The Coming of King Unas

The formerly accepted story of Easter Island, in the southern Pacific, saw the place as a cautionary fable of human delinquency. This remote territory was first peopled by Polynesians arriving in their canoes somewhere around the end of the first millennium AD. Over subsequent centuries, so the story went, they felled its forests in order to transport on tree-trunk rollers their strange and wonderful carved heads or moai to the chosen sites. Then, finding themselves in a created waste-land, they fought each other for what was left, even resorting to cannibalism, and were finally discovered by European explorers in the eighteenth century as a miserable remnant on an island scarcely habitable.

In his book Humankind: a Hopeful History, the historian and journalist Rutger Bregman shows how this story came about, and he corrects it from twenty-first century researches. There were no civil wars, no cannibalism. The inhabitants were found fit and well by their first visitors, but then succumbed to visitor-borne diseases and even, during the nineteenth century, to enslavement. Left to themselves, Bregman says, they would have got on perfectly well – without their trees, certainly, but even that wasn’t really their fault. It was probably the rats hitching that first ride with them centuries earlier who did the damage, as well as extirpating most of the native fauna. And anyway the space released from forest was used for successful agriculture. “The real story of Easter Island,” Bregman concludes, “is the story of a resourceful and resilient people, of persistence in the face of long odds. It’s not a tale of impending doom [i.e. a model of what we’ll soon have done to the whole planet], but a well-spring of hope.” [136]

Two aspects of that story in particular illustrate Bregman’s larger argument in the book. Humans in their original or natural condition (more about what that is later) are not delinquents and cut-throats, committed to what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “war of all against all” [109]. The Lord of the Flies vision of human life on a desert island collapsing into savagery is a species-libel (which Bregman puts right in its turn). Rather, humans are by nature resourceful, mutually helpful, and adept at managing conflict before it becomes damaging. The trouble – aspect two – came with the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life (not that the Easter Island people ever quite practised that) to life lived in fixed and populous settlements, which happened progressively from about 15,000 years ago. Bregman calls it the “biggest mistake of all time” [246]. With settlement came cultivation, ownership of land, warfare to protect or enlarge property, diseases promoted by the proximity of humans and animals, and above all the pathology of rank:

The 1 per cent began oppressing the 99 per cent, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality and fraternity were over. [104]

Institutionally over, that is. But the ‘hopeful’ part of Bregman’s case is that if once we stop misrepresenting ourselves as a vandal species kept in precarious order by the artifices of civilization, those values will re-arise as the ones we trust and expect in our common life, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Still, Easter Island itself isn’t any better off for the revision of its story. It remains a denuded place, with a ruined flora and fauna, whose few survivors from pre-human days (mainly insects in the case of the fauna) are under threat from the newer scourge of tourism – for the island has an airport, of course. This doesn’t seem to enter as a problem into Bregman’s thinking. He’s a humanist in the restricted sense, for whom our vis-à-vis with other animals is just a mirror, helping us to look at ourselves, rather than a test and judgement, helping us to know what we’ve been worth to the planet. Hence his remark in an interview about most people being “pretty decent”: “it’s actually the reason why we have conquered the globe; you know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a skill that other species just can’t.”

In Bregman’s vision of things, then, we’re essentially our own audience, and likewise the winners or losers by what we think and do as a species. Still, there is a complementary history of other species caught up in what we’ve done, and it’s detectable there in the book’s shadows. After all, the coming of ownership as a concept and practice included ownership of lives. It was a radical change, as Bregman notices: “It couldn’t have been easy to convince people that land or animals – or even other human beings – could now belong to someone.” [102] He suggests at one point that the Old Testament myth of expulsion from Eden may have been telling this story of change from free nomadism to settlement and agriculture (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3.19). Certainly that change marked the primal fall in our relations with other forms of life in the world. It’s a catastrophe which we have only just started to undo; conceding ‘sentience’ to some animals (see previous post) is as far as we’ve officially got to date, even in the avant-garde countries.

Not that pre-historic humans left other animals alone; they were hunter-gatherers, after all. But they were taking their chance in the predation lottery, and it’s clear also, from the early cave-paintings, that they felt some respectful fascination for their prey and for other creatures. These animals generally appear both large and vividly present, warty pig 15 Jan 21 compared to the smallness and perfunctory representations of humans, if any. (Bregman’s point about these paintings is that there is no warfare in them.) But what exactly the human attitude was towards any of these animals (humans included) is a highly speculative subject of its own, because of course little else has been left behind by them.

