The purpose of a cow

Some time ago I got chatting with a friend about a book on ethical living I’d read. Darn, what was the name of it? Hang on, I’ll check on LibraryThing… Easy! LibraryThing is an online facility where I keep a record of the books I’ve enjoyed. It’s handy. Plus you can see what other people are reading who have read the same books as you.

LibraryThing is also a place where I can write reviews of each book to help remind myself exactly what I thought of it. And more importantly I get to go back and marvel at my own wit and insight. Here are all my reviews, aren’t they brilliant.

One review I posted lately is for a book called The Selfless Gene – Living with God and Darwin by Charles Foster. I took extra time writing this particular review because it’s for a unique book that I don’t want to forget. The Selfless Gene straddles the bridge between faith and science in a way I’ve not seen before. I admired it greatly even though it didn’t ultimately tip me over any particular edge.

Prior to that I posted a review for Jonathon Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. That review is only two sentences long, which is no reflection at all on the book’s significance. This is a book that will probably change my life far more profoundly than The Selfless Gene could. It has completely rocked me and forced me to ask questions that I never thought to ask myself. Questions like is it fair to raise animals just so we can kill and eat them? (As I write this my brother-in-law is on the phone ordering eye fillet steak for a family gathering.)

My theory on books is that every good book leads to another good book. I’ve had a good run lately, a one-two-three combo that started with Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, followed by The Selfless Gene and finally Eating Animals. The link between the first two is obvious but how does Eating Animals relate? Well, it has to do with the way the first two books have influenced my thoughts about evolution, which in turn has informed my response to Eating Animals. Evolution? Eating animals? Permit me to get spiritual for a moment.

My most recent contemplative, “spiritual” experience was a week ago. I was walking to church– an irony in itself – and I looked across the valley at some trees. I think they are eucalyptus, I’m not sure exactly, I must find out. They are giants, scraping the skyline with a glorious Dr Seuss twisty-ness. Some years ago I would have thought ‘what cool trees, thanks God for creating them’. Now, though, I saw the trees as an incredible display of life’s ability to carry on, to forge ahead. I felt like I was looking at a portal, millions of years into the past.

A similar moment occurred on the beach at Port Douglas. Two mad little birds – probably quite common over there – chased each other across our path. They were like tiny dinosaurs scampering over the sand. Once upon a time I would have seen them as the result of a creative mind – “Isn’t God clever to come up with so many variations of a bird.” Instead I saw two creatures midway through their evolutionary journey. I felt in touch with the earth and with the imperceptibly slow cycle of life. Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True got me thinking in this manner. (The book that pointed me to Why Evolution Is True was Bill Bryson’s A Brief History of Nearly Everything. See? Every good book …

I look at my sons and marvel at their existence. My heart breaks at their fragile beauty in the same way that it did when I viewed them as intentional gifts from God. But rather being dumped into a sense of meaninglessness, I feel equally as astounded and privileged to have them in my life, as I did when I believed they were created miracles. If not more. In my boys I see the culmination of the invisibly long journey of the human race. If we could trace our ancestors back through time we would find ourselves fidgeting with sticks and boulders on the savannah, and prior to that, creatures on all fours jostling for a place in the complicated chain of species that led to ourselves. Quite different to the Adam and Eve idea I grew up with. It’s hard to feel such close kinship with animals when you view yourself as ‘above’ them. I have a different perspective now, and I am grateful to those species and their dogged persistence through millions of years of natural selection. Look at what it all led to – me! And my sons!

I now feel a new and peculiar connection with the world in a way that I never considered possible when I was busy thanking God for everything. This seems counter-intuitive. But it’s true. I used to see Creation with a capital C; now I see Life with a capital L. It is superficially similar but deeply different – and entirely worth celebrating.

All this has had a direct impact on my response to Foer’s Eating Animals. For most of my life, if I gave animals any thought at all, I considered them a resource put on earth by God for us to use. Even tempered with wisdom and compassion I could happily accept the logic of this question: “What is the purpose of a cow except to eat it?” In contrast I now consider animals my fellow citizens on this planet. Where does that leave me? Should I still eat them? They all eat each other, so what’s the harm? Is it fair to breed them purely for taste? What value do I place on animal suffering? Should I make a distinction between factory farmed meat and organic meat? I have a lot to think about. Perhaps I’ll chew on it a bit more over the family barbeque.