins were considered closer to the gods than any other creature, viewed as half divine messengers between men and gods. To kill a dolphin was an offense punishable by death. The second century Greco-Roman poet Oppian wrote, “Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created for indeed they were aforetime men and lived in cities along with mortals.” Reverence for these creatures was not limited to the Greeks. There are caves in the French Pyrenees with Ice Age era dolphin engravings. Stories about dolphins are part of the Australian Aborigines’ understanding of the world known as “Dreamtime.” To the Maori of New Zealand, dolphins have long been seen as water spirits who can carry messages from island to island in times of need.

“I always felt that just putting yourself aside for a moment and just seeing what you can see, hearing what you can hear, you’ll see patterns or hear patterns emerge,” Reiss says. “And that can inform what you do and the kind of questions you ask. In that way, I think we can partner with animals. My best ideas about animals come from the animals themselves.”

We are separated by 95 million years of evolution, and yet we intuitively feel a striking kinship and admiration for these intelligent creatures. Of course, mythologies like these, as our guest has pointed out, are not verified or scientific truths. But,” she writes, “mythologies reach a different, deeper kind of truth, one that relies on resonance, not on demonstrable evidence. Mythologies do not account for the origin of people or dolphins in the way that scientific theories do, but mythologies tell us something about who we believe ourselves to be, our values and our place in the world in relation to all the other creatures of nature.”

Continue reading Ep. 11 – Diana Reiss on recognizing the dolphins in the mirror

Ep. 10 – Dale Jamieson on love and meaning in the age of humans

Philosopher Dale Jamieson, pictured here with co-professor Danny, leads the NYU Animal Studies Initiative. “Part of the problem that we have is that we think we’re too important in all sorts of different ways,” he says.

For most of our planet’s history, geologic change on earth was steered by inanimate forces. Then modern humans arrived,  triggering a new geological epoch now known as the “Anthropocene.” Coined in the 1980s by biologist Eugene Stoermer and popularized in 2000 by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the word marks the transformation of the biosphere over the past 250 years—a change wrought not by solar radiation, tectonic activity, or volcanoes, but by human beings.

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Ep. 9 – Being Charles Foster Being a Beast

Dr. Charles Foster’s son, Tom, goes underground as a badger. “I was looking in the course of research for this book at tools that would allow me to probe the mystery of otherness simply so I wouldn’t feel as alone in the world as I suppose most of us do,” Dr. Foster says. “I wanted to convince myself that I could have a proper conversation, not at cross purposes, with my wife, and my children, and my best friend. And one way of reassuring myself that was possible was to see if I could know anything at all about creatures that are not so closely akin to me.“ (Photo courtesy of Charles Foster)

The cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser once said, “The world of experience is produced by the man who experienced it.” The same is true for all creatures. We construct our private worlds of subjective experience according to the information our senses are attuned to. The human world represents only one of all the different animal worlds. So: What is it like — what is it really like — to be another creature? What is it like to see, smell, hear, taste and feel the world as they do? What is our world like — what are we like — to another? Our guest, the extraordinarily imaginative writer and explorer Dr. Charles Foster, wanted to find out.

“I bought in to the delusion that the natural world was a resource, that it was something to be controlled, that it was something to be subdued, that it was something to be frightened of,” Dr. Foster says. “That’s the delusion of our culture, and the cancer that eats away at the center of it.”
(Photo courtesy of Charles Foster)

So, Dr. Foster got down on all fours and tried his best to do just that, picking five types of animals close to home to try to inhabit. He lived as a Welsh badger for six weeks in the woods, eating earthworms, digging an underground den, sleeping in it during the day, and navigating by scent on his hands and knees at night. As an urban fox, he curled up in backyards in London’s East End and pawed through garbage cans for dinner scraps. As an Exmoor otter, he caught fish with his teeth and attempted to differentiate bowel movements with his nose. As a red deer, he let his toenails grow like overgrown hooves and was hunted by bloodhounds. And as a common swift, he followed the birds’ migration across Europe and into West Africa. In addition to immersing himself in these animals’ physical worlds, Dr. Foster immersed himself deeply in the physiological literature about these non-human ways of life. He recounts his adventures in non-humanness in his spectacularly imaginative, unorthodox, truly hilarious, daring, and award-winning book, Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, which The New York Times called “intensely strange and terrifically vivid … an eccentric modern classic of nature writing.”

