Animal Rights and Beings from Another Planet

George Bernard Shaw? John Harris? Brigid Brophy? Apocryphal?

cow09Dear Quote investigator: George Bernard Shaw was a strong advocate of vegetarianism who was greatly concerned with animal welfare. The following statement attributed to Shaw encouraged the reader to embrace an abstract extraplanetary perspective and asked the reader to condemn the instrumental use of animals for food, clothing, and sport:

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth — beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals — would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?

I have been unable to locate this passage in the writings of Shaw. Would please examine its provenance?

Quote investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the claim that George Bernard Shaw wrote the words above. Indeed, QI hypothesizes that the fallacious ascription originated with the misreading of a passage from a volume published in 1979. Details are given further below.

The earliest strongly matching evidence located by QI was published in a 1972 collection called “Animals, Men, and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans”. An article titled “Killing for Food” by John Harris argued that there was “no justification for continuing to eat meat”. Near the end of his essay Harris asked readers to contemplate an alien perspective: 1

I should like to leave those of you who remain unconvinced with a final thought. Suppose that tomorrow a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals. Would they have the right to treat you as you treat the animals you breed, keep and kill for food?

QI believes that the modern quotation was derived from the passage above although the wording was somewhat different. Harris should be credited with this statement and not Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 “The Genius of Shaw: A Symposium” was published, and it included an article titled “The Way of No Flesh” by Brigid Brophy which discussed Shaw’s views concerning vivisection and vegetarianism. Brophy referred to the article by John Harris and connected it to Shaw’s famous drama “Man and Superman”. She reiterated and refashioned the statement by Harris about extraterrestrials. Boldface has been added to this excerpt: 2

…John Harris, in his contribution to Animals, Men and Morals (the Revolutionist’s Handbook of the modern animal liberation movement), has translated the evolutionary images of Man and Superman into SF terms and asked whether, if ‘a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals’, you would concede them the rights over you that you assume over the other animals.

The statement by Brophy closely matched the quotation that has in recent years been incorrectly ascribed to Shaw. The overall essay was about Shaw, and one of Shaw’s plays was mentioned adjacent to the boldface text. In addition, the dramatist’s prominence was considerably greater than the fame of Harris or Brophy. This combination facilitated confusion and a reassignment of the expression from Harris/Brophy to Shaw.

In 2007 the “Facilitator’s Manual for the Class of Nonviolence” by Susan Ives was released, and it included an instance of the saying credited to Shaw: 3

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth — beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals — would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?
George Bernard Shaw

In conclusion, the statement in the 1972 citation should be credited to John Harris. In QI’s opinion, the linkage to Shaw is spurious, and it was constructed via a misinterpretation of a passage in a 1979 essay by Brigid Brophy.

Image Notes: Swiss Braunvieh breed cow. Author: Daniel Schwen. Image file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic. NASA depiction of Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. George Bernard Shaw circa 1909 from Library of Congress Bain Library via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Maritza Kelly whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1972, Animals, Men, and Morals: An Enquiry Into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans, Edited by Stanley Godlovitch, Roslind Godlovitch, and John Harris, Article title: Killing for Food, Article author: John Harris, Start Page 97, Quote Page 110, Publisher by Taplinger Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979, The Genius of Shaw: A Symposium, Edited by Michael Holroyd, Article title: The Way of No Flesh, Article author: Brigid Brophy, Start Page 95, Quote Page 98, Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2007, Facilitator’s Manual for the Class of Nonviolence by Susan Ives, Introduction by Colman McCarthy, Section: Lesson 8: Animals, Quote Page 153, Column 1, Published by peaceCENTER, San Antonio, Texas. (Google Books Preview)