Where Did We Get the Idea That Human Beings Are Superior to All Other Creatures?

The following excerpt is from The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril, by Laura Schenone (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

“Lily, tell me,” I said one morning when we were walking to the park, “what do I owe you?”

She declined to answer, which was typical. The information from her nose was far more fascinating, as she worked over every blade of grass, leaf, and bit of dirt.

Since meeting Marion, questions like these were increasingly on my mind. What was fair to the animal?

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The Lily Series, No. 2, by Simon Schaffner, oil on canvas (Author's collection)

Years ago, before we got Lily, I took my sons to Florida to visit my sister. She designed a busy itinerary of Florida adventures with her nephews in mind. One afternoon, on the way back from St. Augustine, she surprised us by pulling into a place called Marineland, just off the highway by the ocean.

It was some kind of aquarium amusement park, but it gave off an odd feeling. It was too easy to get a parking spot. The line to get in was short. We followed my sister through the entry gates toward a large blue pool, center stage, surrounded by bleachers. A sparse crowd of vacationing families sat patiently waiting, squinting in the Florida glare, ready to be entertained.

Along the way, we read that the place had first opened in 1938 as Marine Studios. It was originally designed as an outpost of Hollywood, where underwater scenes could be shot in a pool filled with amazing sea creatures. Four men with ties to Hollywood had come up with the idea. Three of them—W. Douglas Burden, C. V. Vanderbilt Whitney, and Sherman Pratt—were scions of wealthy Gilded Age families, while the fourth was a cameraman, Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

What they shared was an old style of conservationism, reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt. They loved nature passionately and wanted to protect it from the encroachments of capital and markets and civilization. But they also felt a deep need to conquer and possess it. One of them (Vanderbilt Whitney) was a celebrated master of all things equine and owned an extensive stable of horses. The other three were adventurers who went on safaris to hunt tigers, or to the Indonesian islands to shoot Komodo dragons, or to the northern reaches of Canada to film caribou. They brought back specimens and treasures to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and decorated their homes with trophies.

On what were then the remote sand dunes of northern Florida, these four men built two large aquarium tanks at the edge of the ocean and, in a feat of engineering, devised a system that pumped millions of gallons of fresh ocean water into these tanks each day. Nothing like Marineland had ever been built before. Cetaceans, such as dolphins and whales, were particularly mysterious, and most attempts to capture and hold them up wound up killing them.

When everything was ready, Tolstoy set out on a boat with tranquilizers and nets. He captured porpoises, manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, coral reef, and other specimens to create the world’s first “oceanarium,” a simulation of the real undersea world.

Two hundred observatory portholes built along the perimeter gave extraordinary views into the underwater world. It was fascinating just to watch, which is why someone thought of selling tickets to the public. On the first day, thousands of people arrived to look into the portholes and see the porpoises and sharks and iridescent fish up close, as they’d never been seen before. They watched as keepers wearing diving helmets fed the fish. For a small fee, an ordinary person could glimpse the mysterious and unknown.

Ten years later, the founders went to the next level. What if they could take the on-site entertainment idea further and train the porpoises to perform tricks? After all, the circus had trained seals. The problem was that no one knew whether porpoises were smart enough. They called in a legendary wildlife trainer from Ringling Brothers circus to try his hand at training Flippy, a bottlenose dolphin, the friendliest one they had.

Flippy figured out what his trainer wanted him to do. Knowing that a bucket of fish awaited, he eagerly leapt through hoops, pulled a surfboard with a woman and a dog on it, jumped hurdles, played fetch, shot hoops, and rang bells. (Since then, study after study has revealed the high intelligence of dolphins, which have large brains, ingenious problem-solving abilities, self-awareness, and a range of basic emotions including something that appears to be empathy.) On the first day, between twenty and thirty thousand people came to see “the world’s first educated porpoise” perform in the world’s first ever dolphin show. Flippy became a national celebrity and inspired the long-running television show about a boy and his dolphin named Flipper.

Huge crowds kept coming for two decades, until the early 1970s, when Disney World and Sea World opened their doors, offering even bigger and better entertainment. Marineland began its long downward slide.

