The other day, I had to kill a cicada in order to put it out of its misery. It was lying on its back, its legs twitching and kicking, and ants seemed to be attacking it. I hate to kill anything, even when I know I am putting it out of its misery, but I especially hated killing a cicada, an insect that has always fascinated me with its impressive size, and the way it leaves its shell clinging to trees (or garage doors, as they seem to be doing a lot this summer). I'm not a fan of summer, but one thing that helps make the horrible heat bearable is the lovely sound of the cicadas singing. So, really, it bothered me terribly that I had to stomp on that cicada.
I am not someone who happens to believe that human beings are more important or superior to any other creatures on this planet. There are some creatures I happen to like better than others (I wouldn't exactly want to cuddle with a grub worm, say, the way I do with my cat), but I realize that the only thing driving me to make such distinctions is aesthetics, and aesthetics are very subjective. I happen to find most insects fascinating, as long as they aren't crawling on me or annoying me in other ways (buzzing flies and dive-bombing mosquitoes are anything but fascinating), whereas most people I know happen to think they're quite creepy. In fact, most people I know would think nothing of stomping on a cicada, would find it very odd that I was so upset about doing so. "It's just a bug," I can hear them saying. These same people say other things that make me cringe, like, "If those animal rights fanatics would give half the time and attention to humans as they do to animals, this world would be a far better place."
If I question these statements, many of my Christian and Jewish friends and family members will argue that we are superior because we are made in God's image or that we are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. My atheist friends and family members will tell me that we are superior because we can reason (I am sure there are atheists who don't do this, but I know a lot of atheists who seem to worship human reason instead of a god). Those who are smart, though, would ask me, "What upsets you more: having to kill that cicada or being told a child you know has leukemia?"
And that's when I have to admit, that, okay, maybe I lied. Maybe I do think humans are superior in some way, because I would be far more upset to find out that a child I know has leukemia. It's also when I have to admit that all I'm doing is proving Darwin was right. That's all anyone is doing, as far as I'm concerned. Use religion. Use human reason. Use whatever you want to argue the point that we are, somehow, superior to a dog or a rabbit or a snake. All you're doing is responding to your biological imperative.
Darwin was all about two main ideas: survival of our own species and survival of the fittest. We will fight our own kind, if they are weak, because that will help insure that the strongest of our kind survive. Our species is more likely to survive if its strongest members survive.
It makes sense, then, that we would decide that we are superior to all other animals (all other living things, really). It's okay to sacrifice a dog or a pig or a tree to help a human survive because humans are superior to that dog or that pig or that tree. But I will not pretend when I favor a child with leukemia over a dying cicada that it is anything other than what it is, which is a desire for my own species to survive above all others. I don't pretend that God favors me over other creatures and that's why it's okay. I don't pretend that I have this great brain that other animals don't that grants me special rights. No. I acknowledge the fact that I am just a member of one of oh so many species populating this planet who is doing what all other species do in a very harsh world: looking out for me and my kind.
Truth be told, though, when I can ignore biology and let this brain I've been given as one of my species's survival tools (and we don't have much else, do we? Opposable thumbs and "big" brains. No fur. No camouflage. No speed. No natural poison. No super eyesight or super hearing or fantastic sense of smell. When you think about it, we're really quite pathetic. We have to make things -- shelter, weapons, etc. -- in order to survive. Others survive perfectly fine with what they have. Sometimes I wonder if God doesn't look at us, laughing, and say, "What was I thinking?") think about it, I am quite sure my species is going to be short-lived. On the time line of the universe, we will barely be a notch, unless, of course, we happen to be that marker known for destroying an entire planet. That could happen, but let's say it doesn't.
Let's say we all die off, the way so many other extinct creatures have without destroying this planet. I'd love to know what will come after we're gone. After all, we could never have survived while dinosaurs roamed the earth. Maybe there will be some other gigantic animal that will take over. We now seem to accept the fact that birds, having evolved from them, are teeny, tiny dinosaurs. Perhaps there is something that will do the opposite, something that is teeny tiny now that will grow to be huge. I'm betting on insects. Maybe one day, cicadas will be stomping on other creatures to put them out of their misery.