Sunday, April 15, 2012

Chickens Have Smaller Eyes Than Cows, Does That Make Them Less Worthy Of Empathy?

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist with the New York Times, appeared to make that claim in a recent Op-Ed:
Is An Egg For Breakfast Worth This?, Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, 11 April 2012
"Like many readers, I don’t particularly empathize with chickens. It’s their misfortune that they lack big eyes.

As a farmboy from Yamhill, Ore., I found our pigs to be razor smart, while our geese mated for life and our sheep and cattle had distinct personalities. The chickens were the least individualistic of the animals we raised."
The article was making a good case for the abolishment of hen cages, not just on food safety grounds but on cruelty-to-animal grounds. That's why his statement about eye size stood out for me. Is it true that humans show empathy based on eye size? Or eye contact?

Then I saw James McWilliams' (another New York Times contributor, and author of "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly") blog post:
Small Eyes And Big Claims: Kristof On Animal Empathy, James McWilliams, Eating Plants, 12 April 2012

He picked up on the same thing:
"So let me get this straight. Kristof’s ability to empathize with an animal hinges on the animal’s ability to make eye-contact? Yes, Nick Kristof appears to rely on the categorical determining power of eye diameter to do something rather morally acrobatic: justify the decision to exploit chickens while denoting concern for their ultimate welfare. Eye size."
It pains me to say this but I think Kristof is on to something regarding eyes. After all, there are more pet dogs and cats than there are pet chickens.


Dr. Mel said...

Personally, I think Kristoff must be the ones with small eyes. I have 3 friends who raise chickens for eggs only; they name the hens, they say the hens have very distinct personalities, and that they are quite intelligent and affectionate. I've met the one friends hens, and as far as I can see, she's right. Bluebirds and hummingbirds have small eyes too, yet look at the fuss we make over them. I think Kristoff's claim is bogus psychologizing (just my opinion of course!).

Dr. Mel said...

Oh, and my friends have small flocks of 3 to 5 hens, and when the hens get too old to lay, my friends keep them on to live out their natural lives, which can be up to 20 years.
Small eyes--harumph!

Dr. Mel said...

Pigeons also have small eyes, yet they're among the most intelligent animals in terms of self-recognition, recognition and memory of others they've seen, and even recognition of people they know when seen in 2-d images like photos. Kristoff is a jerk. Imho.

Dr. Mel said...

Btw, Kreider Farms has been investigated for inhumane practices several times in the past.

Jo said...

Human babies' eyes are 75% of their adult size at birth. It wouldn't surprise me at all if we are hardwired to go all tender and gooey, the larger the eye size in proportion to the face.

Bix said...

That's neat about pigeons' memory, and from 2D photos! I've read that crows can recognize people too.

We have two doves that visit, always together, always sitting close and bumping up against each other, and for some reason this year not so anxious near me. I wonder what I look like to a dove. I bet they gossip that I can't fly.

Dr. Mel said...

LOL, Bix!
("Look at the size of the wings on that creature over there--I'll bet she can't fly with *those* suckers! And her eyes really creep me out--they're as big as dinner plates--it's just unnatural, I think. What do you think, honey?")

Claudia said...

What kind of person says they don't have much empathy for a living thing? At least it has *eyes* What are bugs then? Crunchables?

Bix said...

omg, crunchables! Funny :) Claudia, I had a pet stink bug, Blinky. Woe that he should ever find himself in Kristof's vicinity.