The issue of predation--continued from Part I...
[X01:TH] The Hymenoptera. Ian Gauld and Barry Bolton
[X01:PCE] Parasitoid Community Ecology. Bradford Hawkins and William Sheehan (eds). Oxford:1994.
[X01:HAB] Hymenoptera and Biodiversity. J. LaSalle and I.D. Gauld (eds). CAB International:1993.
[X01:CEHM] Communication and Expression in Hoofed Mammals. Fritz R. Walther. IndianaUpress:1984.
[X01:MIVLBSE] Megaherbivores: The Influence of very large body size on ecology. R. Norman Owen-Smith. Cambridge:1988.
[X01:AU] African Ungulates: A Comparative Review of their Ethology and Behavioral Ecology. Walter Leuthold. Springer-Verlag:1077.
[X01:AIP27] Advances in Insect Physiology, vol 27. P.D. Evans (ed). Academic Press:1998.
[X01:AIP21] Advances in Insect Physiology, vol 21. P.D. Evans and V.B. Wigglesworth (eds). Academic Press:1988.
[X01:ENTO] Entomology. Cedric Gillott. Plenum Press:1980.
[X01:ISF] The Insects: Structure and Function. R.F. Chapman. Harvard:1982 (3rd ed).
[X01:IP] Insect Parasitoids. Jeff Waage and David Greathead (eds). Academic Press:1986.
Question Three: Where exactly in the act of predation is the theological/moral problem? Is there a moral problem with carrion beetles that eat the dead carcass of an animal (who obviously doesn't feel any pain)? To what extent is there a problem with a gazelle having to avoid a predator every day (or every week) for decades--does this somehow cause "painful stress" for the gazelle that is radically worse (and to the point of "cruel, immoral suffering") than that of having to make a living every day by humans? Is it in the "destructive" experience of the prey (perhaps painful) as it is being killed by the predator, implying that prey animals that feel no pain (such as zooplankton) as they are eaten are not "included" in this problem? Is it in the fact that something dies at the mouth of another, instead of living forever, or only dying "of old age, in its sleep." Does dying of starvation (because some other animal group ate all the grass) count as predation? Does dying of disease (because some very small life-forms attacked it) count?
This, strangely enough, is a philosophical and theological question. How would we decide that it was wrong for a cockroach to die (instead of live forever)? How would we decide that it was wrong for a cockroach to die suddenly by ingestion by a bird (instead of suddenly by an end-of-life(?) failure of some internal biological function, such as the heart)? How would we decide that the suffering of a zebra for 3-5 minutes at the fangs of a cheetah morally "outweighed" the previous 20 years of growing, reproducing, not being eaten or mauled by a predator (being mauling by a predator generally reduces mobility and results in capture quickly thereafter), and community life for some 20+ years? Is it "wrong" for my white blood cells to attack and devour bacteria that is harmful to me?
About all we can do with this question is expose the value
assumptions that are inherent in the question, and how they are being "used"
by the objection. We might also be able to subject these assumptions to
some more rigorous philosophical analysis, by examining implications of
those assumptions (and their opposites).
So, let's go through the questions mentioned above to
perhaps set some boundary conditions about what we are probably NOT talking
1. Is there a moral problem with carrion beetles that eat the dead carcass of an animal (who obviously doesn't feel any pain)?
The former (i.e., a right to live forever) would be rather
difficult to support, and I don't know of anyone who does. [We have seen
in the first part of this piece that death itself is to be expected, in
order to create the largest possible number of lives/individuals. In other
words, with recycling of the nutrients through death, the biosphere can
support an endless number of individual lives and experiences, as well
as maximum biodiversity. No single individual in the system would have
the 'right' to hog a patch of resources for eternity, depriving the next
generation of individuals of even existence.]
The second (i.e., a right to die of only internal causes)
is much more problematic and complex. Let's make a list of possible causes
2. Being born with some defect that made one unable to detect poisonous plants would be an 'internal only' cause, but one in which the actual death itself occurred by an 'external cause' (the plant).
3. Trying to take the territory of another conspecific via fighting, that resulted in injury, that led to infection, that eventuated in death. This seems to be more where some "internal cause" led to an "externally caused" death.
4. Starvation (leading to population decline) because the population outgrew (because of LACK of predators!) the food supply--internal or external? [A common occurrence in insect populations.]
5. Organ failure, due to 'old age' (e.g., eyesight), that weakens the animal to where it dies of either disease or predation. Internal or external?
6. A hyena tries to kill a Rhino infant, Rhino mom fatally gores it. Did the hyena die of 'external' causes?
7. A baboon chokes to death on a piece of meat. Internal
Animal rights/welfare theorists point out that the inter-relatedness
of all life (via the food web) places some boundaries on what 'rights'
living things have. The fact that we will give up our 'borrowed' nutrients
to others (i.e., including predation), be they tigers or micro-organisms,
creates a basic set of 'rights', but they do not include 'protection'.