It’s a point poignantly illustrated by the anthropological collections in Oxford University’s own Ashmolean Museum. There’s hardly anything to show about the lives of the hunter-gatherers: set against panoramas of open land, a few hunting weapons in a glass case or two. So lightly did they tread on the earth! Then come the civilizations, with ominous section titles like ‘New Technologies’, ‘Building an Empire’, and ‘Sumptuous Lifestyles’. A ‘pyramid text’ (tomb inscription for a pharaoh) says

King Unas comes, a spirit indestructible.
If he wishes you to die, you will die,
If he wishes you to live, you will live.

So you can see what Bregman means. Of course, he concedes that humans have now mostly freed themselves from civilization of this predatory kind. Over the last two hundred years, we’ve found that organized societies can work for the common benefit (he instances health, prosperity, human rights, even, relatively speaking, peace): “The curse of civilization can be lifted,” he says [114]. But meanwhile, as he doesn’t say, our species continues to play King Unas to all the others. That pyramid text is implicitly pinned up at every animal facility in the world – pinned on the world, in fact.

Humankind should be compared to another ambitious survey of the human career, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011, discussed in this blog on 25 May 2018). Bregman argues that we’re a fundamentally decent Humankind species (notice the way the title is divided on the front cover), corrupted by the pathologies of civilization; Pinker tells the story of civilization as a progressive putting right or at least mitigation of our natural savagery. But in fact these two very different interpretations produce the same net message. One reviewer of Pinker’s work called it the “glad tidings” that humans are much better than we thought and feared: it will now be “much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future.” Or as another reviewer says of Humankind, it “will give you good reason to feel better about the human race.”

It’s pleasant to feel better, of course, but whether it’s an honest state of mind in this case, I doubt. Whatever we’ve been able to make of ourselves, we’ve certainly made a latter-day Easter Island of much of the planet, driving other lives out of it, or making of them dependents to our King Unas. Bregman approvingly quotes Jan Boersema, the professor who de-bunked the old Easter Island myth, saying “not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially.” [136] We can fix it, in short. It’s what Pinker says too. But it may be that the self-distrust which these books have supposedly cured was a truer reflection both of our real merits in the world and of the type of solution that will work. Giving ground, morally and literally, is likely to be the only remedy that helps other species as well as our own, and it demands some measure of diffidence.

The great twentieth-century poet W.H.Auden grappled in his later writings with this question of what it is that spoils our species,

who, from the moment
we first are worlded,
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to.

As these lines imply, he believed that humanity was inherently flawed, in fact the heir to original sin in the Old Testament sense. But I mention this not just because Auden was expressing a moral and spiritual diffidence on our behalf; he was also directing this confession to its proper audience, for the title of this poem written in the last year of his life was ‘Address to the Animals’. It’s true that they can’t know or profit from what we say to them (“very few of you / find us worth looking at”, is how Auden puts it), but we shall never understand ourselves, or hit upon our proper business in the world, unless we find a right relationship with the animals who were enjoying it for so long before “we upstarts”, as Auden calls us, arrived figuratively in our canoes.

Notes and references:

Humankind was first published in the Netherlands in 2019; quotations are from the English edition of 2021, published by Bloomsbury. The Better Angels of our Nature was published by Penguin Books in 2011. The quoted reviews are from extracts given in the books’ own prelims. Although the two books are dealing with the same question, and cover some of the same material (in fact Bregman expressly rejects some of Pinker’s evidence and conclusions), they differ very much in form: Better Angels is a formidable and scholarly book, two or three times a long as the other; Humankind is well but selectively evidenced, chatty and engaging in style, distinctly the work of a journalist (though an excellent one, who frequently warns his readers against daily news as “a mental health hazard”).

The quoted interview was given by Bregman to npr (National Public Radio), on 30 May 2020, and can be read here:

W.H.Auden’s poem ‘Address to the Animals’ was first published in the New Yorker, 8 October 1973. Another poem, ‘The Sabbath’, is a briefer treatment of the same subject, where the animals agree in deploring the mistakes made on the sixth day of creation.

The detail of a cave painting shows a wild pig (the Sulawesi warty pig) and a hand-print. The whole painting, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is believed to be the oldest so far discovered, at least 45,000 years old. For a report on the discovery, see



No Duty More Imperative upon the House

Finally a bill has come before the UK Parliament which expressly recognizes animals as “sentient beings”. The concept – or rather, fact – had been established in European Union law by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and therefore was a part of what was lost with Brexit. Now it’s been re-introduced in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, published earlier this month and due to be debated first in the House of Lords on 16 June.

