Thursday, August 19, 2010

Survival of the Fittest

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.


Stefanie said...

We rescue bugs at our house all the time. I feel very bad about squishing bugs in the garden that are eating my plants. I don't eat any kind of animal and avoid as best I can buying any products that have animals in them or were tested on animals. Humans may be top of the heap but we are not the only creatures on this planet that feel pain, love, grief, fear or that use tools, think about the future and are good at reasoning.I think because we are currently top of the heap that means we have more responsibility to take care of the planet, the environment and animals. No animals are not humans but that does not give humans the right to inflict needless pain, suffering or killing just because we can.

You felt bad about killing the cicada but it sounds like you showed it mercy by ending its suffering. The fact that you felt bad about doing it is only right and good and honors the life of even the lowly cicada.

Sorry for the long comment but this is subject close to my heart and I couldn't help myself :)

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Balance is what would replace humans on Earth. It reminds me of the children's book, The Wump World by Bill Peet.

Anonymous said...

Actually it was a friend of Darwin's who coined the term "survival of the fittest", but he was happy with it. However "fit" doesn't necessarily mean strong and aggressive. It just means best adapted to a particular environment. Doing absolutely nothing but lying in muck and digesting whatever plant matter happens to fall in it could be the fittest thing in some places. Fit is a very complicated thing to figure out. It was 19th c social Darwinians who came up with the interpretation of fit that is still commonly held. But social Darwinians applied biological observations to something completely different, ie social structure. And they did it in a way that justified colonialism, capitalism and industrialism. It isn't truth, it isn't fact, it's just an ideology. I'm with you and cicadas and aesthetics. Maybe the giant cicadas will have more respect for other creatures than some humans.

litlove said...

Lilian has voiced (very eloquently) what I was going to say - and Stefanie too, taking a different perspective on this post. What I didn't realise about Darwin until very recently is that he was in fact all about community for human beings. He knew that cooperation was the best way for most people to survive, not conflict. But politically and economically that hasn't been a message that people have wanted to promote.

We try to rescue any living thing and set it free where possible. Mister Litlove is particularly skilled at catching mice and putting them outside and rescuing birds from chimneys, neither of which I have the skills or the courage to do!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, no problem with long comments, especially since you agree with me :-)! You're right; we definitely have a responsibility toward other animals.

Thomas, and you've just reminded me that I must read The World without Us.

Lilian, yes, I should have said "Darwinism," not "Darwin." (That can be like saying "Christ" instead of "Christian.") I wish I were one of those creatures whose fittest thing to do is to lie in muck, digesting whatever plant matter happens to fall, as long as I could do so and also read, of course.

Litlove, it's very true that the "fittest" things for humans to do is to live in community with each other. We are pretty helpless on our own. So many of human history's greatest teachers have tried to drum that into us, but we don't listen too well (especially in America where we've been sold the old "rugged individualism" line.

Rebecca H. said...

I'm with you too, along with the other commenters. I have a hard time killing anything, and when Hobgoblin had to kill a bunch of wasps the other day, neither of us were happy about it. I can't help but think that humans are among the worst things that have happened to this planet -- in my darker moments, that is. I think one of the worst things about mortality is that we don't get to find out how things turn out -- whether humans will last or not. I really want to know!

mandarine said...

I too dislike the way the term 'fittest' has seeped into our cultural background to make Darwinian evolution look so ruthless and immoral.

In fact, I think 'survival of the fittest' and species-centric evolutionary preference is not the whole picture. For one thing, it is easy to see that 'survival of the fittest' can only be verified ex post, meaning that it has no prediction value, and hence no scientific value as a theory. I'd rather say : survival of those who survive. One classical example is sexual selection, when those who reproduce have bigger and bigger antlers until they cannot hold their head up anymore and die off unexpectedly. Hardly the fittest.
The other thing is that many species, although they do strive to pass on their genes, also dedicate a lot of effort to enhancing their environment and companion species. Meaning that there's probably more collaboration in evolution than we generally think, and we should rather see evolution as co-evolution of ecosystems, albeit individual species or individual beings seem to struggle against each other all the time.

After all, the human body is full of antagonistic behaviors and actors, with cells building bone while others destroy bone, with cells trying to multiply at the expense of the next one then kept in check by other cells or hormones, and yet we rather see ourselves as a collaborative meta-organisation rather than a ruthless battlefield.