Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black, Gregory E. Pence (2016)

Friday, May 20th, 2016

A fascinating look at the science behind Orphan Black.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Bioethics is one of today’s most exciting new fields. Orphan Black is one of the most exciting shows on television. Bioethics explores ethical issues in medicine and science. Orphan Black dramatizes ethical issues in medicine and science. What could be more appropriate than a marriage of the two?

Even casual fans of BBC America’s hit television show Orphan Black have no doubt wondered about the science that drives the plot: How much does the show get right, and where does reality diverge from the fictional world of our favorite sestra orphans? What are the moral and legal implications of cloning? Is it possible to own a person – or a piece of one, in the form of DNA patenting? If the Ledas (and Castors) share the same basic building blocks of life, how could they look, behave, and think so differently? What (if anything) does the creators’ choice to write Cosima as a lesbian, and Tony as a trans man, say about the idea that gender identity and sexual orientations are “lifestyle choices”? (Spoiler alert: it’s not what you think.) How does cloning fit into the history of eugenics, and how does the show acknowledge this connection? WTF is the Castors’ malfunction?

Well, wonder no more. Bioethicist and fellow Clone Club member Gregory E. Pence has got us covered. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black, he examines the science and ethics of the show, giving us a greater understanding of both genetics and bioethics – and our favorite science fiction drama.

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More swag from Columbia U!

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

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A belated shout-out* to the nice people at Columbia University Press, who sent me copies of two of their latest animal-related titles: Animal Rights Without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligations by Alasdair Cochrane and Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies by Margo DeMello, both of which came out in August.

I’m especially excited about Animals and Society, which is an introductory human-animal studies reader – a textbook – the first of its kind! Totally up my alley; I can’t tell you how much I wish my college had offered a HAS course or two back when I attended in the late ’90s/early aughts. (A quick perusal of their website shows that they STILL don’t offer any such courses. Boo! Hiss! Boo!)

Here’s some info about the author and book, via Amazon:

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New swag from Columbia University Press!

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

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The nice folks at Columbia University Press recently sent me not one, but two new books on human animal studies: Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies, edited by Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely and Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? by Kari Weil. They both look rather interesting, though I think it’s Kari Weil who will get bumped to the top of my towering book pile. Under the likes of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, that is. (Hey, it’s summer! The season of bottomless margaritas and light reading!)

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Book Review: The Moral Lives of Animals (Dale Peterson, 2011)

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson (2011)

“The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Moral Lives of Animals through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

What is the nature of morality? Which behaviors do we consider “moral,” and why? Are humans the only animals to have developed a sense of morality and rules for moral living? Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals (2011) attempts to answer these questions, with mixed results. While he presents ample evidence which suggests that nonhuman animals have literally evolved their own moralities, in so doing Peterson demonstrates how terribly disrespectful, cruel, and (dare I say!) immoral human treatment of other animals and the planet we all call home remains, even after thousands of years of evolution and revolution.

When you think of “morals” and “morality,” most likely terms such as “just,” “kind,” “compassionate,” and “fair” come to mind. And ideally, what is considered “moral” in any given society is that which is just, and kind, and fair. However, “morality” differs in time and space; morals are relative and context-specific. Morality (or what we consider “moral”) is not fixed, but changes over time and across cultures. Those behaviors and institutions that were thought “moral” in colonial America, for example, are quite different than what we consider moral today. So too does morality vary across species: elephants, bonobos, mice, chickadees – all have their own moral rules, codified not in language (as human moral codes often are), but written into the DNA of the species by evolution. Sometimes these moral principles resemble our own; other times they do not.* This is the crux of the author’s theory of animal morality.

Peterson looks at animal morality in seven areas of animal life: authority, violence, sex, possession, communication, cooperation and kindness. The first five he groups together to form a system of “rules morality” – i.e., something is moral if it follows the rules – while cooperation and kindness together form “attachments morality” – i.e., compassionate behaviors, or those that encourage attachments among social animals, are moral. He presents a wealth of evidence – anecdotal, laboratory studies, field research – attesting to morality in nonhumans. Since each of these seven areas could easily command its own book, the sections are necessarily brief – but compelling nonetheless. (Curiously, Peterson barely touches upon rape – even though it could fit into two different chapters.) Primates receive quite a bit of attention (gotta love those sexually liberated, matriarchal bonobos!), as do elephants, hyenas, lions, whales, wolves, various species of birds, dogs – and humans.

