|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
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.