Nonmoral Nature & “Biological Popularity Contests”

21 01 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

[NOTE: I realize that the introductory segment of this particular post is likely going to be an excersize in ‘preaching to the choir’ to my regular readers. Nonetheless, I feel the need to vent given the rampant acts of zoological favoritism I’ve seen my non-scientific associates display of late.]

In light of the fact that, at the dawn of 2010, I resolved to increase my personal rate of literary consumption, I’ve taken to reading the essays of the late, great Stephen Jay Gould (many of which can be found here) during my spare time in addition to absolutely devouring Carl Zimmer’s evocative “Parasite Rex: Inside The Bizarre World Of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures”. The latter narrative shares a common theme with what is arguably Gould’s most famous essay, “Nonmoral Nature“: anthropomorphism isn’t going away anytime soon, and  it’s always depicted parasites as “nature’s most dastardly villains”. I’d advise anyone skeptical of this contention to consider the following passage which was originally written by the great French entomologist J.H. Fabre while describing the fate of a paralyzed cricket:

“One may see the cricket, bitten to the quick, vainly move its antennae and abdominal styles, open and close its empty jaws, and even move a foot, but the larva is safe and searches its vitals with impunity. What an awful nightmare for the paralyzed cricket!”

Evidently the idea that the larva which had infested the cricket merely did so because its anatomical makeup wouldn’t permit it to survive under any other circumstances failed to cross the mind of one of the subject’s most learned scholars: instead, when faced with a conflict of interests between two organisms which were operating under forces beyond their control, rather than taking the scientific position by remaining neutral, Fabre elected to unambiguously lend his sympathy to the more superficially ‘human’ creature of the two.

However, it’s no secret that parasites are far from the only victims of this destructive philosophy. herpetology enthusiasts like myself are acutely aware of the public’s conviction that snakes are sinister, satanic creatures while primatologists are doubtlessly conscious of the average layman’s belief that chimpanzees are harmless, fun-loving charmers. Yet, the fact that, unlike primates, snakes are incapable of committing genocide, willful torture, and well-choreographed acts of political debasement never seems to effectively challenge the fervor of their preconceptions.


Well, apparently, the general consensus among non-scientists appears to fall somewhere along the lines of “if it can’t be made to look human, it’s not worthy of our attention”. How’s that for xenophobia?!

The truth is that we have absolutely no reason to believe that any organism is inherently more or less honorable than any other organism. As Gould has so eloquently asserted,

“[N]ature simply is as we find it. Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

How can we ensure that this fact is spread at a sufficiently large scale? I strongly suspect that whoever can answer that question is more than capable of obliterating all the prevailing difficulties associated with communicating science to the public.

Right then, enough ranting for now, at least on my part.

Last month, Zach Miller of ‘When Pigs Fly Returns’ asked his readers to list their “favorite (or most obscure) examples of prehistoric animals that are NOT dinosaurs, but are mistaken for them”. I’d like to take a page from his book by asking my readers to list their “favorite” ironic examples of popular culture’s mindless biological favoritism. Is it the cute-but-infanticidal bottlenosed dolphin? The majestic-but-thieving bald eagle? Or the  “cuddly”-but-deadly hippopotamus? Feel free to include the organisms which find themselves on the “ignoble” side of this fallacy as well.




6 responses

21 01 2010

I’ll be revealing one — not “my favorite” perse since it’s pretty wretched — 1 week from today. I guess I can give the hint that it involves trans-species fatal forced copulation.

22 01 2010

I remember reading letters to the editor in an issue of National Geographic that were responding to their article “Dance of Death”. I remember coming across “meaningless suffering” quite a lot. Does that count? Did the moose “suffer meaninglessly”?

22 01 2010

Whether people accept it or not, wolves and bears have to eat too.

26 01 2010
Richard Dawkins On Science & Philosophy « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] the tradition of a recent post in which I highlighted Stephen Jay Gould’s views on (among other things) the relationship […]

5 02 2010
When Bacula Attack « microecos

[…] Which gives you something to think about the next time you are fawning over an adorable little sea otter at the beach or aquarium, though of course trying to apply human moral standards to nature is a loosing game. […]

25 03 2010
When Will People Learn That ‘Natural’ & ‘Ethical’ Aren’t Synonyms?! « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] ideals to nature and attempting to do so embodies the definition of foolishness. A few weeks ago, I discussed the implications of  “Nonmoral Nature”, which is arguably the late, great biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s greatest […]

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