The New York Times newspaper in a hand
MIAMI, USA - AUGUST 22, 2018: The New York Times newspaper in a hand. The New York Times is a popular American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence

The Paper of the Apes

The New York Times’s Animal-rights Crusade Published in The Weekly Standard

That the New York Times is a subversive cultural force can readily be seen in its unremitting assault on human exceptionalism, the philosophical backbone of Western civilization.

In the old view, every human being has intrinsic dignity and equal moral worth. The United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

But particularly in politically progressive circles, assignment of special status to people — as opposed to flora and fauna — is increasingly seen as hubristic and arrogant. If we just demote ourselves to merely another animal in the forest, we are told, we will live more gently on the land and save the planet. While the Times frequently hosts this latter view, it rarely — outside the occasional Ross Douthat column — publishes an unequivocal defense of the unique importance of human life.

On April 27, the Times Magazine published a cover story about Steven Wise, the radical head of the Nonhuman Rights Project. An animal rights lawyer, Wise has spent years strategizing to obtain a court ruling declaring some animals legal “persons.” Most recently, he unsuccessfully sought writs of habeas corpus for three chimpanzees.

“Animal standing,” as it is known, is high on the animal-rights agenda because it would allow movement ideologues to attack animal industries in court. But the Times profile doesn’t get into that inconvenient issue. Rather, it accepts Wise’s premise that human exceptionalism is “inherently irrational” and that the poor treatment of animals is equivalent to an abuse of human rights:

“It’s those deeply held beliefs [in human exceptionalism] that I’m concerned about,” [Wise] told me. “The judge who either doesn’t recognize that he’s ruling against us on those grounds, or who does, and decides that way anyway. Our challenge is to lay bare that bias against our facts. I will say: ‘Judge, you know, we’ve been here before. We’ve had people who’ve essentially said, “I’m sorry, but you’re black.” Or “I’m sorry, you’re not a male or a heterosexual.” And this has led us to some very bad places.’ ”

The Wise profile ends by making the civil rights analogy explicit:

Much like other civil rights movements, the [Nonhuman Rights Project’s] efforts are designed to be a systematic assault; a continued and repeated airing of the evidence now at hand so that other lawyers and eventually judges and society as a whole can move past what Wise considers the increasingly arbitrary distinction of species as the determinant of who should hold a right.

This is par for the course. The week before the Wise profile, the Times Magazine gave a similar boost to another social radical, the English environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, creator of the Dark Mountain Project.

The DMP exemplifies the anti-humanism and nihilism that has infected much of the environmental movement. Rather than striving through activism and civil disobedience to save the planet, Kingsnorth directly promotes “uncivilization.” He seeks to harness the power of art to celebrate economic collapse and liberate society from human exceptionalism. As one of the DMP’s “8 Principles of Uncivilisation” states:

We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from “nature.” These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

Actually, these “myths” have created more freedom from want, political liberty, and alleviation of suffering than at any time in human history. But never mind. In “It’s the End of the World as We Know It .  .  . and He Feels Fine,” the Times devoted 6,000 words to Kingsnorth’s journey back to paganism. The piece opens as participants at an uncivilization festival set a wicker sculpture on fire, chanting, “We are gathered. We are gathered.” To what end? Baying at the moon:

A man wearing a stag mask bounded into the clearing and shouted: “Come! Let’s play!” The crowd broke up. Some headed for bed. A majority headed for the woods, to a makeshift stage that had been blocked off with hay bales and covered by an enormous nylon parachute.

There they danced, sang, laughed, barked, growled, hooted, mooed, bleated and meowed, forming a kind of atavistic, improvisatory choir. Deep into the night, you could hear them from your tent, shifting every few minutes from sound to sound, animal to animal and mood to mood.

Kingsnorth is convinced that global warming and human development will lead to ecological collapse, a hysterical idea that the profile never questions. He even claims to be so discouraged about our future that he has given up activism and essentially dropped off the grid. Well, not entirely: “For the past three years,” the story tells us, “he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. .  .  . He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent.”

Had the interviewer been a bit more skeptical he might have discovered that Kingsnorth isn’t actually opposed to commerce, nor is DMP uncontaminated by technology. Although the piece doesn’t mention it, books and recorded music are sold on the DMP’s website. You can even pick up a “limited edition” vinyl LP album celebrating “uncivilized music.” Vinyl, of course, is made from oil.

In addition to its profiles of social radicals, the Times regularly publishes human-reductionist columns in its opinion pages. Two years ago, for example, it ran a Sunday opinion feature by the philosophy professor Michael Marder essentially arguing for plant personhood.

What could justify thinking of plants as persons? Marder cited a study finding that peas communicate chemically through their root systems. This, he said, matters morally. “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” asked the headline. A plant, Marder insists, is “not only a what but also a who—an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good.”

Marder then claims that this sophistication means we should not eat annuals. “The ‘renewable’ aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets. But it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends.”

Marder was not the first — nor will he likely be the last — to argue in the New York Times for elevating our moral view of plants. Back in 2009, Natalie Angier, a Times science writer, bathed in anthropomorphism as she asserted that plants are the most “ethical” life form. From her “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too”:

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Angier concluded: “It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.”

But of course ethical behavior requires rational thought and free will — which only we possess.

Some might maintain that the frequent criticism of human exceptionalism appearing in the Times (these examples are nowhere near exhaustive) simply reflects the increasing prominence of these ideas, which “the paper of record” has a duty to acknowledge. The claim would be more persuasive if the paper also regularly hosted defenses of the ancien moral régime.

But that’s not how the New York Times rolls. The paper is substantially agenda-driven. Progressives have long denied that any superior dignity attaches to human life, deeming the idea irrational, unscientific, and religiously based. So, naturally, the Times lends its space to views corrosive of any “outdated” belief in the sanctity of human life.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.