Animal Rights: A History

Charles Darwin

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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.
Charles Darwin
Notebook B, (1837-38)

Charles Darwin

There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties.… The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery.

The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.

Born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, Charles Robert Darwin, 1809 – 1882, was an eminent naturalist who formed the theory of evolution, whereby all species originated from a common ancestry, this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process which he called natural selection. A keen naturalist he abandoned his medical education at Edinburgh University to pursue is passion. His five-year voyage on HMS Beagle established him in scientific circles and the publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author.

Although Darwin was never an animal rights advocate his theory of evolution has profound implications for the way in which we consider our relationship to
non human animals and the way we treat them.

When we think of evolution we think of the struggle for survival and the theory of natural selection, the survival of the fittest, as though this evolutionary concept gives us license to kill or use other creatures and indeed at times to exploit one another. This is a misconception.

The term survival of the fittest was coined by polymath philosopher Herbert Spencer.
“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called 'natural selection', or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."

Darwin first used Spencer's new phrase "survival of the fittest" as a synonym for "natural selection" in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869 where Darwin used it as a metaphor for "better adapted for immediate, local environment".

The term "survival of the fittest" is not used by biologists because it does not convey accurately the meaning of natural selection.

Natural selection is the process by which individuals with characteristics that are advantageous for reproduction in a specific environment leave more offspring in the next generation, thereby increasing the proportion of their genes in the population gene pool over time. Natural selection is the principal mechanism of evolutionary change, and is the most important idea in all biology. Natural selection, the unifying concept of life, was first proposed by Charles Darwin, and represents his single greatest contribution to science.

Read more: Natural Selection - Biology Encyclopedia - body, examples, human, process, organisms, life, specific, energy, bacteria

Natural selection is the process by which individuals with characteristics that are advantageous for reproduction in a specific environment leave more offspring in the next generation, thereby increasing the proportion of their genes in the population gene pool over time. Natural selection is the principal mechanism of evolutionary change, and is the most important idea in all biology. Natural selection, the unifying concept of life, was first proposed by Charles Darwin, and represents his single greatest contribution to science.

Read more: Natural Selection - Biology Encyclopedia - body, examples, human, process, organisms, life, specific, energy, bacteria

Natural selection is the process by which individuals with characteristics that are advantageous for reproduction in a specific environment leave more offspring in the next generation, thereby increasing the proportion of their genes in the population gene pool over time. Natural selection is the principal mechanism of evolutionary change, and is the most important idea in all biology. Natural selection, the unifying concept of life, was first proposed by Charles Darwin, and represents his single greatest contribution to science.

Read more: Natural Selection - Biology Encyclopedia - body, examples, human, process, organisms, life, specific, energy, bacteria

Basically natural selection, refers to the process whereby an organism has the necessary advantageous characteristics in order to successfully reproduce and adapt to its environment and leave more of its genes in the gene pool. It is not, as popular parlance would have it, the competitive struggle with the strong prevailing over the weak that many people believe and which they often cite as justification for killing and exploiting other animals and in some cases one another. To reiterate: "survival" is merely a prerequisite to reproduction, and "fitness" refers to differential reproduction; the idea that those organisms best adapted to a given environment will be most likely to survive to reproductive age and have offspring of their own  Fittest means better-adapted organisms  who will produce at a greater rate than organisms less well adapted;  it does not refer to physical fitness in the sense of being stronger faster bigger and so on in a competitive sense.

The concept of the survival of the fittest in the sense of the strong subjugating the weak is not consistent with Darwinism .


In fact Darwin's theory of evolution has a more profound meaning, that of a universal evolutionary kinship.

The ethical inferences of evolution

On the one hand we all accepted Darwinism and therefore its message that we are all animals, and yet the moral implications of Darwin were still being denied. (They still are!)
Richard Ryder

Darwin's theory of evolution was to radically alter the way we view other creatures with whom we share this planet. The notion of human centeredness in creation crumbled with Darwin's argument that animals and humans evolved from the same ancestors. Darwin's scientific theory of the branching pattern of evolution resulting from the process of natural selection was published with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Previously man was considered the epitome of creation in many religious beliefs philosophies and traditions, for example as taught in the Abrahamic traditions, and by Aristotle, who presented a rather similar idea of other species existing only for the benefit of humans and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who considered that we have no direct moral duty towards animals and they were "there merely as the means to an end. That end is man".