One of the most articulate and forceful animal welfare advocates explains:
"To protect one creature is to make life impossibly difficult for another; if their rights are equal, none has an unlimited right to life, and none can claim to be injured (in the sense that his rights are violated) if he is killed." [PH:ATMS:103]
"Rights are rights to a 'natural existence', a life not seriously maimed by factors outside the usual conditions of mortal life. Animals (human and non-human) have some right to be protected from unusual dangers (if we can protect them). But they may perhaps be expected to endure (as may we), usual dangers, even of a predatory kind, which could not easily or ever be eliminated." [PH:ATMS:28]
"Finally, does animal welfare include life itself? Suppose
a deer, or baboon, or seal that has lived 'freely' and in good fortune
for its life so far, and has years to live if all goes 'well', is killed
'untimely'? We reckon humans who die young, who don't fulfill their promise,
are to be pitied even if they never knew their end. Even if they have lived
happy lives, perhaps, we think them injured by their early deaths. We grieve
for octogenarians, no doubt, but who would think them badly-off because
they're dead? Not all deaths are an equal evil, whether because death may
be slow, agonising and untimely--or may not, or because not all those who
die are equally to be missed. So clearly we have less reasons to protect
some animals against imaginable deaths than others. The death of diseased
seals is something that counts against the welfare of the seals in a way
that the death of aging seals, or even healthy seals by normal hazards
of the sea (the price they pay for liberty) is not." [PH:ATMS:115]
2. If we accept that things have to die for ecological reasons to begin with, then death by 'natural causes' would include all of the possible causes of death we mentioned above (from predation to starvation to being killed while preying on another)
3. If we accept that things have to die for ecological
reasons to begin with, then (from the last quote) the deaths that are not
"slow, agonising, or untimely" are "less evil". And we saw in the first
part of this piece, that predation in nature is overwhelmingly "fast, generally
non-agonizing, and generally timely". Most predatory deaths (as opposed
to deaths from disease, organ failure, non-fatal injury) are swift (to
the minimization of suffering), are experienced by creatures who cannot
feel agony, and for those that CAN experience agony (the higher mammals)
occur late in life (more 'timely').
[The next few questions were already addressed in the
above discussion of natural existence:
Now this question is a 'sizing' and 'comparison' issue,
so let's first set out the 'size' of the predatory experience, and then
'compare' that to the rest of the zebra's life.
First, the predatory experience:
b. The next most common form of predatory death would be by rapid disembowelment (by multiple canids, not by felids). As we noted in the biological data section, this death occurs in under two minutes, and although the initial wound would be quite painful (seconds), almost immediately shock sets in and the pain experience dwindles. [More on shock later.]
c. The next most common form (for ungulates) is by suffocation.
In this case, the cat clamps their jaws on the windpipe of the animal.
Death occurs in 5-8 minutes, but unconsciousness occurs in about half that
2. It is NOT characterized by fear, terror, anxiety, etc.
3. It is filled with 'pleasures' suitable for a zebra.
Do animals really experience 'pleasure' or 'enjoy life'? Do we have any data that would suggest that animals experience 'goodness' during their normal lifetimes?
Absolutely. A survey of a few areas will demonstrate this.
A. We have already noted in the biological data
section the self-stimulation (7,000 times in an hour!) of the CNS 'pleasure
center' by laboratory animals, and this is perfectly predictable given
their similar pain 'systems'.
B. We know that the practice of allogrooming
(in which one animal 'grooms' another) affords 'pleasure':
"Animals of the contact type often rest in bodily contact and generally 'like' being touched..." [X01:CEMM:141]
"Also, it is obvious that an animal derives physical
'pleasure' from being groomed. This is evident from the animal's behavior
while being groomed (e.g., the sometimes 'trancelike' motionless stance
of a captive animal being stroked by a person), and from the fact that
some ungulates may adopt specific postures to "invite" grooming."
E. We know that animals eat some foods "just because
they taste good" (in many cases a 'sweet tooth'!):
"Schmidt quotes data from various Russian workers on the stone marten, M. foina, showing that in winter small rodents and carrion form the main food, supplemented by young hares as soon as their spring breeding seasons starts. The summer diet (tn: when prey is most plentiful) is small rodents and small birds, together with an increasing amount of fruits as autumn approaches and at the height of the berry season, 95% of the food may be vegetable. The sable, M. zibellina, preying mainly on small rodents and ground-living birds, also eats fruit and berries during the autumn." [NS:TC:175]
[And we might point out that many, many species of plants
use 'unpleasant taste' as a defense mechanism against herbivory, implying
a definite level of discrimination on the part of herbivores.]
Endorphins are known as 'pleasure creators' and 'pain suppressants'. And for those of us who do cardiovascular exercise (e.g., I glide on my exercise glider daily to reduce my personal 'biomass' ...smile...when I first start, I am often reluctant, but when I finish, I am in a 'mood-altered' status of semi-euphoria), this is well known. The endorphin chemical is kin to the opiates, and reduces stress and pain, elevating a euphoric feeling.
Animals in the wild--that "exercise" as a matter of day-to-day
life--would generate tons of this chemical, and would experience this 'wellness'
often, if not most of the time.
5. Strangely enough, predation itself keeps chronic pain out the individual's life.
Chronic pain, disease, or major suffering due to injury almost always renders a suffering animal a prime candidate for death by a predator (remember the ecologist who called this 'euthanasia'). So, the probability of any long-term pain or suffering being able to 'match' the long-term pleasurable life we have sketched above is virtually nil. [Predation may have the effect of shortening the life, but the part it "trims off" is the "really bad part"!]