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Ep. 8 – Charles Siebert on translating nature’s symphony

The early twentieth century bio-philosopher Jakob von Uexküll studied the private worlds of animals, and the perceptual differences and similarities between our worlds. Uexküll used a musical metaphor to explain his idea that each organism has a distinct, subjective and all-consuming life-world. To Uexküll, in the words of Dorion Sagan, “Organisms are instruments in a sort of celestial music show of which we hear only strains.” In his view, as Sagan writes, the multitude of earth’s organisms — a word derived from the Greek word, organon, for “instrument” — formed a many-membered orchestra of extraordinary richness.

“Our human gaze has been misdirected,” says journalist and poet Charles Siebert. “We look heavenward for deliverance when deliverance comes from looking down and back into the biology from whence we came and that great symphony  we’re part of.”
(Photo courtesy of Charles Siebert)

Once, while attending a symphony by Gustav Mahler and sitting beside a young man absorbed in following along the score, Uexküll wondered if it is “the task of biology to write the score of nature.” “Each voice of a person or instrument is a being for itself, but one which melts into a higher form through point and counterpoint with other voices, which from then grows further, gaining richness and beauty in order to bring forward to us the composer’s soul,” he wrote. “Reading the score,” the young man sitting beside him told Uexküll, “one can follow the growth and branching off of the individual voices that, like the columns of a cathedral, bear the weight of the all-encompassing dome. Only in this way does one get a glance into the many-membered form of the performed artwork.” Our guest on this episode has devoted his career to observing and writing these interplaying “scores” of natures, the stories of animals, through prose and poetry. His work has allowed millions of readers to hear and appreciate anew strains of non-human animals in nature’s symphony.

“Words are all we have… We’re stuck with words, but there’s a way to manipulate them and use them to free our thoughts and our thinking rather than build cages,” Siebert says. The windowsill in Siebert’s office hosts a menagerie of animal figurines. Each represents an animal he’s written about, and many represent creatures that we are at risk of losing forever. (Photo courtesy of Charles Siebert)
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Ep. 7 – “Eating Animals” film director Christopher Quinn on the hidden costs of factory farming

The award-winning screenwriter, film director and producer Christopher Quinn’s latest film, “Eating Animals,” explores the costs of cheap meat. “It’s not just about losing all these resources, but about losing ourselves,” he says. “Our sense of self. Our spirit.”

For 2.5 million years, humans sustained themselves by eating plants and animals that lived and reproduced without our manipulation. That changed 10,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens began to intervene in the lives of a few plant and animal species, sparking what we now call the Agricultural Revolution. The Industrial Revolution followed some 10,000 years later, in the early 1700s, revolutionizing our eating habits yet again. Just as the Humanist religions were defining human beings as the image of god, humans started to view animals as meat machines. Farmers brought the techniques of the factory system into the slaughterhouse, dramatically increasing the number of animals they could raise and kill for food. The industrialization of agriculture has led to the practice now known as “factory farming,” a multibillion dollar industry that controls nearly a third of Earth’s land, is transforming ocean ecosystems, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, ships, trucks, cars, and all other transport combined.

“The very idea that there are these large corporations that make it so farmers are contractually bound not to talk about farming to their neighbor — and if they do they can be sued by the corporation — is a fundamental breakdown of who we are,” says Quinn. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Quinn)
Continue reading Ep. 7 – “Eating Animals” film director Christopher Quinn on the hidden costs of factory farming

Ep. 6 – Dr. Gale Ridge on bringing peace to humans’ befuddling relationships with bugs

Dr. Gale Ridge with sign about bed bugs
A concert pianist-turned-entomologist, Dr. Gale Ridge is an insect detective. She solves mysteries and helps thousands of perplexed, struggling people with all varieties of bug problems — from bedbugs to agricultural pests to imaginary bugs that infest our consciousness.

