A deep dive into the Animal Rights Archive

Philosopher Rachel Robison-Greene in the Special Collections Reading Room

A professor of philosophy at Utah State University, Dr. Rachel Robison-Greene is the first recipient of the Libraries’ Tom Regan Visiting Research Fellowship. Intended to promote scholarly research in animal rights, the fellowship has been established through the generosity of the Culture & Animals Foundation (CAF) in memory of scholar, author, and former NC State philosophy faculty member Tom Regan. The fellowship specifically supports the use of the SCRC’s Animal Rights Archive—the largest scholarly archive of animal rights collections in the country.

But Robison-Greene—like Regan was himself—is more than your average philosopher.

“I have to keep telling myself I'm not writing a Tom Regan biography because I'm finding all this really fun correspondence,” she says with excitement. “Today, I found Regan corresponding with John Rawls and folks like that. That was really cool—I was kind of fangirling-out about that.”

Robison-Greene received a $4,000 stipend to work in residence at the Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) for four weeks spanning July and August, doing research for her in-progress book Under a Suitable Medium: Critically Analyzing the In Vitro Meat Revolution. She’s considering the ethics of in vitro, or “cultured,” meat from an animal rights perspective.

Often, scholars are cramming that research into a frantic day or two. They scrounge up some travel funding from their department, shoehorn an overnight into their fall break, arrive at the library or archives right when they open, and take cell phone pics of as many pages as they can until the archives closes. Then they head home to download it all and actually read it. It’s not ideal.

“One key benefit of this fellowship is that it allows a scholar to both research and reflect upon the materials during their stay rather than being rushed during a research visit,” says Gwynn Thayer, SCRC Associate Head and Curator.

“There have been days that I kind of tell myself, ‘Okay, I'm going to take a certain number of pictures, but I'm going to set aside certain things to read today’ because you can’t just take pictures of everything. That's a little much,” Robison-Greene said during her visit. “I have had that opportunity to reflect, and it's been great.”

Travel and time are scholarship necessities. Libraries and archives have been trying to meet research needs by digitizing their collections so they can be accessed remotely, but digitization is slow and takes money and staff time. And while some materials relating to animal rights and animal welfare are being digitized thanks to a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives award from the Council on Library and Information Resources, much of it can only be accessed by coming to Raleigh and sitting down at a reading room table with the papers.

The Regan Fellowship benefits scholars by giving them that time to go deep into the collections and enhance the quality of their research. And this benefits the Libraries, too.

“The history of animal rights and animal welfare is one of the SCRC’s strongest and most active collecting areas,” Thayer says. “When a library or archive takes extra steps to support scholarship in an area, as the Libraries as done with this fellowship, more scholars will publish in that area and cite their materials. Then, other scholars see our collections cited in published works and recognize that our rare and unique primary source materials are worth utilizing in their own scholarship.”

Senior Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Greg Raschke agrees: “The use of special collections and archives by visiting scholars represents an important milestone in the development of a program. Rachel’s use of the Animal Welfare and Animal Rights Archive is a signal that the NC State University Libraries has one of the strongest such collections in the world.”

"The Culture & Animals Foundation is delighted to partner with the Animal Rights Archive at the NC State University Libraries to offer the Tom Regan Visiting Research Fellowship,” Martin Rowe, CAF Board Co-Vice President, said when the fellowship was announced in January. “The archive offers an unparalleled opportunity for scholars to explore many facets of Tom's work and the animal advocacy movement through the decades; this Fellowship can help make that happen."

No animals were harmed in the making of this meat
Robison-Greene will have plenty of citations of the Animal Rights Archive in her book. She needed to immerse herself in the history of animal rights-based perspectives to consider what figures like Regan might have to say about the relatively new in vitro meat movement and the new technologies that are driving it.

“A lot of people who were writing about animal rights 20 or 30 years ago wouldn’t have anticipated this strange new cell-culturing process for producing meat,” Robison-Greene says. “When Regan was writing, you just couldn't obtain animal flesh without killing the animal. So a lot of animal rights perspectives are strictly abolitionist in nature—we should never be using animals or animal products because we're treating animals as things rather than as living beings.”

If meat was murder at the time that the animal rights movement started, now there’s the possibility that meat might just be a scratch. In the in vitro meat process for beef, a tissue sample is taken from a cow. A cell culture is done using either fetal bovine serum or a plant-based serum—most producers are completely phasing out the usage of animal-based serum very soon. Muscle cells are then grown on a flexible surface so that the cells can be exercised. Once grown enough, the muscle material is minced to the consistency of ground beef. Since the early stages of the meat can be retained to use later, there are even hopes that you could have a beef “starter,” like how people have active yeast cultures to start bread dough. Instead of buying processed beef on a styrofoam tray, you could just grow it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

The technologies involved are very new and very expensive. It will be years before in vitro meat production is able to produce affordable food on a mass-consumption scale. And the early products haven't stacked up against existing burgers in terms of taste and texture, either.  While McDonalds isn’t shaking in its shoes, a few specialty products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are already out there in the vegetarian sections of grocery stores. Robison-Greene would have loved to ask Regan for his take on it all, and the archives are the next best thing to that interview.