Concerning this notion Darwin made the following comment In his notebooks

Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.

The theory of evolution was perhaps more shocking in Darwin's day than today when his theories are widely accepted, not only in scientific circles but also by many religious institutions. Before Darwin people based their argument upon human superiority because of perceived difference between man and animal. Evolution explains why humans share many similarities of appearance and behaviour with
non-human animals.

In the origin of Species Darwin was careful to avoid the extent to which he applied his theory of evolution to include human beings only providing a vague hint by saying that the work would illuminate "the origin of man and his history."  because he considered it would "only add to the prejudices against my views.". Although he had made copious notes on the theory that the evolutionary process included man it was not until many scientists accepted his general theory of evolution that Darwin published The Descent of Man, which made it clear that man was also a product of evolution.

Darwin however not only made claims concerning our physical evolution from animals and our anatomical similarities to animals but he also considered similarities in terms of our mental capacities. In The Descent of Man Darwin points out that the lower animals, even insects, feel pain, are capable of play, and experience emotions such as pleasure and misery just like human beings.

... the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc., when playing together, like our own children. Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber (7. 'Recherches sur les Moeurs des Fourmis,' 1810, p. 173.), who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies.

Darwin sees similar attributes in animals as those present in man such as terror and deceit, he writes:

The fact that the lower animals are excited by the same emotions as ourselves is so well established, that it will not be necessary to weary the reader by many details. Terror acts in the same manner on them as on us, causing the muscles to tremble, the heart to palpitate, the sphincters to be relaxed, and the hair to stand on end. Suspicion, the offspring of fear, is eminently characteristic of most wild animals. It is, I think, impossible to read the account given by Sir E. Tennent, of the behaviour of the female elephants, used as decoys, without admitting that they intentionally practise deceit, and well know what they are about.

Darwin also observed that like us attributes such as courage and timidity vary in degree in individuals within the same species:

Courage and timidity are extremely variable qualities in the individuals of the same species, as is plainly seen in our dogs. Some dogs and horses are ill-tempered, and easily turn sulky; others are good-tempered; and these qualities are certainly inherited. Every one knows how liable animals are to furious rage, and how plainly they shew it.

Even sophisticated characteristics often considered exclusive to human beings Darwin observes as existing in animals such as "the long-delayed and artful revenge of various animals,"

Many, and probably true, anecdotes have been published on the long-delayed and artful revenge of various animals. The accurate Rengger, and Brehm (8. All the following statements, given on the authority of these two naturalists, are taken from Rengger's 'Naturgesch. der Saugethiere von Paraguay,' 1830, s. 41-57, and from Brehm's 'Thierleben,' B. i. s. 10-87.) state that the American and African monkeys which they kept tame, certainly revenged themselves. Sir Andrew Smith, a zoologist whose scrupulous accuracy was known to many persons, told me the following story of which he was himself an eye- witness; at the Cape of Good Hope an officer had often plagued a certain baboon, and the animal, seeing him approaching one Sunday for parade, poured water into a hole and hastily made some thick mud, which he skilfully dashed over the officer as he passed by, to the amusement of many bystanders. For long afterwards the baboon rejoiced and triumphed whenever he saw his victim.

Darwin points out that animals are capable of love by using the example of dogs, the animal with whom most humans are familiar :

The love of a dog for his master is notorious; as an old writer quaintly says  Quoted by Dr. Lauder Lindsay, in his 'Physiology of Mind in the Lower Animals,' 'Journal of Mental Science,' April 1871, p. 38.), "A dog is the only thing on this earth that luvs you more than he luvs himself."

In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master, and every one has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.

Maternal love, including the adoption of orphans not only of their own species but also those of other species, is also a powerful attribute of animals as it is in man and Darwin includes examples.

We see maternal affection exhibited in the most trifling details; thus Rengger observed an American monkey (a Cebus) carefully driving away the flies which plagued her infant; and Duvaucel saw a Hylobates washing the faces of her young ones in a stream. So intense is the grief of female monkeys for the loss of their young, that it invariably caused the death of certain kinds kept under confinement by Brehm in N. Africa. Orphan monkeys were always adopted and carefully guarded by the other monkeys, both males and females. One female baboon had so capacious a heart that she not only adopted young monkeys of other species, but stole young dogs and cats, which she continually carried about.

Darwin writes that Animals are capable of complex emotions such as jealousy and appreciate admiration, desire to be loved and feel shame and even participate in practical jokes:

Most of the more complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves. Every one has seen how jealous a dog is of his master's affection, if lavished on any other creature; and I have observed the same fact with monkeys. This shews that animals not only love, but have desire to be loved. Animals manifestly feel emulation. They love approbation or praise; and a dog carrying a basket for his master exhibits in a high degree self-complacency or pride. There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear, and something very like modesty when begging too often for food. A great dog scorns the snarling of a little dog, and this may be called magnanimity. Several observers have stated that monkeys certainly dislike being laughed at; and they sometimes invent imaginary offences. In the Zoological Gardens I saw a baboon who always got into a furious rage when his keeper took out a letter or book and read it aloud to him; and his rage was so violent that, as I witnessed on one occasion, he bit his own leg till the blood flowed. Dogs shew what may be fairly called a sense of humour, as distinct from mere play; if a bit of stick or other such object be thrown to one, he will often carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same manoeuvre, and evidently enjoying the practical joke.

In Chapter four Darwin states the human sense of morality can be traced back to instinctive social behaviour in animals which leads them to feel sympathy for one anothers plight, find pleasure in association with each other and to perform acts of service and kindness and the offering of mutual assistance to their fellow creatures

Along with anecdotes Darwin goes on to cite many examples of the emotions and characteristics of animals that are the same as those in man, such as wonder,  curiosity, memory, imagination, reason, the faculty of attention, language and so on. In addition Darwin discusses self-consciousness and mental individuality in animals.

It is clear from his writings in The Descent of man that Darwin considered that animals were thinking feeling sentient beings.

For a free e-copy of The Descent of Man:

In his book ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’ Darwin again challenges the idea that animals have no conscious thought and act in a machine-like way, as was claimed by some philosophers, such as Descartes. It is obvious that Darwin thought that a lot more was going in the minds of animals than human beings general gave them credit for and in the aforementioned book Darwin again deals with the parallels between human and animals

For a free e-copy of The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin - Project Gutenberg

Commenting on Darwin's impact on our thinking concerning our relationship and consequent obligations to animals and our post Darwinian world view of animals and how, in the light of what he said, we should treat them, philosopher Peter Singer says:

We no longer believe that we have a right to use animals because God has given them to us and we no longer believe, as Aristotle did, that the less rational exist to serve the more rational. What ethics, then, should we develop about how we should treat animals? Well, the first point is one that basically Darwin was saying: we have to accept that animals are conscious beings. They are sentient beings and that means they can feel things, they can suffer, and they have a subjective point of view of the world. There's something that we can imagine perhaps of what it's like to be an animal in pain or an animal enjoying fun. And the reason for this is essentially the second thing Darwin pointed out, that we have similarities with animals. We know now in much more detail than he did about their nervous systems, about their physiology, about even the biochemistry of feeling pain in humans and animals, and these aspects are quite similar; that is, between us and birds and mammals--vertebrates more generally. Animals behave in similar ways in circumstances where they would be feeling pain. And thirdly, what Darwin showed is that they have a common origin. So it's not that God separately created these other beings with copies of our mechanisms without putting in any consciousness. We know that we have a common history, and it doesn't seem very likely that things that evolved for a certain purpose in us did not have similar sorts of evolution in nonhuman animals. So, if we evolved to feel pain it's very probably that animals did as well.

Peter Singer: Darwin and the Animals

It is well worth while reading the entire article:

Most people tend not to consider the ethical inferences of evolution, but if we consider carefully that if animals and humans are similar, then animals, like humans, should have a moral status also.

Below is perhaps the most famous quotation from Darwin concerning our relationship to animals.

There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.... The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention and curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

Charles Darwin: The Descent of man

Henry J Moore who wrote extensively about our relationship with animals was Inspired by Darwin's ideas. In his book The Universal Kinship Moore eloquently writes about a universal evolutionary kinship between all creatures based upon Darwin's theory of evolution.

James Rachels describes the favourable consequences when the true moral implications of evolution are understood:

Human life will no longer be regarded with the kind of superstitious awe which it is accorded in traditional thought, and the lives of non-humans will no longer be a matter of indifference. This means that human life will, in a sense, be devalued, while the value granted to non-human life will be increased. A revised view of such matters as suicide and euthanasia, as well as a revised view of how we should treat animals, will result.  I hope to show that reconstructing morality without the assumption of man's specialness leaves morality stronger and more rational. It leaves us with a better ethic concerning the treatment of both human and nonhuman animals.
James Rachels - Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism

To access a free e-copy :
Created From Animals: The Moral implications of Darwinsim

Although not an animal rights proponent as we perceive such today Darwin did speak out about certain issues regarding animal cruelty, such was the case concerning steel traps:

It is a common observation that cases of brutality to horses, asses, and other large quadrupeds, are much less frequently witnessed now than they were some time ago. This is no doubt owing to the general increase of humanity, and to these animals being now under the protection of the law.

An English gentleman would not himself give a moment's unnecessary pain to any living creature, and would instinctively exert himself to put an end to any suffering before his eyes: yet it is a fact that every game preserver in this country sanctions a system which consigns thousands of animals to acute agony, probably of eight or ten hours duration, before it is ended by death. I allude to the setting of steel traps for catching vermin.

Some women may never have seen a trap, and therefore I give a wood-cut of one.

The iron teeth shut together with so strong a spring, that a pencil which I inserted was cracked and deeply-indented by the violence of the blow. The grip must be close enough not to allow of the escape of a small animal, such as a stoat or a magpie; and therefore when a cat or a rabbit is caught, the limb is cut to the bone and crushed. A humane game-keeper said to me, "I know what they must feel, as I have had my finger caught." The smaller animals are often so fortunate as to be killed at once. If we attempt to realise the sufferings of a cat, or other animal when caught, we must fancy what it would be to have a limb crushed during a whole long night, between the iron teeth of a trap, and with the agony increased by constant attempts to escape. Few men could endure to watch for five minutes, an animal struggling in a trap with a crushed and torn limb; yet on all the well-preserved estates throughout the kingdom, animals thus linger every night; and where game-keepers are not humane, or have grown callous to the suffering constantly passing under their eyes, they have been known by an eye-witness to leave the traps unvisited for twenty-four or even thirty-six hours. Such neglect as this is no doubt rare; but traps are often forgotten; and there are few game-keepers who will leave their beds on a cold winter's morning, one hour earlier, to put an end to the pain of an animal which is safely in their power.

I subjoin the account of the appearance of a rabbit caught in a trap, given by a gentleman, who, last summer witnessed the painful sight many times.

"I know of no sight more sorrowful than that of these unoffending animals as they are seen in the torture grip of these traps. They sit drawn up into a little heap, as if collecting all their force of endurance to support the agony; some sit in a half torpid state induced by intense suffering. Most young ones are found dead after some hours of it, but others as you approach, start up, struggle violently to escape, and shriek pitiably, from terror and the pangs occasioned by their struggles."

We naturally feel more compassion for a timid and harmless animal, such as a rabbit, that for vermin, but the actual agony must be the same in all cases. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the suffering thus endured from fear, from acute pain, maddened by thirst, and by vain attempts to escape.

Bull-baiting and cock-fighting have rightly been put down by law; I hope it may never be said that the members of the British Parliament will not make laws to protect animals if such laws should in any way interfere with their own sports.

Some who reflect upon this subject for the first time will wonder how such cruelty can have been permitted to continue in these days of civilisation; and no doubt if men of education saw with their own eyes what takes place under their sanction, the system would have been put an end to long ago.

We shall be told that setting steel traps is the only way to preserve game, but we cannot believe that Englishmen when their attention is once drawn to the case, will let even this motive weigh against so fearful an amount of cruelty.

The writer of these remarks will be grateful for any suggestions, addressed to A. B., Mr. Strong,1 Printer, Bromley, Kent.


Even though Charles Darwin was not an advocate for animal rights in the literal sense of the term and was never a vegetarian,  he had however much to say concerning our relationship with animals which may have relevance for the way in which animals are treated.


A portrait of 31-year-old Charles Darwin by George Richmond in 1840

Original imagine and licensing details

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