Before we look at another author's essay on this issue,
arguing that it is inconsistent with the existence of the Christian God,
let me just make a more philosophical observation or two...
There are two "standard" ways of constructing a theological/moral problem around creaturely suffering:
2. A god of justice (and adequate resources to impose
will upon the creaturely world, either in its original implementation and/or
in its operation) would not allow his/her/its/their creatures to feel intense
pain, unless it were "deserved" by said creatures (i.e., no "gratuitous
In the case of predation, the pain system is clearly minimized
by the types of predatory deaths, of course, and that is in keeping with
the overall compassion of God, but there is no magic way to arbitrarily
"cut it completely off" when a predator is in the process of attack.
If we try to change the argument from "not allow to feel
pain" to "not allow to die, which invokes the intense pain" then we are
into the much more questionable position that God should not allow creatures
to even experience death (discussed above).
So, the two 'standard' ways of setting up a rigorous philosophical objection around the death-event pain fail.
Now, let's look at an essay by a famous author, arguing
(?) that animal suffering is incompatible with God. [This article by Richard
Dawkins was sent to me by one of the original questioners, and was published
in the Electronic Telegraph (11 May 1995). As customary, I will
put the article text in bold, and my comments in regular typeface,
interspersed throughout. I will indicate omitted material by SNIP.]
"CHARLES DARWIN lost his faith with the help of a wasp. "I cannot persuade myself," Darwin wrote, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars." Actually, Darwin's gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had more complex causes.
"His reference to the Ichneumonidae was aphoristic. The macabre habits to which he referred are shared by their cousins the digger wasps. A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it. According to Fabre she also carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyse it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh.
"It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general
anaesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim's ability
to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from
inside, but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds
savagely cruel but nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This
is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot accept that
things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply
indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.
Before I get into the wasp issue, let me first point out
that Dawkins' piece here is a very small article, and intended for a very
general reading audience. This, of course, does not permit him the freedom
to adduce all the data he could, nor does it allow him to use technical
vocabulary, which would be less colorful, but might also be less susceptible
to misunderstanding. My copy of The Blind Watchmaker that I have
in front of me as I write this, lists his current position as holder of
the "Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science" at Oxford
University. If this title means what it sounds like, then we would expect
a great deal of 'watering down' and 'wide-sweeping generalizations' and
'vivid illustrations' and 'metaphorical expressions' in his writings, and
this would perhaps open him up to criticisms of inadequate rigor and precision.
So, although we are going to have to 'cut him some slack'
for the tone and size of the article, we are nonetheless going to have
to point out possible errors in data, inadequate detail/precision, or misleading
In this first section about the Ichneumon, we run across a rather heavy case of inadequate awareness of the details of the wasp parasitoid biology. Let's dive in...
1. Let me first note that I will assume for the moment (for Darwin's sake) that God engineered the Ichneumon arrangement. I have noted earlier that there are other options as to how that developed, but for out purposes I will assume God set it up that way.Accordingly, if we wanted to find a way to calm Darwin down, we could take either of two approaches:
2. What specifically could Darwin be objecting to? What is it that he is finding to be morally inconsistent with a good/powerful God?
We have just gone through most of the options earlier, but he is probably not saying that (1) caterpillars should live forever; or that (2) caterpillars should not be subject to predation; or that (3) caterpillars should not be eaten at all (even when dead); or that (4) caterpillars should not have parasites (that don't kill them or that they cannot feel, as most humans have). The only possible objection is implied in the phrase "feeding within the living bodies"--that the caterpillar "suffers" while being eaten alive. It is only the issue of pain that seems to be the problem here. [What would Darwin have said about the dragonfly who eats his own abdomen?]
1. we could argue that the caterpillar feels nothing at all during the eating (up to the point of death);So, what do we know about the "feeling issue" (much of this is review from Part I)?
2. we could argue that whatever suffering the caterpillar feels during this process is radically outweighed by the 'pleasures' of being a caterpillar [as is in the case of the zebra]
1. First of all, we have already seen the biological data that demonstrated that insects do not have internal pain sensations (remember the dragonfly that ate its tail), so any foreign body introduced would not even be noticed by the insect.
2. Most internal parasitoids avoid damaging internal organs, since the chemical effects of organ damage will negatively affect them as well [X01:TH:13]. Indeed, one specie actually secretes antibiotics against fungi and bacteria in the host, to help it fight diseases! [X01:TH:13]
3. Parasitoids that are inside free-moving (as opposed to paralyzed) hosts cannot debilitate the host, or they may get eaten along with the host!:"They must not seriously debilitate their host lest it be consumed by a predator" [X01:TH:14, also p.26]
4. The host has one defensive measure against foreign invaders (parasitoids or parasites proper): encapsulation. This is somewhat like our white blood cell engulfing a bacteria. It is a cellular response--not a nervous system response:"The principal defense reactions that host insects mobilize against parasitoid eggs and larvae are cellular in nature. Haemocytes of insects are mobilized to encapsulate non-self invading organisms or objects. [X01:PCE:169]
What this means is that any "recognition" of a foreign body is done without the use of ganglia and brain and nervous systems. Just as I am not conscious of my white blood cells "acting independently" of my brain in attacking invading bacteria, so the insects nervous system is not "informed" either. The cellular response is without any 'feeling to it'.
