The extent of the suffering of wild animals is literally unimaginable.
We have a function in our minds for imagining suffering - remembering a dog bite, perhaps, or another nasty injury. And we have an abstract multiplication function in our minds as well. But this doesn't get us even close to understanding the amount of suffering that occurs in nature in a single minute.
What would it feel like to land on the surface of the sun? Answer: not like anything. You can't even approach the surface of the sun; even millions of miles out, shielded by a spacecraft, a human body would disintegrate. We are physically incapable of perceiving how bad the surface of the sun would feel.
Thus it is with the amount of suffering in the natural world (and, incidentally, its subset, the human world).
1. On The Ways In Which Nature Makes Andrea Yates Look Like June Cleaver
This photograph shows a Eurasian coot feeding its chick:
These coots may hatch up to nine chicks (so we learn from David Attenborough). But under normal circumstances, food is in short supply. The parent birds feed the baby birds on tiny shrimp for the first three days after hatching. Then, mama coot turns into Mommy Dearest. A baby bird begs for food, as usual - but, with no warning, the parents "punish" it, biting the chick hard on its tiny head. The parents do this to all the chicks in turn. Eventually, one chick is singled out for special torture, and abused until it stops begging for food and starves to death.
This process is repeated until only two or three chicks survive.
Pelicans hatch three chicks, but under normal circumstances, only one survives. Instead of the parent birds doling out death, it's the siblings - the two larger birds pluck at the smallest with their sharp beaks and knock it out of the nest. Then the conspirators turn on each other until only one chick is left.
Is that awful?
Is that tragic?
Is that . . . good?
Sir David himself acknowledges that this might be a bit cruel, by human standards. But, he assures us, it's all for the best - in especially good years, a pelican or coot can raise an extra chick or two. So torturing baby birds to death serves the purpose of increasing the genetic fitness of the parents by a little bit.
But does that really make it okay?
2. The Incoherence of Species-Relative Morality
We are taught as children not to apply human standards of morality to animal behavior. We do not expect macaques to be egalitarian, nor male lions to refrain from killing cubs sired by other males. We should not, this theory goes, expect animals to raise the babies they produce to adulthood; we should not be dismayed if they, in fact, torture their young to death when it is advantageous for them to do so.
Most people of our era have a strong, visceral inclination against cruelty to animals, just as we do against cruelty to human children. We judge animal suffering to be bad. Watching the nature special, we hope the impala can evade the lion, but we hope the lion cubs get fed somehow. But watch what your mind does when considering these two contradictory hopes. Does it come to a coherent resolution of the problem? Or does it just shrug its shoulders and spackle the problem over with some bullshit about the circle of life? Life must go on . . . end of thought.
Is it okay that the impala gets eaten? That the cub dies? What about an old lion slowly dying in the hot sun? How about that little chick pictured above, getting abused and starved to death by its parents? Genesis 1:21 (KJV) says: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good." (Emphasis mine.) According the the Judeo-Christian God, torturing baby coots to death is not just okay, but good. "God" gave us that whopper to swallow; can you swallow it?
Human morality, some may argue, applies only to human actions - not to the actions of animals. I agree with this. For the most part, animals are not agents, but merely robots - machines executing programs created by natural selection. However, morality must certainly also apply to human inaction, and especially our inaction in preventing harm, suffering, and awfulness. What is the moral justification for the "hands off" dogma regarding nature? We often interfere with nature for the good of humans and human industry. Why not for the good of individual animals? Bloody Nature is a machine for pushing genes into the future. Does it really "know best"?
3. Respect for Species?
Nature exists. We try to "conserve" ecosystems in their "natural" state (scare quotes because ecosystems evolve and change over time, in response to environmental pressures, including those from other species). But who is it good for?
Is it good for the animals themselves? Thomas Nagel considers the difficulty of this question in his essay "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life," in his important book The View from Nowhere (from which my blog takes its title). While teaching at Princeton in the 70s, Professor Nagel noticed a sad little spider living in a urinal in the men's bathroom. The spider appeared to Professor Nagel to have a crappy life, constantly getting peed on; "he didn't seem to like it," notes Nagel. He continues:
Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. . . . So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.
He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened . . . . I left, but when I came back two hours later he hadn't moved.
The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor.
