Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call
to Mercy. New York: St. Martin's
Matthew Scully's Dominion
lies in an honorable tradition which we can trace back at least as far
as Plutarch -- decrying the
obvious cruelties of human treatment of animals. It follows in the wake
of such books as Animal Machines by Ruth Harrison (probably the
first major modern book to denounce factory farming), then the
justly-famous Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, and later still Diet
for a New America by John Robbins.
Dominion is a worthy successor and has two unique features which
its predecessors lacked. The first, and the one frequently mentioned, is
that Scully is a conservative, and was a speechwriter for the current
President Bush. The second, and what really makes this book interesting,
is that Scully talks extensively with the "enemy" -- with the exploiters of
animals themselves. He has extensive interviews with the people who are
hunting elephants in Africa, who are killing what's
left of the whales, and who are managing factory farms.
It is Scully's very
conservatism which likely gave him the entree to talk with people that
most vegetarians would not dare introduce themselves to, much less hope
to interview. After all, if you're
a businessman and the Republican President's
speech-writer wants to talk to you about a book he's
writing, why wouldn't you
And talk they do. They'll
know better than to talk to Scully next time, but it's
too late now. These interviews, coupled with a clinical and revealing
description of the nature of various animal-destroying industries, are
devastating and revealing. Scully skewers (verbally!) the opposition in
the simplest and most effective way possible -- he lets them speak for themselves. By simply reporting their own words,
he shows more clearly than anyone else that the whaling, hunting, factory farm, and similar industries lack any
So what about Scully's
conservatism? Vegetarians often tend towards the more liberal point of
view, so this is a key issue. But in the text of this book, this is less
of a concern than it would seem. In the first place, most readers are
going to be hard pressed to detect how Scully's
conservative ideology is reflected in this book. From the point of view
of ideology, 95% of this book could have been written by Peter Singer,
Tom Regan, or anyone at PETA.
The remaining 5% is not as problematic as it might be. Scully does
delight in taking some potshots at Peter Singer, even while
acknowledging Singer's role in
the animal rights movement. Scully also puts in some plugs for his
anti-abortion views. Dominion is a redefinition of classic
conservatism; he contrasts compassion for animals based on natural law
(which he supports) with that based on "utilitarian"
theories (read: Peter Singer). Scully's
discussion of "natural law"
is not rigorous or clearly detailed; but whatever it means, it does not
mean simply following tradition -- we should not assume anything about Dominion from the
Moreover, this is a political conservatism, not a religious
Christian conservatism. Both supporters and detractors of Scully have
totally missed the point, being mislead by the title: the
text of Dominion fails to provide anything even close to
religious conservatism. Except for the cover and a few quotes from
religious thinkers which "frame"
his argument, there is very little of an overtly religious nature at all
here, and there is absolutely nothing that relates to such basic
conservative Christian doctrines as fundamentalism, inerrancy of
scripture, Christ the only way to salvation, or anything like that. He
gladly introduces Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish sources on the animals.
Having said that, I have two criticisms. First, this book is in serious
need of an editing job; it is much too long. He could have easily cut
100 pages and it would have dramatically improved the book. Scully is a
great writer; but he just goes on and on and on in excess of what is
needed, and there's a limit to
the reader's patience for even
the most carefully crafted prose on a subject. The second criticism is
that, while he has interviewed a great many people, there is one
significant person whom he should have interviewed and did not -- and that is Peter Singer.
Scully tries to contrast his natural law approach to Singer's
utilitarianism but these distinctions tend to dissolve on closer
examination. The basis of philosophical utilitarianism is that we
evaluate an action ethically based on the consequences of the
action, not in terms of conformity with a rule. Doesn't
Scully go to great lengths to talk about the consequences of
whaling, hunting, and factory farming? Doesn't
natural law have a "utilitarian"
And are Judaism and Christianity above criticism here?
Genesis 1:28 states: "Fill the earth
and subdue it; and have dominion . . . over every living thing that
moves upon the earth." Doesn't this justify, in a literalist framework, everything that Scully
condemns? Modern translators can put a kindly face on the word "dominion,"
but doing so for "subdue"
is much more difficult. "Subdue"
in the Hebrew means to subjugate, to kick with your feet, to overpower.
Is this what we're supposed to
do with the earth?
You would think that a book whose title, Dominion, is taken
from the wording in Genesis 1:28, would have some substantial discussion
of this point. This is
where one might expect Scully's
religious conservatism to be discussed, if it were there. But it never
materializes. Biblical literalism carries little weight in the text of Dominion.
Some meat-eaters would say that the Bible is to be accepted literally
in its comments about "dominion"
and "subdue the earth."
Scully's response is that
citing Genesis in defense of animal exploitation is not an argument, but
a way of avoiding the argument. He's
right; if the heart is closed to mercy, then no amount of Biblical
interpretation will help, regardless of what the Bible says. But once
the heart is opened to compassion, biblical interpretation will follow
suit as well. I would suggest as well that not only would biblical
interpretation follow suit, but philosophical and political
interpretation as well.
September 3, 2003