We knew none of this the day my family stopped by. My sister and her husband led my younger son up into the stands, while Gabriel and I lagged behind. I looked down to see what the trouble was and discovered that Gabriel had come to a complete halt and was emphatically shaking his head no.

Confused, I looked up ahead and saw what he saw.

In the big blue pool, several dolphins were racing madly from one side to the other. The trainers stood on the sidelines getting ready. Through the glass walls, we could see the dolphins missiling toward us in the blurry water, larger than life. When they reached the wall, they curved their sleek grey bodies and, in a single smooth burst of force, shot off in the other direction. Then they turned again. For a fleeting moment, a wave of childlike awe rose in my chest. They seemed magical.

“I’m not going in there.”

“Why not?” My tone was matter-of-fact, as I tried to casually move him forward. No luck. His legs were tree trunks, tap-rooted into the ground, and his big dark eyes became red-rimmed, welling up with not-quite tears mixed with fury.

“I’m not going!”

A prickle of annoyance went down my back. Really? said my inner voice. Really?? Why couldn’t he just go along?

But deep down, I knew that dolphins were magnificent wild creatures who swam forty miles a day, possessed high intelligence and had language, complex relationships, and inner lives. I had temporarily shut off that switch in my brain so that I could go along with a fun family day. Gabriel could not. Why is it so easy for most of us to be in the presence of animals and not to see them? Why was it not possible for him?

“It’s a prison! It’s a prison!”

A tantrum was coming, so we reversed and went outside the Marineland gates, where we waited quietly for the show to end.


Where did we in the Western world get the idea that human beings are completely superior to all other creatures? Certainly the ancient Greeks get a great deal of credit, and in particular Aristotle, who believed that logic and reason ruled the universe. Only man possessed a rational mind, and this made him supreme. Animals lacked reason and therefore were inferior.

Plants exist for the sake of animals, and brute beasts for the sake of man—domestic animals for his use and food, wild ones for food and other accessories of life, such as clothing and various tools. Since nature makes nothing purposeless or in vain, it is undeniably true that she has made all the animals for the sake of man.

Aristotle envisioned the universe as a Great Chain of Being, built on a vertical hierarchy of power. Humans were in the top slot, followed by land mammals, then dolphins, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and fish. At the bottom were rock and earth.

Within this hierarchy, other hierarchies existed. In the human category, women ranked below men because, although they possessed the ability to reason, they lacked authority. Slaves may have had certain faculties and abilities, but by nature they were inferior to women. Aristotle had no problem with slavery, which he saw as the natural order of things. Some people were simply born with inferior minds, so it made logical sense that they would be the property of more rational men who would tell them what to do.

In sum, men ruled women, slaves, animals, land, and sea. A rational mind could see these immutable truths of nature. And yet, why couldn’t Aristotle’s brilliant mind see his own inherent self-interest in proclaiming the perfection of man?

The Dominican monk St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) was a great admirer of Aristotle. In his 3,500-page Summa Theologica, he drew heavily on Aristotle’s ideas and laid the foundation of Catholicism for centuries to come. Because the Greeks had been pagans, some revision was necessary. In Aquinas’s version, the Great Chain of Being was revised as Scala Naturae, which was more or less the same except for the addition of a couple of layers at the top: God and the angels at the apex, reigning over man. God was rational and the author of everything. He had made man rational, giving him free will to choose sin or obedience to faith.

Aquinas kept the part about men ruling over women, slaves, animals, mammals, fish, earth, and sea. And he explicitly explained that men should not worry about killing or causing suffering to animals because they had no souls and were as dumb as trees. We wouldn’t feel bad about cutting down trees, would we?

In sum, it was St. Thomas Aquinas who allowed the guilt-free usage of animals. “Charity” does not extend to “irrational creatures,” he wrote. And “humans have no fellowship with animals.”

This was why when, those many years ago, my eleven-year-old sister said she would take her two dogs with her if she were ever on the last spaceship away from earth, Sister Theresa Concepta was quite annoyed. It was because of Aquinas and Aristotle that we were not allowed to be friends with animals, and we certainly were not supposed to love them.

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