Of course the acknowledgement of sentience in other animals has been implicit in animal welfare law from the beginning and yet apparently thought compatible with such glaring maltreatment over the years as vivisection and factory farming. Nor did putting the idea into the open in the Lisbon Treaty seem to do animals themselves much good. Still, the new proposal does (or may) take the matter a good deal further. Its long title is ‘A Bill to make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. This committee is to be a permanent institution, watching for, and publishing reports on, any government policy, planned or being put into effect, which the Committee considers “might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” To any such report, the government is required to respond within three months, and then to pay “all due regard” to its recommendations “in any further formulation or implementation of the policy”.

Section 5 of the Bill, titled ‘Interpretation’, defines the word animal (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens, though invertebrate species may subsequently be added) and also vertebrate itself, but not the word due (so we won’t know how much regard is required), nor the key word sentience. But this last word is anyway being continually enriched with meaning, and the Bill will presumably have to grow with it. For instance, since 2016 there’s been an excellent peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject and titled Animal Sentience, and the London School of Economics recently announced a five-year project of research on ‘the Foundations of Animal Sentience’. Even the trendy habit of using the short form ‘ASent’ is probably a promising sign of growth. As the LSE says, “In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers . . . has begun to emerge.”

Although there’s something dismal about the phrase “interdisciplinary community”, the thing itself must be good in this case; I’ve yet to come across research which shows any species of animal less sentient than previously thought. And the really significant advance represented by the Bill is that the interests of these sentient animals will have to be taken into account across all government activity, whether existing law covers them or not. In conservation matters, for instance, not just net gains and losses of various animals will have to be considered, but the felt harms or benefits involved for them. There’s a genuine moral advance here, supposing it’s properly applied.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is part of the UK government’s larger Action Plan for Animal Welfare (note the cute initials: can it have been intentional?). The Plan includes various other promises, including an end to exporting of live farm animals, better labelling of animal-derived products, better protection for “sporting animals” (a curious expression), an end to the keeping of primates as pets, and many other improvements. Some of these are already in hand: higher sentences for cruelty to animals will come into effect on 29 June. Other promises are noticeably tentative. As to a ban on the importation of all and any animal furs, for instance: “we will explore potential action in this area” (I count three put-offs in that sentence). Animals in research get a bit of both, the promise essentially being to stand still, or “continue to commit to maintaining high standards of protection”.

The Secretary of State responsible for the Action Plan is George Eustice, who made the Plan public on 12 May during a visit to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. He began his speech there with the inevitable words “We are a nation of animal lovers.” The familiar boast (critiqued elsewhere in this blog) is not well-evidenced by that chosen setting, a poignant asylum in South London for abandoned pets, but at least there’s more to it than patriotism on this occasion. The Action Plan expresses several times the intention to “take the rest of the world with us” in setting higher standards of animal welfare, and to make that intention felt in trade and other international dealings. I’d say that the phrase “animal lovers”, especially without a hyphen, is more likely to raise a foreign smirk than do much persuading. In a parliamentary speech which George Eustice made in 2018 during a debate on the testing of cosmetics, he spoke in similarly sentimental terms: “Animal welfare is dear to my heart, and dear to all our hearts.” Let’s hope that the UK’s “international advocacy on animal welfare” will be put across with more ethical force.

In George Eustice’s introduction to the Action Plan, the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ claim is supported with a reference to the world’s first law for the protection of animals, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822. That law was certainly a momentous achievement: as one MP said at the time, it “consecrated the principle, that animals ought to be protected by legislative interference.” But it can’t be seen as a typical product of the national character. It followed a series of thwarted attempts to persuade Parliament to do something for animals, and was itself followed by similarly defeated bills aimed at extending its protections to other domesticated animals. The Act’s sponsor, Richard Martin (incidentally an Irishman, MP for Galway), was a stubborn and pugnacious personality; he really did have ethical force. His face shows as much (see below) – the stubbornness and force at least. Without them he surely wouldn’t have been able to bring his 1822 Bill through to success.

Martin's Act trial

The primary means of opposition in the House of Commons was that most destructive of its weapons, ridicule. Reports of the debates on the Bill, and on the various amendments to widen and enforce its measures which Martin tried to introduce in the following years, are punctuated with “laughter”, “loud laughter”, “noise and laughter”. MPs would ask him why he didn’t include other species, whose mere mention they thought would tend to bring his project into contempt and ridicule: asses, hares, cats, rats, lobsters. Something of the attitude is suggested in a contemporary painting which imagines a donkey giving evidence in court of offences against the 1822 Act committed by his master (the young man to his left, cocking a snook). The title was The Trial of Bill Burn, under Martin’s Act, and it illustrated a comic song of the period on that theme: “If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go / D’ye think I’d wollop him? No, no, no!” I read those repeated no’s as sarcastic, but at any rate the picture (shown here reproduced in a print) has everyone except the principals enjoying a good laugh.