“This all does seem like a step in the right direction, right?—and that's coming from someone who's vegan,” she adds, noting that the process avoids certain bacteria common to meat processing, and offers opportunities to add additional nutrients. “Given that people are committed to eating meat, if there were different ways of producing meat that didn't cause suffering and death for animals, it seems like that would be a really good thing.”

“As I engaged this collection, I was wondering whether I was going to find any exceptions or whether there would be some sort of space for in vitro meat in someone like Regan's view, and I have found some passages that seemed like they might allow a little room for that.”

Honoring an animal rights legend
Tom Regan, the fellowship’s namesake, is perhaps the biggest reason that the Libraries’ Animal Rights Archive is so renowned. An internationally recognized scholar, inspiring teacher, and a prolific author, Regan joined the NC State philosophy faculty in 1967, eventually serving as head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. His 1983 book,
The Case for Animal Rights, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and remains a definitive work. His “War on Vivisection” speech, given at a 1988 rally in Los Angeles, is considered one of the most important animal rights speeches ever delivered, and the Utne Reader named him one of their “fifty visionaries changing the world.”

After more than 34 years of distinguished service at NC State, Regan retired in January 2002 to direct the CAF, which he and his wife Nancy established in 1985 to expand our understanding and appreciation of other animals and improve the ways in which they are treated. The CAF continues to offer annual grants to scholars and artists working on these issues. Regan passed away in 2017.

While Robison-Greene has found invaluable materials in the archives for her research into the issues around the development of in vitro meat, she’s also enjoyed getting to know Regan’s style and outsized personality through his writing. Although she’s taught Regan’s work for almost a decade in ethics classes, she never had the chance to meet him in person before he passed away in 2017. But she’s catching herself laughing out loud as she reads his correspondence and sees his highly personal approach to scholarship.

“Often he'll start with a couple of stories about things that happened to him recently and then dive into the philosophy, which isn't something that you see that often,” Robison-Greene says. “His papers aren't so cold. They have a personality. He’s in those papers, right?”

Rather than choose between the theoretical distance common in philosophy and the passion of an activist, Regan combined them. His 1983 book, The Case for Animal Rights—nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—remains a definitive work in the field. And his fiery “War on Vivisection” speech, given at a 1988 rally in Los Angeles, is considered one of the most important animal rights speeches ever delivered, inspiring the Utne Reader to name him one of their “fifty visionaries changing the world.”

“As I look at more and more of Regan’s papers, I see that he's somebody who really lives his philosophy. A lot of animal rights folks are like this,” Robison-Greene says. “I've loved just getting a picture of who this person was. There was a great mini autobiography that he wrote that was just wonderful. It was quite a while ago that he wrote it, and I hadn't seen it anywhere.”

Robison-Greene is far from a stereotypical philosopher herself. With her husband, the Weber State philosophy professor Richard Greene, she hosts the podcast I Think, Therefore I Fan. They’ve also co-edited numerous collections of philosophical essays dealing with issues in popular television shows and movies like Orange Is the New Black, The Princess Bride, American Horror Story, and Twin Peaks. They gather topical work by the best contemporary philosophers into a page-turner of a book animated by a sharp sense of humor. The book of essays on The Handmaid’s Tale is subtitled “A Womb of One’s Own,” and the Dexter book “Mind Over Spatter.”

Robison-Greene has co-edited many books of contemporary philosophical essays

Through spending so much time at the SCRC, Robison-Greene and the Libraries staff worked closely together, and creativity was sparked beyond her book. The fellowship doesn’t just offer a deep dive into the archives; it allows a deeper collaboration to develop between a researcher and NC State librarians, too.

As Robison-Greene talks about other areas of interest, Thayer starts naming parts of collections that have relevant materials. Wondering how vegetarianism might relate to in vitro meat? Check out the Rynn Berry papers. Curious if vegan cosmetics might offer insight into commercializing a meatless burger? We’ve got the Doris Day Animal League records for you.

“There are a lot of different animal rights activists who donated their papers,” Thayer says, counting off examples of collections on her fingers. “Wim DeKok was someone who worked internationally with animal rights, and he gave us an impressive collection of materials. Virginia Handley is another one who was involved with animal rights for many years, and we have her papers. We also have have the Animal Welfare Institute Records, which is one of our most impressive and important collections relating to animal protection, so there's a lot of options out there, to name just a few.”

“Rachel’s fellowship has been an outstanding success. It has been especially rewarding to have the opportunity to support a scholar for a longer period than we usually see a scholar in the Reading Room,” Thayer continues. “And it was especially exciting to share some of our newly acquired collections (relating to animal protection) with Rachel and then hear the ways in which she is thinking about incorporating them into her writing projects.”

“I've read lots of Regan's books and never come up with these ideas before. I’m seeing how they all sort of interrelate,” Robison-Greene says with a wide smile. “For instance, I didn't know that he did work on pacifism. And it's interesting to see the relationship between what he has to say about pacifism and what he has to say about animal rights. I wasn't even aware of that material.”

“I've found ideas for other papers. So this has been helpful not just for this one project that I've wanted to do but also it’s given me lots of ideas for other things to write.”

Note: A version of this story appeared in issue 33:3 of the FOCUS, edited for length.

Written on Apr 29, 2020