The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Victorian Visionary’s Prescient Case for Animal Rights and Vegetarianism

A Victorian Visionary’s Prescient Case for Animal Rights and Vegetarianism

Chronicling the history of science at a recent event, the eminent primatologist Frans de Wall lamented the long-burning damage Skinner and the behaviorists of the mid-twentieth century did to our understanding of non-human minds and lives — the way their views stalled science and thwarted empathy. I asked him which of our current paradigms about other animals we will look back upon in another century with the same shamed shudder with which we now look back upon the behaviorists. Without hesitation, he flagged factory farming and the large-scale consumption of animal meat.

A century and a half before us, the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902) bent his gaze past the horizon of his culture’s paradigms, giving impassioned voice to this sentiment and contouring a different moral future for our species in his prophetic 1872 novel Erewhon (public library | public domain).

Samuel Butler

Butler — an Ursula K. Le Guin for his time, who presaged with astonishing foresight our artificial intelligence predicament — invites us to consider the arc of moral progress and changing mores since the dawn of our species, tracing that arc forward toward our widening circles of compassion. He writes:

Once upon a time your fore-fathers made no scruple about not only killing, but also eating their relations. No one would now go back to such detestable practices, for it is notorious that we have lived much more happily since they were abandoned. From this increased prosperity we may confidently deduce the maxim that we should not kill and eat our fellow-creatures.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage edition of Aesop’s fables

An epoch before Jane Goodall radicalized the study of animals by illuminating the presence of higher consciousness in nonhuman primates, before octopus intelligence stopped us in our tracks, before we knew that whales remember and elephants grieve, Butler adds:

It cannot be denied that sheep, cattle, deer, birds, and fishes are our fellow-creatures. They differ from us in some respects, but those in which they differ are few and secondary, while those that they have in common with us are many and essential.


If it was wrong of you to kill and eat your fellow-men, it is wrong also to kill and eat fish, flesh, and fowl. Birds, beasts, and fishes, have as full a right to live as long as they can unmolested by man, as man has to live unmolested by his neighbours.

Complement with Shelley’s prescient case for animal rights and the spiritual value of vegetarianism, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery on how to be a good creature.

Published June 15, 2023




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)