Remember how insects used to smash against your car windshield? Do you ever wonder why that rarely happens any more? The reason is not that insects have gotten better at avoiding highways. It’s because they’ve disappeared. Several years ago, scientists began reporting dramatic declines, domestically and internationally, in honey bees, monarch butterflies, moths, beetles, and lightening bugs. In the U.S., 900 million monarch butterflies have died over the last 20 years, 90 percent of the total, probably thanks to human activities. In the same period, we’ve seen the rusty-patched bumblebee population drop by 87 percent. These historic declines, what some scientists call the “windshield phenomenon” or an overlooked “ecological apocalypse,” could alter the planet in unknowable ways.

In this episode, we speak with a figure at the frontline of the fraught relationship between human beings and insects. Dr. Gale Ridge is an expert on bed bugs and a scientist at Connecticut’s Agricultural Experiment Station. Her primary research is on bed bugs, but her expertise extends to insect morphology, behavior, and ecology. Dr. Ridge is an EPA FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel member, curator of The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station insect collection, and overseer of the Experiment Station’s Insect Inquiry Office, which fields thousands of queries each year. She has discovered and catalogued many new species of insects and serves as chair of the Connecticut Coalition against Bedbugs. She has also become an expert in delusional parasitosis.

Dr. Gale Ridge with students
“We have this habit of putting everything in little boxes,” says Dr. Ridge, pictured here with students.”But that’s just a control mechanism. Science is an art. When you’re working in science, you’re looking at the macro as well as the micro simultaneously. Just like playing a piece on the piano. There is no difference.”
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Ep. 5 – Lisa Margonelli on the big ideas termites raise about science, technology, and morality

Termite mound photo by Lisa Margonelli
“When I started the book, the working premise of termites was that you could model them with a little robot,” author Lisa Margonelli says. “In a way that goes back to Descartes, who said that animals are soulless automata… What happened was the termites didn’t really act the way they were expected to act once they were in experimental situations… It was a revelation: the termites themselves were individuals.” (Photo by Lisa Margonelli.)

Nobody loves termites. We admire bees and ants for their industry and for their collective decision-making, but, as our guest has written, while parents dress their children in bee costumes and animated ants star in Dreamworks movies, termites are at best crude cartoons on the side of pest control trucks. These bugs are also comparatively unexplored in academic studies. Between 2000 and 2013, about 6000 papers were published about termites. 49 percent were about how to kill them. Despite the fact that termites collectively outweigh humans ten to one, they have lacked a popular writer to bring them to the forefront of public attention. Our guest, Lisa Margonelli, is that writer and champion for the termites.

Lisa Margonelli Photograph
“It was really kind of a revelation: the termites themselves were individuals,” Margonelli says. “To think that there’s a mound of 5 million termites and they’re individuals, that’s kind of a big thing.”

Her new book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, introduces us to termites and the scientists who study them, so we can see them — and ourselves — in a way we never have before. But this isn’t just a fascinating book about nature’s most underrated bug. What makes this book really special is that it uses termites as a new portal to explore some of the biggest questions we have about technology, power, morality, the nature of science and scientific progress, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

Inside a termite mound, photo by Lisa Margonelli
There are at least 3,000 named species of termites. The genus Macrotermes, which is pictured here and found in Africa and south-east Asia, farms and builds its mound around a massive fungus. The maze resembles a giant wriggling brain, with folds and bends that increase the structure’s surface area. “[We] also have a brain that has a distinct architecture,” says Margonelli. “That architecture gives us certain limits to how to think about things without projecting narratives on them. And one of our biggest narratives is that they are little humans in insect suits giving us a demonstration of how life ought to be.” (Photo by Lisa Margonelli.)
Continue reading Ep. 5 – Lisa Margonelli on the big ideas termites raise about science, technology, and morality