5. Even if there had been some feeling associated with this detection of a foreigner, the parasitoid would have rendered itself 'invisible' via its 'stealth technology'. Some parasitoid larvae move first into the tissues of the ganglia before taking their permanent place in the abdomen. This maneuver somehow makes them 'smell like' a host cell, so the cellular response doesn't detect their difference [X01:PCE:156-157]. In other cases, the larva simply produces host-like proteins that mimic the host immune system, again, "looking like" a host cell. [X01:PCE:170] What this means for us is that these techniques make sure the invader is not detected in ANY way (pain OR cellular). No suffering can be experienced if you cannot "experience" the cause.
6. The above "stealth technique" does not disable the immune system of the host at all. The host will still encapsulate other foreign bodies that invade--it just cannot 'feel' the parasitoid. [X01:PCE:170]
7. The fact that the larva can invade the ganglia without being targeted as other (and indeed, while getting coded as 'self'!) [X01:PCE:156] points out that the ganglia are not 'sensitive' in themselves. In other words, the cellular response that detects a non-self, does NOT work in the ganglia--this argues strongly that stinging in the ganglia does not even register with the insect. Remember, the segmental ganglia are independent of the brain:"The segmental ganglia are connected and coordinated by nerves that run in the cords, but each is an almost completely independent center in control of the movements of its respective segment (or segments) and appendages. In some insects these movements have been shown to continue in segments that have been severed from the rest of the body. An isolated thorax is capable of walking all by itself, and an isolated abdominal segment performs breathing movements." [NS:AWB:378-379]
8. We noted in the biological data section, that free-moving hosts generally eat and carry on normally, until they enter the pupa stage (which, btw, is either hastened by the insider or postponed by the insider), at which time the insider emerges, killing them in that process. [The actual death event here only takes a couple of minutes.]
9. Insects have sensory abilities (of course), but they are limited, specialized, and externally focused. Most of the sensory 'equipment' is directed from the exoskeleton outwards. But even these external sensors are "low-resolution":"In contrast to mammalian skin, which has millions of generally distributed sensory structures, the surface of an insect has only a few thousand such structures, and most of these are restricted to particular regions of the body." [X01:ENTO:335]
But the insect must have some internal sensors, as well, because it does have to monitor certain internal states:"they obtain information on physical events occurring within the body, for example, the extension of muscles in movement, the filling of the gut by food, and the stretching of the oviduct when mature eggs are present." [X01:ENTO:336]
So, they DO have some kind of sensation of the inside, but what types of sensations can they have?
Sensation inside the exoskeleton is facilitated by proprioceptors:"Proprioceptors are sense organs able to respond continuously to deformations (changes in length) and stresses (tensions and compressions) in the body. They provide an organism with information on posture and position. Five types of proprioceptors occur in insects: hair plates, campaniform sensilla, chordotonal organs, stretch receptors, and nerve nets. In common, they respond tonically and adapt very slowly to a stimulus." [X01:ENTO:337f]
Notice that these are focused mostly on "posture and position", and that whatever sensations they generate are not rapid and acute. Of the five, only the chordotonal organs, stretch receptors, and nerve nets are completely 'inside' the exoskeleton.
The chordotonal organs would not be involved in our case:"There are two senses in which insect chordotonal organs do not appear to participate. The sense of touch is by definition the domain of cuticular sensillia (tn: hairs on the outside of the insect shell). The sense of isometric tension within and between internal body parts, especially associated with muscles, appears to be restricted to Type II multipolar receptors (tn: stretch receptors)." [X01:AIP27:87]
The nerve net, although internal to the surface, is still only 'watching' the outside:"A peripheral nerve plexus (net), containing bipolar and multipolar sensory neurons is located beneath the body wall in many larvae whose cuticle is thin and flexible...The nerve endings are presumably stimulated by tension in the body wall or movement of joints. [X01:ENTO:339]
But there seems to be a version of this in the alimentary canal, to signal "empty" or "full" to somebody that can "run out for food" (smile)..."A similar arrangement is present in the wall of the alimentary canal, though the sensory neurons in this case pass their information on to the visceral nervous system." [X01:ENTO:339]
Our only real candidate for internal sensory 'detection' of a parasitoid would be the stretch receptors."Stretch receptors comprise a multipolar neuron (Type II) whose dendrites terminate in a strand of connective tissue or a modified muscle cell, the ends of which are attached to the body wall, intersegmental membrane, and/or muscles. As the points to which the ends are attached move with respect to each other, the receptor is stimulated. Stretch receptors are probably most important in providing information to the central nervous system on rhythmically occurring events within the insect, for example, breathing movements, waves of peristalsis along the gut, and locomotion." [X01:ENTO:339]
"Stretch receptors occur in connective tissue or associated with muscles" [X01:ISF:728]
"These sensilla are proprioceptors and are stimulated by stretching. In the complete absence of tension there is no output." [X01:ISF:729]
"The stretch receptor can thus, through its tonic output, provide information on the position of one part of the body with respect to another, while the phasic response signals changes in these positions." [X01:ISF:730]
And in larval forms, there are very, very few of these:"Larval Anteraea (Lepidoptera) have a pair of stretch receptors in the first nine abdominal segments just above the dorsal (tn: "top") longitudinal muscles." [[X01:ISF:729]
Now, when you back up and look at this, the picture that emerges explains the dragonfly phenomena.
a. The internal sensors are connected to muscle tissue, and measure relative body position change--not 'pain' or 'destruction'.
b. These sensors are very few indeed, especially in larvae.
c. These sensors are mostly along the inside edges of the exoskeleton (and not where the parasitoid generally lives, until the very end)
d. They are not stimulated by non-tension, but only by tension. In other words, if one end of the connection disappeared (by being eaten) there would be less tension (visualize letting one end of a stretched rubber band loose), and no signal would be output!
e. The one exception would be the proprioreceptors present in the muscles of the digestive track (including the nerve net). If a parasitoid ate one end of the muscle tissue (and stretch receptor), the muscle would loosen, the alimentary canal would seem 'empty', and the signal (tonic) message would be 'stomach empty'. If a parasitoid didn't eat the muscle, but pushed up against it (eating from the other end, for example), the muscle would be compressed, and the tension indicator would signal 'stomach full'. So, if a dragonfly began eating its abdomen, the only internal sensation that would be felt would be "I am hungry" which explains why it keeps eating.
Interestingly, in the case of larvae we see this pattern."Hosts attacked by gregarious larvae (tn: more than one parasite per host) frequently increase feeding, whereas those with solitary parasitoids often show reduced feeding." [X01:TH:27]
What this means is that when and if the host has sensations of the parasitoid, it will show up as either hunger or satiation--not pain.
10. The larva is a 'transitional form'--it is growing into a functional adult, and many of the adult systems are not functional in the larvae. In our case, the neurons that are produced during the larval stage are non-functional at that time--they cannot do the 'higher sensation functions'.
"The segmental ganglia of larvae possess a stereotyped array of neuroblasts. These become mitotic early in larval life, undergoing the division patterns typical of insect neuroblasts. Each generates a lineage of up to 100 cells, but, unlike in the embryo, the progeny arrest their development soon after they are born. With the onset of metamorphosis (tn: AFTER the larval stage), they then mature into functional adult neurons. In Manduca between 2000 and 3000 new neurons are added to each thoracic ganglion and about 50-100 cells to each unfused abdominal ganglion. Accordingly, about 60-70% of the adult ventral CNS is produced postembryonically (tn: larval stage). [X01:AIP21:7]
For completeness here, let me make a comment or two about Dawkin's use of the digger wasp."During the postembryonic period, by contrast, a neuron's maturation may be delayed by a substantial period of time. In Manduca, for example, neurons born at any time during larval life arrest their development soon after their birth and collect into clusters of immature postmitotic neurons. This arrest is then terminated at the onset of metamorphosis." [X01:AIP21:18]
1. First of all, he is simply wrong about the stinging behavior. His use of such an old resource as Fabre (1823-1910!) might be the problem, for the contemporary experts in the field would have been much more reliable guides. So, R.F. Chapman (in the dominant resource in the field today) points out:
Secondly, the venom is generally considered to be neuro-muscular
"B. bebetor venom acts presynaptically at somatic
neuromuscular junctions, but seemingly does not affect the excitability
of nerve or muscle" [X01:IP:100]
Thus, even though the venom does act like curare, the data of sensation and the data of how it works indicates that no pain/sensation messages occur at all...
The detailed data is very strong--the host doesn't suffer
any pain at all. It is not even remotely "aware of being eaten alive from
inside". It simply doesn't reach reproductive adulthood. Darwin (and presumably
Dawkins) simply were not familiar enough with the biological details, and
hence, constructed a false 'problem' for traditional theism.
But it is not simply that Darwin and Dawkins have missed the detail--they have also missed the big picture afforded by ecology!
A half-century before Darwin, the pioneer entomologists
Kirby and Spence described ichneumonids in their entomology textbook as
"sent in mercy by Heaven...saving mankind from the horrors of famine" [cited
in X01:TH:44]. How could these scientists make such a 'glowing' remark
about these creatures?!
The answer lies not in biology but in ecology (the bigger picture):
"Almost all terrestrial plants are eaten by one or more species of phytophagous insect. Man's crops are no exceptions, and the large monocultures of these plants are particularly susceptible to the ravages of insect pests. Under natural conditions many phytophagous insects are destroyed by hymenopterous parasitioids, and it has been recognized for a long time that these hymenopteran are beneficial." [X01:TH:44]
"The large number of parasitic Hymenoptera species, combined with their ability to respond in a density-dependent manner to the population size of their hosts, makes them essential to the maintenance of ecological balance and a contributing force to diversity in other organisms." [X01:HAB:197]So, they are important in pest control (i.e., reducing famines, thus reducing suffering in all higher animals!). But how important are they?
"Parasitoids contribute greater stability to ecosystems than other lifestyles..." [X01:HAB:210]
One way of estimating their value is to examine biological
control programs. These are pest control measures that use natural predators
to control crop-damaging insects. The hymenoptera are the most important
group of control agents, and X01:HAB:199 mention three projects
of which had crop savings of a quarter of a billion dollars.
So, we can easily see why Kirby and Spence would see these
insects as a 'divine gift'!
But might we not wonder why this 'divine gift' showed
up in such a bizarre fashion? Why weren't simple predators good enough?
Why was this parasitoid lifestyle somehow 'better than' the alternatives?
The answer, strangely enough, has to do with efficiency and biodiversity.
"Regular" predation at the higher trophic levels is not efficient to control populations, but once you get to invertebrate classes of predators, the efficiency is incredibly high. Predatory insects can literally drive a prey species to extinction in a local area, reducing biodiversity and creating different problems. Lack of some control measures on a plant-eating species, on the other hand, means a population explosion, devastation of the plant base, and massive reduction in biodiversity. "Regular" predation is quite risky--if it works, it kills too many. If it doesn't, the prey eats everything.
What is needed is a predatory power that sorta 'floats' with the prey population--and the parasitoid lifestyle is exactly that!
"An important attribute of many parasitic Hymenoptera, particularly in regard to their ability to provide effective biological control, is that they react to the population size of their host in a density-dependent manner. The intensity of their mortality producing actions increases with an increase in host population, and relaxes with a decrease in host population. In this manner, the two linked populations fluctuate between certain upper and lower limits that prevent both a massive increase in the host population size and a decrease to the point of extinction." [X01:HAB:198]
What this means, somehow, is that the parasitoids and the hosts are basically correlated on a one-to-one basis! For these populations to be linked this closely, would somehow require that each hymenoptera only kill one and only one host insect (on average). For a "regular" type of predation, this would mean that the wasp only could kill one insect, off of which it would have to live all of its life! How in world could such a program be implemented?!
Enter--the parasitoid lifestyle. The adult wasp painlessly implants one parasitoid 'baby' inside a host. The host and the parasitoid grow together, with the inside larvae eating (without pain, like a "regular" small parasite) only the one insect. When the larva is complete, it kills the one host insect (linked population control!) and never eats insects again! The adult wasp does not eat insects ever again (except for some females which need the protein to make eggs).
"Most adult Hymenoptera depend for their activity on an intake of carbohydrate and feed on honeydew, nectar and other plant secretions." [X01:TH:18]
Because the parasitoid is 'enclosed' within one insect all of its feeding life, it can only eat (and kill) exactly one insect! (If the parasitoid was not so confined, it conceivably could eat more than one, creating the population imbalances that efficient predation can create.) You have here a tightly-coupled system that is efficient (without being excessive), "humane" (not involving suffering of any level), and an absolutely brilliant solution! [Although some parasitoid insects lay more than one egg in a host, these are not the majority, and these of often offset by mortality within the host.]
This is an amazing solution to a difficult 'balancing act'!
Biodiversity is maintained because the host specie is
never extinguished and famine due to insect herbivore problems is eliminated/reduced.
And all this without suffering...
So, what have we come up with?
1. Darwin 'gave up his faith' too quickly! Not only was there no suffering for the host, but there were massive reductions in animal suffering due to biological control impacts of these ichneumonids, and there was an incredibly wise 'design' that kept the whole thing in beautiful balance.[SNIP]
2. Dawkins didn't ask enough questions about the biology involved , and missed the elegance and no-suffering aspects of the solution.
3. We can see a highly effective self-regulating system, that yields positive benefits for the entire biosystem.
"If nature were kind, she would at least make the minor concession of anaesthetising caterpillars before they are eaten alive from within
Under Dawkin's own evolutionary theory, "nature" (the
mythical metaphor) is economical--it "tries" not to waste things in over-engineered
projects. In our case, if the insects had no feeling with to begin with,
why 'waste resources' in developing an anesthesia for them?! There is simply
no 'evolutionary advantage' to be gained by anesthesia among creatures
that have no internal pain sensations!
"Natural selection is as indifferent to the distant future of the race as it is indifferent to the suffering of the individuals being selected.
"If nature were kind, she would at least make the minor
concession of anaesthetising caterpillars before they are eaten alive from
within. But nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering,
nor for it. Nature is not interested in suffering one way or the other
unless it affects the survival of DNA.
Actually, no again.
Again, under Dawkin's own evolutionary theory, "nature" (in this case, a predator) IS "against suffering" --not for moral reasons, but rather for ecological/economic reasons.
We saw in the biological data section, that predators have powerful incentives to minimize the pain and suffering of their prey. These factors bear repeating here:
1. The ecological concept of 'handling cost' of prey capture points out that the predator must minimize the exertion required to capture/consume the prey. The whole point of 'preying' was to replenish lost calories; a long-drawn out period of chase, capture, followed by a long period of energetic "killing" would cost many more calories than most predators are willing to expend. They are conservative in this area, and they try to reduce their high-energy capture and handling times/costs as far as possible. This argues for a very swift death event for the prey.
2. The need to "not draw attention" to the event. Except in the case of the lion (and maybe the largest marine predators), a "struggle" replete with cries of prey and noises of movement, virtually "invites" other predators to the scene! It is in the interests of all "sub-lion" predators to dispatch the prey with the minimum struggle (i.e., a quick death) and with the minimum pain (i.e., no loud screams or cries).
3. The need to avoid injury. Predator-prey interactions in the large-size mammalian world is not a 'sure thing' for the predator. Wolves that attack moose and lions that attack wildebeest are always at risk of getting injured by the prey in the confrontation. This applies to group hunts as well as solitary hunts. A wounded lion or wolf will not be able to hunt successfully and so will starve. This tends to make the predator pick on the easiest prey (sick, old, young, inexperienced) and to neutralize their ability to hurt them (via a retaliatory bite or hoof-kick) by a quick kill.
So, "nature" is not at all indifferent to minimizing suffering--it is a positive goal in the predatory venture.
"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation
At some abstract level this might be true, but this "total
amount of suffering" is so incredibly dwarfed by the "total amount of pleasure"
in the natural world. We have seen earlier that there is vastly "more good
than bad" in natural experience, and to select only the suffering data
(out of the much larger pool of pleasure data) from which to construct
some view of "nature's indifference or cruelty" is methodologically flawed
in the extreme.
"It is easy to imagine a gene that, say, tranquillises
gazelles when they are about to suffer a killing bite. Would such a gene
be favoured by natural selection? Not unless the act of tranquillising
a gazelle improved that gene's chances of being propagated into future
generations. It is hard to see why this should be so and we may therefore
guess that gazelles suffer horrible pain and fear when they are pursued
to the death - as most of them eventually are.
I have trouble understanding Dawkins' point here, but as I understand it, I think the data is against him again--in the details.
1. I am not at all sure that it is "easy" to imagine this gene. I gather that he is talking about a gene in a gazelle, that somehow knows that it is about to get a killing bite (maybe we could call it the Nostrademus gene), and only then does a tranquilizing function. The problem with trying to imagine this gene is how it would operate. How would the gene know that it was about to get a killing bite? The animals that deliver killing bites (i.e., felids) are called ambush predators because they can only capture prey at close range and by surprise. Somehow this gene would have to generate opiate-class chemicals (like endorphins) and circulate those to the relevant pain brain centers within literally seconds. It would also somehow have to be clever enough to not 'spring the tranqs' on the prey until it was certain the bite was going to be successful. If the tranqs went out before the bite, the gazelle might be too numb to take advantage of any opportunity to escape that might arise! Maybe this 'smart and speedy' gene is easy for him to visualize, but from what I know about brain chemistry, the details of how to do this would be Dawkins "opponent" once again.
2. At a different level, "nature" already has created a tranq for the gazelle--the endorphins. Higher mammals have pain/pleasure regulators that generate opiate-class chemicals. One class of these is called the endorphins. In periods of stress or deep injury, these chemicals mute major pain!"The naturally produced brain chemicals, called the endorphins and enkephalins, are released in times of stress. They can make a mangled accident victim as serene as a Buddhist monk, and they can also make an athlete feel great after an extremely vigorous workout. The latter effect is sometimes referred to as the 'runner's high', and the post-exercise surge in endorphins helps to explain why many exercisers seem to become addicted to their sport. Their workouts become 'fixes' which mask the pain of everyday living, and even injuries or illnesses can't stop the training process because the athlete is relentlessly searching for endorphin-induced mood elevations." [http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0430.htm]Since this pain-blocking capability is generated by stress (e.g., throat bite?), by deep injury (e.g., rapid disembowelment), and by cardiovascular running (e.g., extended flight from predator, esp. canine), it appears we actually have such a tranq at time of death. And, since this capability is present to a greater or lessor degree in all mammals, it would seem that "nature" has already created and selected this. Perhaps "nature" is interested in the alleviation of pain at the final moments of life...
"Beta-endorphins (along with the enkephalins, which are neuromodulators) were discovered when investigators postulated that, since opiates such as morphine bind firmly to cell-surface receptors, there must exist natural substances that do likewise and have a narcotic action. The endorphins and enkephalins are known, therefore, as endogenous (self-generated) opiates or opioids. They have powerful painkilling properties. Beta-endorphins instilled in the spinal fluid are capable of alleviating otherwise intractable pain in cancer patients. It has often been observed that severely traumatized individuals, those in battle, for example, appear to be free of pain. This phenomenon is due to the simultaneous release of beta-endorphin along with corticotropin in response to the stressful stimulus of the injury. [EBE: s.v. "Endocrine Systems: Corticotropin"].
"Pain signals can be selectively inhibited in the spinal cord through a descending pathway (progressing from higher to lower centres), which originates in the midbrain and ends in the dorsal horn. This analgesic (pain-relieving) response is controlled by neurochemicals called endorphins, opioid peptides such as enkephalins that are produced by the body. These substances block reception of stimuli by binding to neural receptors that activate the descending, pain-inhibiting neural pathway. This system can be activated by stress or shock and is probably responsible for the absence of pain associated with extremely severe injury. [EBE: s.v. "pain"]
3. In light of nature's tranq, we would have to also disagree with the last sentence about all the pain and fear of the gazelle...Not only are most of their lives lived "without terror" (as we saw in the biological data section), but even their violent death is 'softer' than we might suppose.
The detailed data (e.g., animal killing behavior, neuro-pharmacology) DOES seem to point to a "desire for less suffering" in nature...
"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so.
This is understandable 'circus show' rhetoric, but again, it is grossly overstated and all out of context. Very, very few feeling animals are EVER eaten alive (the facts are very, very clear on this), and at any given moment only a tiny, tiny faction of animals are running for their lives (and, given the hunting success ratios of the great predators, most of those running will outrun the predator and continue on into the future). The 'whimpering with fear' line is a nice powerful touch, but just out of touch with the observations of the great naturalists. Even in cases of certain death, prey manifest strangely serene character:
"The threat from canids and hyenids (hyenas) is somewhat different because they have stamina and can run any animal down--like the goblins in The Lord of the Rings. And when they catch up with their prey, the outcome is inevitable, so there is little point in an ungulate attempting to retaliate. This, together with their state of exhaustion, probably accounts for the passive resignation with which most animals face death at the hands of wild dogs and hyenas." [NS:RAL:27]
And the comments about starvation, thirst, and disease, are quite vivid, but basically misleading given the relatively tiny fraction of living things experiencing that (compared with the hordes of animals living a good life).
"If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
If is difficult to know how to respond to this facile
statement--it is so grossly inaccurate.
But let me try to give some indication of some of its basic structural or methodological errors:
1. First of all, "plenty" and "starvation" are end-points of a spectrum--not an "either/or" situation! There are forces that move the "pendulum" back and forth between these poles (as long as you mean "extreme abundance" by the word "plenty"), but those forces vary from predation (the author's focus) to population dispersal (due to overcrowding) to weather (harsh winter or longer warm times). And the pendulum doesn't invariably go from end-to-end (as the author suggests). Rather, it goes a little in this way, and then reverses for a bit, then resumes and then reverses. And each population, community, specie, ecological niche, season, etc. has its own pendulum. This false dichotomy is simply inappropriate to the 'real world'.The author might have meant something different from what that single sentence said, but at its 'normal' reading, it is grossly inaccurate with what is known from the actual facts of nature.
2. Theories of abundance are manifold, and simple ones like the one in the sentence above have been abandoned by the ecologist community. The problem is much more complex than that:"There are contrasting theories to explain the abundance of populations of animals and plants. Some investigators emphasize the apparent stability of population; others emphasize the fluctuations...Those who have emphasized the relative constancy of populations argue that we need to look for stabilizing forces within populations (so-called 'density dependent' forces, for instance competition between crowded individuals for limited resources), to explain why the populations do not increase without bounds or decline to extinction. Those who emphasize the fluctuations in populations look to external factors, for example the weather, to explain the changes. The interest has been so great, and the disagreement often so marked, that the subject has dominated much of ecology in this century...The disagreements centred on the question of whether populations are regulated, at least at their upper limits, by forces that prevent their intrinsic rate of increase from being realized indefinitely. The controversy has not been resolved, but is now recognized to be in part the product of protagonists taking up extreme positions and arguing at cross purpose, and in part a consequence of loose usage of the concept of 'the population" [NS:Ecol:572-3]3. Even in the area under discussion by the author, of predator-prey correlations, the data is too varied to support his position:"We turn now to the effects of predation on the population dynamics of the predator and its prey, where even a limited survey of the data reveals a varied array of patterns. There are certainly cases where predation has a profoundly detrimental effect on a prey population...On the other hand, there are many cases where predators and herbivores have no apparent effect on their prey's dynamics or abundance...There are also many examples in which a predator retains a fairly constant density in spite of fluctuations in the abundance of its prey...and there are cases in which a predator or herbivore population tracks the abundance of its prey, although the prey itself varies in density as a result of some other factor. There are studies, too, that appear to show predator and prey populations linked together by coupled oscillations in abundance. Finally, there are many examples in which predator and prey populations fluctuate in abundance apparently independently of one another." [NS:Ecol:369]
"Theologians worry away at the "Problem of Evil" and a related Problem of Suffering. On the day that I originally wrote this paragraph, the newspapers were filled with one of those heartrending disasters, the tragic crash of a busload of children.
"In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt
"Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question, in the words of The Sunday Telegraph, "How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?"
"The paper went on to quote one priest: "The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would be no problem of evil or suffering."
"On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind.
"In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic
replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going
to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice.
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect
if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing
but blind, pitiless indifference.
[This part of the article tries to suggest that tragedies
are more easily 'predicted' by the model of blind physical forces and selfish
genes. This is the topic of Questions 4 and 5 so I will defer discussing
this portion of his article until then.]
So, let me try to summarize my findings on Question Three:
2. The actual suffering that occurs at death (measured in minutes) is minute compared to the years/decades of enjoyment and pleasure experienced by animals.
3. Two of the more 'standard' ways to construct a theological problem over this suffering-at-the-point-of-death do not succeed.
4. Darwin's (and Dawkins') use of the parasitic wasps to construct a theological problem fails, due to lack of entomological knowledge (i.e., no suffering experienced), and factual errors (e.g., wasps targeting ganglia).
5. Ecological science now demonstrates the incredible cleverness of the parasitoid solution to a major ecological problem--how to do population control without the risks of extinction, suffering, or famine!
6. There are definite predator behavior forces in "nature" that operate to reduce suffering at time of prey death.
7. To use only the data from suffering (very, very real, of course) and not the vastly larger body of data from animal pleasure along with it, is methodologically flawed in the extreme, and very "un-scientific".
8. There is a definite tranquilizing system in prey animals, and one which mutes pain at time of death: the endorphins, which play a major role in deep-injury shock.
9. Ecological science does not agree that creatures always
end up back at "starvation and misery"! (A more meaningful question in
the field today is actually why populations do not grow infinitely!)
So, I go on now to Questions Four and Five, about which model is a better predictor of the facts of the real world...