It’s this last group that many of my fellow LT reviewers takes issue with, and with good cause. Though I take the title of the book to mean “the moral lives of nonhuman animals” (the omission of “nonhuman” when referring to animals being a nice/nasty linguistic trick that separates “us” from “them”), examples of human morality are introduced quite frequently, usually as a point of reference against which to consider nonhuman morality. Along these lines, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick serves as a framework on which Peterson weaves his own discussion, and passages from the Bible – used to illustrate written human moral codes – abound. As an atheist who Cliff Noted Moby-Dick in high school, I wasn’t thrilled with either device. That said, by the end of the book, I’d come to see the usefulness of Moby-Dick for shaping the structure of Peterson’s book; and, while the endless Biblical excerpts essentially excluded other religions from the text, I suspect that Peterson used them because he expected that Christianity would be the religion with which most of his audience would be most familiar. (Certainly, this seemed true of the author himself.) So I guess you could say that I came around on both points.

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Added to my book pile: The Death of the Animal

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Colbert Report Shout-Out

A belated shout-out to Columbia University Press, who sent me a copy of Dr. Paola Cavalieri’s latest, The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue, a few weeks back. You may know of Dr. Cavalieri through The Animal Question: Why Non-Human Animals Deserve Human Rights (2001) and The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity (1994), which she co-edited with Peter Singer.

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The Death of the Animal looks to be an intriguing mix of philosophy, ethology, psychology and anthrozoology:

While moral perfectionists rank conscious beings according to their cognitive abilities, Paola Cavalieri launches a more inclusive defense of all forms of subjectivity. In concert with Peter Singer, J. M. Coetzee, Harlan B. Miller, and other leading animal studies scholars, she expands our understanding of the nonhuman in such a way that the derogatory category of “the animal” becomes meaningless. In so doing, she presents a nonhierachical approach to ethics that better respects the value of the conscious self.

The book was published in January, and is available on Amazon. Currently, it’s sitting at the bottom of a very large book pile, but I hope to read and review it – some time before the paperback edition is released, perhaps? I kid, I kid. By July, it’ll be so hot, it’ll be a chore just to peel myself off the couch – plenty of time for catching up on my reading!

Until then, here’s some additional material to sink your teeth into, courtesy Philip at Columbia:

Columbia University Press is pleased to announce the publication of The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue by Paola Cavalieri with Matthew Calarco, J. M. Coetzee, Harlan B. Miller, Cary Wolfe, and with a foreword by Peter Singer.

The book sets these thinkers in a unique dialogue as they expand our understanding of the nonhuman through a discussion of the idea of the “animal,” ethics, moral perfectionism, and the value of the conscious self.

We have also posted one of J. M. Coetzee’s responses in the book: “On Appetite, the Right to Life and Rational Ethics” as well as the Table of Contents.

* I really need to grab a new Shout Out! screenshot, dontchathink?

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When anthropocentrism meets androcentrism: KA-POW!

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Last week, while bored and browsing the Flickrs, I stumbled upon a collection of academia-themed photo sets, uploaded by a user in Germany. Most of the photos are of various conferences and lectures, hosted at the University of Heidelberg. One particular set caught my eye: “The Myth of Animal Rights,” with Professor Tibor R. Machan, Ph.D.

Now, I don’t know much about the man, nor do I care to. His Wiki page is rather sparse, and barely touches upon his animal rights views, except to say

Machan has also argued against animal rights (in his widely reprinted paper “Do Animals Have Rights?” [1991] and his book Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite [2004]). His full ethical position is developed in his book Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (Routledge, 1998) and it is applied in, among other books, Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society (Cato Institute, 1998).

As if the shameless anthropocentrism evident in Machan’s book titles isn’t ridiculous enough, behold the flier which advertised his appearance on the University of Heidelberg campus:

For those who can’t view the image, a diminutive lil’ chimp sits – in a diaper!? – next to a towering Brandon Routh-as-Superman. Completely breaking with reality, Superman stands at least ten times taller than the “lowly” chimp – no doubt meant to represent MAN’S superiority to mere beasts. A bunch of text offers conference details, with the title of the lecture – “The Myth of Animal Rights” – front and center, in outlined font (lolcats styley, natch: seriousness, ur doin it rong!).

Clearly, this ad reeks of speciesism: though humans are just one of millions of animal species which inhabit the earth, Machan apparently thinks that we’re the only species that matters: we’re “nature’s favorite.” In terms of importance, we dwarf even the chimpanzee, our closest primate cousin. We – oh, hell, the speciesism is so over-the-top, need I continue?

Yet, Machan’s choice of Superman to represent the superiority of humankind is telling as well. Had he chosen to depict an anonymous man and/or woman, the concept would have worked just as well. Instead, he chose a superhero, and an iconic one at that. Think about it: Machan could have went with Wonder Woman, or Supergirl, or Storm, or, jeez, Jean Grey.* Predictably, though, he picked a dude to represent the awesomeness of humanity. A white dude. A heterosexual white dude. A manly man. A man so manly, that both his manliness and his supremacy are proclaimed in his very name: SUPER MAN. He is super, he is manly: he is super-manly!

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