Jim – (Sorry for responding so late, I was escorting my canine to the vet).
The idea that “science won’t allow” absolute categories between animals and humans is pretty silly in its plain meaning. And I don’t think you should show it as much deference as you do.
Science has all sorts of absolute categories distinguishing between animals and humans. Vertebrates vs. Invertebrates, reptiles vs. mammals, phylum, kingdom, and all of that stuff amount to absolute categories of one kind or another. What Sullivan is really getting at, it seems to me, is that there are some areas where there are more similarities between some animals and humans that are less absolute than many think. That sounds right to me. (I’ve been thinking about doing a book on sociobiology and dogs, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading on dogs and evolution. And there’s a case to be made that the similarities — or “connections” for want of a better word — between dogs and humans are in many ways greater than those between apes and humans. But that’s a subject for another day). The idea that these things are on a “continuum” isn’t all that profound by my lights. Aristotle and that crowd would have bought into that, I would think. The question is, so what? I mean ice and fire are on the same continuum of temperature, but they are very different things.
Anyway, I should say that while I really dislike the language and logic of animal rights, I have no problem with conferring special status on gorillas or lots of other animals. My guess is 95% of Americans agree with me on that. It should be a serious crime to shoot, say, a bald eagle. It should be a routine chore to kill a rat. Killing a dolphin is different from shooting a deer. Whether or not science will “allow” us to draw these distinctions is largely irrelevant because we will rightly draw them anyway and, besides, science has little to tell us about such things. But, again, it’s worth pointing out that “science” records all sorts of important differences between dolphins and deer, eagles and rats. Dolphins live in the ocean, deer don’t. That’s an absolute difference, I think.
Here’s where I’m coming from as I continue to think out-loud here. I think it is idiotic to talk as if gorillas and humans are the same. No one believes this except for ideologically blinkered people (unless I’m ignorant of the great gorilla novelists and mathematicians). But gorillas have similarities to humans that should engage our conscience more acutely than snakes do. More basically, gorillas are really cool. As are tigers, whales, pandas and all sorts of animals that make life and nature more enjoyable to contemplate and experience. I think the conservationist’s ethic of saving really cool and beautiful things and creatures for future generations to enjoy is a perfectly sufficient rationale for protecting animals like gorillas. It is the biodiversity extremists and animal rights ideologues, it seems to me, who ultimately reduce the relative worth of a staggeringly beautiful creature like a tiger by saying it’s just as “valuable” as a snail darter.* PETA says a rat is a boy is a dog is a pig, which is not only stupid, but morally disgusting. Such transspecies radical egalitarianism is also incredibly counter-productive intellectually and politically. Some species are worth preserving more than others. This is scientifically true, morally true, aesthetically true and politically true. Any ideology that says otherwise strikes me as little more than a crude romanticism pushing an agenda couched in a scientism that has little to do with science.
*Obviously, some ugly, brainless, species are valuable because of their role in the ecosystem. Krill are an oceanic feedstock for example. But this is just another example of how some species are more important than others.