Sometimes Martin spoke angrily about this hilarity and the “invidious sarcasms” thrown at his proposals: “The learned gentleman may laugh,” a parliamentary report has him saying to the Attorney General, “and no doubt he considered him and his case as a fit subject for ridicule, but he could tell him it was not a matter of ridicule elsewhere.” But he was never punctured. He was witty himself, and could turn the jokes his own way. When Martin was trying to have bull-baiting and cock-fighting prohibited, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, argued that upper class field sports were just as ‘cruel’ (implying that nobody would think of putting them down); good, replied Martin, then they too should be banned, and “he did, therefore, call on the Home Secretary to do so, and to begin the salutary reformation by recommending to the King, whose adviser he was, to put down the royal hunt, and dismiss the royal stag-hounds.”

At other times, Martin would check the frivolity of MPs by giving them instances of the cruelty and barbarity which he had seen or been told of. One of these concerned the physiological lectures then being given in London by the French professor Francois Magendie, involving “most horrid and most wanton” experiments on dogs. This attack on a distinguished visitor caused some indignation, and Martin was told anyway that he’d got the facts wrong. His answer was reported thus: “he knew that what was spoken in that House was privileged from the action of libel; but he desired, in order to decide the real merits of the question, that such an action might be brought, and with the view of enabling professor Magendie to commence the action, and to obtain evidence to support it, he had gone down that day to St Bartholomew’s hospital, and had there repeated the statement, as nearly as possible in the terms in which he had before made it in that House.”

It was a characteristic performance. In 1824, Martin wanted to amend the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act so as to authorize members of the public actively to apprehend a person seen ill-treating an animal, rather than just reporting them. It was Martin’s own habit to do so, and that same Attorney-General spoke in the House against the proposal thus: “He knew from the zeal which the hon. Member had heretofore displayed in the cause of humanity, that not a week would elapse before he would be forced into some desperate conflict in attempting to enforce the law.”

Martin was nick-named ‘Humanity Dick’, and it needs adding that his ‘humanity’ was not solely directed towards the welfare of non-human animals. Human distresses, including slavery and the sufferings of debtors, engaged his energies too. It seems that he sometimes paid the fines of those whom he had brought into the courts under his Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. After all, the punishment of individuals was incidental; what he aimed at was a change of attitude and practice. And in fact that change, so a fellow-MP could say already in 1825, “might be seen in every market in London.”

Richard Martin

In 1826, Martin’s own debts obliged him to take refuge in France, where he remained for the last years of his life. He wasn’t a saint-like man. I can find no talk from him about loving animals or any other such touching rhetoric. But there was blatant abuse of animals in the streets and the cattle markets of Britain, and he persuaded the state that it should take notice and action. He wasn’t able to build on that success himself, but the principle was established. He encountered all those improvised objections, in their earliest vigour, that we still hear in their antiquity (being now employed, for instance, against legislating for sentience): it’s impossible to administer such laws; there are other more important laws to deal with first; they’ll hurt the poor; where will it stop (with cats, oysters, insects?); a different set of animals is more deserving (i.e. put it off); and of course ridicule. Martin faced all these down, and after those few years of harassing Parliament on this subject, his achievement is reflected in this momentous statement reported in the speech of another MP, John Maxwell: “There was no duty, he [Maxwell] conceived, more imperative upon the House than that of affording protection to animals.”

Astonishing to see that being said nearly 200 years ago! And correspondingly puzzling and dismaying that there is still so much to do. At any rate, now is a good moment (George Eustice was right in this) to recall and feel gratitude towards the man who forced a reluctant nation to make a start – not on loving animals, fine and proper as that may well be, but on treating their feelings and interests with the respect due to those of all sentient beings.

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill (it’s very short) can be found here:  The Action Plan for Animal Welfare is here:

The LSE’s sentience research project is announced here:

The 2018 cosmetics debate is reported in Hansard’s parliamentary records here: The quotations from speeches made in debates in which Richard Martin was involved between 1821 and 1826 are reported in Hansard and linked here:

The post in this blog which discusses the phrase and notion ‘animal-lover’ is here:

Apart from online material, there are good accounts of the life and character of Richard Martin in E.S.Turner’s excellent All Heaven in a Rage (Michael Joseph, 1964) and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004, also online), whose entry on Martin is written by Richard Ryder.

The portrait of Richard Martin is a print from a painting in the collection of the RSPCA, of which (as the SPCA) Martin himself was one of the founding members in 1824. The aquatint from a painting, Trial of Bill Burn, was apparently made in the late 1830s. More details about it, including a version of the song from which the quotation above is taken, can be found online here: