The End of Mongooses? Predation and Historicism

In a recent opinion-piece at the New York Times, Jeff McMahan argues that the goal of gradually eliminating meat-eating from the animal world is, in principle, morally desirable, to prevent the needless suffering that it causes.

(It’s worth clarifying, off the bat, that strictly it’s only predation, not meat-eating, that’s the target, since meat-eating includes useful things like scavengers. Secondly, the right animals to focus on are probably not the oft-mentioned lions, since they have small populations and will probably be extinct in the wild soon anyway. A better example to focus on would be small predators of birds and rodents, things like weasels, cats, foxes, and even, dare I say it, mongooses. Thirdly, we shouldn’t think of this in terms of going and killing anyone, but more in terms of industrial-scale use of contraceptives)

I was going to post on the analysis of this argument, but actually there’s not much to analyse. The argument can be summed up pretty well thus:

“If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals.  I hope most other people would have done the same.”

No, what to me seems more worthy of analysis is the fact that almost nobody seems to agree: the comments, of which there seem to be a few hundred, are overwhelmingly negative, some vitriolically so. I came across the story via. a post at In Living Color, which also has a negative, though more cautious, reaction. So why is there so much opposition?

The first argument that comes up is that removing predators/predation would have catastrophic unintended consequences: not only would there be subtle knock-on effects that we can’t predict, but very likely herbivore populations would explode, depleting plant supplies and imposing slower, more painful deaths from starvation and epidemics.

This is a very good argument, because of our present global situation – which is that we as a species (or as a society? as a civilisation?) have the capacity to seriously disrupt natural systems, but don’t have the capacity to deliberately alter natural systems. Moreover, we are in the process of semi-unintentionally fucking everything up, and have been for a few centuries at least. Call this situation 1.

Given this situation, our practical priorities in environmental matters should be to stop breaking things, put things down, step away from the things, and try to let them recover on their own. Humility, reducing resource use, and ‘conservation’ are the order of the day. So the ‘unintended consequences’ argument is a good one.

But the thing is, McMahan knows this, and explicitly concedes it. He explicitly says that his concern is with a hypothetical different global situation.

This might either be situation 2, in which conservation – leaving nature alone to recover – just isn’t possible, because the whole biosphere has gone into a hideous freefall, and the only prospect of any animals surviving is if human ingenuity, in all its weakness, manages to reconstruct and re-engineer a new ecological equilibrium.

Or it might be the more optimistic situation 3, in which “our scientific knowledge advances to a point at which we could seek to eliminate, alter, or replace certain species with a high degree of confidence in our predictions about the short- and long-term effects of our action.”

If someone presents an argument that “If problem X could be avoided, we should aim for Y”, you can’t argue back by saying “we shouldn’t aim for Y, because of problem X.” That’s just not bothering to pay attention.

Another argument that arises is that we should want to preserve genetic groups per se. It’s better for there to be 10 frightened mice and 2 hungry mongooses than for there to be 12 happy mice, just because there are two families in the first case and only one in the second.

This might be a bad argument, or a good one, but it’s beside the point. That’s because we’re either considering situation 2., which is so desperate that we don’t get to preserve families but rather must decide which of the remaining families we can save and which to let vanish

-or else we’re considering situation 3., where humanity has sufficient unity and resolve, sufficient resources and technology, and most of all sufficient ecological, psychological, and physiological knowledge, to save all the families you want, but just stop them being predators.

Let’s just flesh out this latter scenario, since it’s the best expression I think of the anti-predation ideal. The idea would be that you still have mongooses and mice running around, foraging for their diverse and exciting sources of food. But just as mongooses grow up with inhibitory mechanisms that allow them to interact peacefully with other mongooses, those mechanisms are also directed onto mice (and, indeed, cobras). How can this be done? That’s a question for the mongoose-psychologists, but we know it’s possible in principle, because we have abundant examples of animals, even predators and prey, forming friendly relationships, as the various images here illustrate.

Of course mongooses have to eat, but why would they eat their small furry friends when there’s human-provided synthetic food (balanced by our future mega-nutritionists) that tastes nicer? And of course mice have to breed, but if mass contraceptives work to enable stable human populations even with abundant food, they should work for mice too, given the right conditions.

So what’s left, to oppose this idyllic vision of baby mongooses and mice playing happily together in a sunlit field? Maybe the claim is simply that we won’t ever reach situations 2 or 3. That might be true. But I think the burden of proof is on the person affirming an absolute limit to historical changes that have so far been remarkably extensive (consider that for most of human history we were in situation 0: the biosphere as a whole is unaffected whatever you do).

Moreover, that would require the presentation of explicitly historical or scientific arguments, in a tone of regret (‘yes, it would be wonderful to eliminate carnivorism, but we just won’t ever have the capability’), which isn’t the typical tone that opposition takes.

What seems to remain is a sort of quasi-religious appeal to ‘nature’: nature is good, and we should respect that and not intervene in its workings, even if (assume for the sake of argument) we could do so without causing serious harm.

Not wanting to be dismissive, this seems to rely on some sort of falsehood – either that nature was deliberately designed by a wise deity, that nature inherently embodies an overall plan and purpose, or even that “nature is good” – it’s clearly not, it’s mixed, with very good and very bad elements. And we know that the elements can be separated because often one species, one family, one lifestyle, disappears and another doesn’t. There is no plan or constancy to it.

Not wanting to compound being dismissive with patronising-by-explaning, but it seems as though this sense of spiritual humility isn’t really a different argument from the first one, about unintended consequences. It’s the same argument, but with the precise facts that underly it abstracted out, leaving the emotional core. I think this is what tends to happen to moral positions we consider important: reflectively we may see them as depending on certain specific, contingent, factual conditions, but they sink down as well, embed themselves in our emotions and our feelings. They become almost instinctual.

So, given the present situation of humanity and the biosphere, in which (contingently) humans have enormous power to destroy and very little power to build, we conclude (if we are environmentalists) that it is very important to let nature work in its own way, to respect its mystery (i.e. our ignorance), and to fight against human activities that despoil it, which includes probably most human activities.

But when it becomes ‘instinctual’, this idea – that the natural order must be left to itself, that human actions are ignorant and destructive, that most humans are arrogant and don’t care, etc. – becomes insensitive to things like “suppose hypothetically that we live in a different situation, where humans are no longer ignorant, arrogant, or structurally insane”. Because emotions aren’t good at “suppose hypothetically”.

The result is that a powerful emotional revulsion remains, and gets rationalised through arguments (or through wilful misunderstanding). And since this will happen regardless of the time period or situation being considered, the practical rule that makes sense for our present situation gets universalised into an eternal rule about human humility and how we should respect ‘nature’ for inarticulable, spiritual reasons.

Of course, maybe I’m just wrong – there is a good reason here that I just can’t understand, and which nobody can explain to me. But I’m pretty unwilling to accept that there’s something intrinsically, mysteriously, wrong about a cat and a rat being friends – that this is somehow ‘unnatural’ and we shouldn’t let it happen, if we can instead preserve the compulsory murderousness that ‘nature’ has decreed for them.

Fly! On the Wings of Love!

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