Professor Nagel acted with empathy toward the spider - treating the spider how he imagined the spider would want to be treated. But did he do the spider any good? Would non-interference by Professor Nagel have done the spider any good? The spider might have lived longer, scrambling away from piss streams a hundred times a day, and may have eventually made more spiders. Would that be a good thing?
What do spiders want? Is there such a thing as a meaningful life for a spider? Does a spider's life do the spider any good?
There is a popular idea, born, I think, from applying the principles of liberalism where they do not belong - the idea that non-interference indicates respect for a species or animal, as if it were a person. (Where interference is allowed, it is to remedy some previous human interference.) This is also (idiotically) applied to human cultural systems, not just biological systems; in this context, it is known as cultural relativism. And it is just as incoherent applied to animals as applied to folks slicing off the clitorises of babies.
Let us for a moment suppose that we will treat individual animals as persons whose pleasures, pains, and desires we can identify and respect. In that case, empirically speaking, non-interference is a shitty policy. We could do more to make animals suffer less by intervention than by complete non-intervention.
On the other hand, perhaps it is the species that is our "person" - we should try to respect a species, or, perhaps, a whole complex ecosystem. But since species and ecosystems are not percipient beings capable of pleasure and suffering, by assigning them respect, we beg the question of the purpose of doing so. Who are ecosystems good for? Or are they perhaps mystically intrinsically good, as Jehovah would have us believe?
4. Is Nature Our Bitch?
To some degree, nature au naturel is good for humans. We need trees and algae and fish in order to live. Genetic diversity, developed over millions of years, ensures the longevity of our biosphere.
We frequently violate our supposed policy of non-intervention with the natural world when doing so benefits humans, in some cases actively seeking the extinction of certain organisms (like smallpox). I don't think this is wrong at all, because (a) smallpox doesn't do anyone any good by existing, including itself; and (b) smallpox causes untold suffering. But why draw the line at smallpox? It is my contention that not just smallpox, but all creatures, do not do themselves any good by existing - from spider to coyote to human.
Not only do we breathe oxygen and eat food produced by biological systems; we also appreciate the beauty of complex systems. Can we justify the suffering of baby coots because we think their ecosystem is interesting? Earlier generations of humans liked to torture animals for their own pleasure (and some still do). We now judge this to be evil. But is standing by while animals torture each other in "natural" ways, when we have the power to stop it, any better than actively torturing animals? Responsible people spay or neuter their pets. Why not spay Nature herself?
We don't even have to harm or kill animals in order to stop Nature from doing her evil deeds. We could simply prevent their reproduction, or even merely cease our current "conservation efforts" that involve breeding animals. Breeding wild animals and releasing them into the wild is doing the ugly work of Genesis all over again - and cruelly claiming that it's "good."
5. Is Being Human-Like Better?
We are touched by human-like (or ideal-human-like) characteristics in animals - nurturing young, monogamy, neighborliness, cooperation. Humans, although we commit parental infanticide at a rate higher than any other great ape (as would be expected from our relative immaturity at birth), at least attempt to raise most of our young to adulthood. But is "human" really more "humane"?
Compare the pelicans and coots to the rosella parrot. These parents feed "fairly" - that is, all chicks are fed equally, although they hatch at different times, so some chicks are larger than others. Large, older baby parrots even share their food with their smaller siblings! Aw.
Sound good? Nice parrots. However, they are merely postponing the point at which the red teeth and claws come into the picture. These parrot parents produce more than two offspring. What do you think happens to most of them? They go off and found happy egalitarian parrot families of their own? Maybe for a little while. But a species can't expand indefinitely. Most of these new parrots will get eaten or starve to death. The lucky few will go on to put dozens of new parrots into the world, for natural selection to claw apart and eat alive. r is evil, but K is not so great either.
Antibiotics were not invented until World War II. Prior to that, any human parent faced the very real possibility of losing some or all of his children before they reached adulthood. Humans were visibly under the same selection pressures as the rest of the animals. However, for a couple of generations, we have managed to pretend that nearly all our offspring can survive to adulthood and bear children of their own. We must look to nature to remind ourselves that this is a temporary fantasy.
If you haven't read it, please take a look at this short, sweet, and effective piece on Evolution is Suicide: "Why end a life? Why begin a life?"