The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Naming the prey

The other night Carol and I were half-watching an episode of David Attenborough's Living Planet after dinner. Dinner is what it was all about. The starter (vegetarian) was a phytoplankton bloom, followed by an explosion of krill. Carol nodded at the screenful of scrabbling crustacea and said: 'It'll be difficult to think of names for all of them.' We laughed as the difficulty multiplied up the food-chain. Shoals of fish arrived to eat the krill, closely followed by a shark that ate the fish, then something really big turned up, but it turned out the whale was after the krill too, so we didn't have to name the shark.

Giving names to prey animals is a joke we've had for a few years, ever since watching a nightly week-long BBC real-time nature series about lions. All the lions were given names by the breathless presenter, possibly having already been named by the game wardens. The grazing animals that the lions hunted were simply an anonymous herd. After a few nights we got fed up with this blatant carnivorist bias from a supposedly impartial state broadcaster and started naming the antelopes.

'Will poor Doris and her little calf Freddie get away, or will their throats be torn out by ravenous lions? Find out in tomorrow evening's thrilling episode of "Rushing Around the Serengeti in Jeeps"!'

I'll never get over the end of another nature programme, set in the Arctic. The closing shot of Mummy Polar Bear (whose care for her charming, tumbling cubs we'd followed for an hour) swimming towards an ice-floe on which a seal was just visible as a black squiggle, was accompanied by the heart-rending cry from beside me: 'Look out, Sammy!'

OK, this is all a domestic in-joke and sentimental nonsense, but it would have taken a harder heart than mine to watch unmoved a later sequence in the Attenborough episode. A female whale and her newborn calf were swimming up the West Coast of the US, heading for a herring spawning or some such annual multi-layered feeding frenzy off Alaska. The rest of her pod, unencumbered by young, were hundreds of miles ahead. Out of the blue a pack of orcas turned up, looking somehow sinister in their shiny black and white SS uniforms. For six hours they harried the cow and calf, until they drove the young whale to such exhaustion that it began to drown. As it foundered, the pack moved in for the kill. You might think that after all that effort, they'd at least eat all they could of the unfortunate beast. But no. They bit off its lower jaw and part of a flipper, and left the rest for the hagfish that crowd around every dead whale on the sea-floor, and then for the bacteria, which excrete nutrients for the phytoplankton, which ...

So it goes, but what are we to make of it?

Nothing. This is just nature, and it isn't cruel. It isn't even indifferent. It's just mindless machinery thrashing about. There is no 'I' behind any non-human animal eye. Subjectivity is inseparable from language. Although emerging from animal sensation, animal emotion and animal signalling, conscious reflection and self-awareness are unique to human beings. We can name the prey, but they don't name themselves.

I very much doubt that this is the deeper meaning of the account in Genesis 2:19 of how Adam named the animals, 'and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.' (Even restricting the exercise to birds and beasts, as the King James suggests, it must have been a long day. 'Hmm, I think I'll call that one Conopophaga lineata ...') If, however, that passage had been taken as such by fundamentalists we might have been spared some of the excesses of Young Earth Creationism.

Here's how it works. One of the stumbling-blocks for YECs is the notion that suffering and death existed before the Fall. If animals suffered and died for tens of millions of years before Adam saw apple, well ... This leads YECs into all sorts of absurdities about prelapsarian vegetarian carnivores, such as the well-known case of the tyrannosaur's teeth being designed for cracking coconuts rather than ripping flesh. But if non-human animals don't have consciousness then there's no non-human suffering, and their deaths are just part of the economy of nature, not 'an evil'. The implications are above my pay grade but no doubt theologians can take it from there.

Fundamentalists are unlikely to use this conclusion from the Marxist-Leninist theory of consciousness to get themselves off the YEC hook, but I offer it nevertheless, in a spirit of charity.

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There seems to be some evidence that dolphins may name themselves, and other dolphins ( Not that it challenges the basic point in your argument.

Hi - even if you're right that no non-humans are self-conscious (which I doubt*), this:

'But if non-human animals don't have consciousness then there's no non-human suffering'

doesn't follow. A creature doesn't have to be self-conscious to feel pain: it doesn't even have to have the concept of pain, let alone the concept of itself as a self, to be in pain.

* chimpanzees have passed the mirror self-recognition test, for example.

"This is just nature, and it isn't cruel. It isn't even indifferent. It's just mindless machinery thrashing about. There is no 'I' behind any non-human animal eye. Subjectivity is inseparable from language."


But doesn't this imply that the basis of morality is that humans are the only conscious creatures, and therefore the only creatures to which the dictates of ethical behaviour apply?

Humans experience "subjective" pain, which is bad, so it is therefore wrong to hurt humans. But animals are just robots, and do not experience "subjective" pain, so hurting them is OK.

If, on the other hand, you accept that chimps, dolphins, bees, and amoebae are capable of experiencing subjective feelings of pain in much the same way as humans do, then you end up with a reductio ad absurdum of morality. Pulling the wings off a fly becomes as morally reprehensible as breaking a man's legs. Using antibiotics means committing genocide.

On the gripping hand, one could accept that subjectivity as humans experience it is widespread amongst other animals and in nature (and language is of course not necessary) and "morality" is just the name we give to our subjective experience of a bundle of reflexes and intuitions that have been baked into our brains by biological and social evolution.

This last option comes closest to what I personally suspect is the "truth", but it hugely problematic as far as it implies that (e.g.) thermostats and rocks might exhibit the phenomena of "subjective awareness".

Headline summary: "Morality in 'is complicated' shock."

There's a Rabbinic interpretation of that bit of Genesis, that a hermaphroditic, or non-gendered, Adam knew the beasts--in the Biblical sense, while trying to find a mate. When none of them were suitable, he was split and Eve was created.

Not sure what the Creationists would make of that.

I think that there's an ambiguity here between "consciousness" and "self-awareness." I certainly grant that my self-awareness is predominantly mediated by language (or language equivalents). But I can have sensations that I cannot name; I can perceive objects without naming them; I can selectively attend to features of my environment without words to direct my attention; I can move through that environment without verbally stated plans; I can feel emotions without being able to express them in words. Physical agony is often inarticulate, and may be at its most intense when it is most wordless.

I can say my cat's name, and see him turn his ears toward me (selective attention to the sound of my voice, which he hears), or even come to sit in my lap (action directed by features of the environment). All that is part of the phenomenology of consciousness as seen from outside. The theory that there is some mysterious inner essence of consciousness that is distinct from that—that, for example, a pair of emergency health care workers can observe the behavior of an injured person, but can never know if that person is conscious, or feels pain, because another person's consciousness is unknowable—strikes me as incompatible with materialism; or in Patricia Churchland's telling phrase, as "spooky stuff." Consciousness can be seen, and I think I can see my cat's consciousness just as well as I can my girlfriend's.

Of course, I think that because I don't think consciousness is fundamentally about the ability to produce and manipulate propositions; I think it's fundamentally a mechanism that navigates bodies through environments.

William - I don't think consciousness is about propositions, and that we can think and feel many things without words. But humans without language (famously, the congenitally deaf-blind, and deaf children who aren't exposed to sign language in time) can't do much in the way of navigating through the environment.

I agree there is no mysterious inner essence - we know the consciousness of others directly, through language, and our own consciousness is inconceivable without language.

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