Swings and roundabouts

I have been worried about extinctions for a while now, if you care to know. Not about my own, you understand -although lately I haven’t had the nerve to ask for whom the bell tolls. No, I’m more worried about what will be left behind when I shuffle off. I’d kind of like to imagine that the fact of my existence has not disturbed the taxonomic order -that the mnemonic Did King Philip Cry Out “For Goodness Sakes?” still holds firm. It’s a lot to ask, perhaps, but nevertheless it’s in my will.

And yes, I realize that extinctions have been going on since… well, forever. Adapt, or perish; Nature is red in tooth and claw, I suppose. But I’m basically a city-boy and do not often see the torn carcasses being dragged into caves. What death I do see, is usually on the side of the highway at night, and gone somewhere else by the next morning -Nature lite. Still, I don’t think roadkill would have been enough to rid us of trilobites, Great Auks, or even passenger pigeons. Something else was going on.

And yet stuff like that, which happened long before I was born, doesn’t qualify for the guilt my mother kept insisting I learn. I guess she felt I should concentrate my blameworthiness on things I’d actually had a hand in messing up. I would have got a pass on the Reconquista, for example -mainly because she’d probably never heard of it, but also because it happened somewhere I wasn’t. Her paste-on guilt was like that, though: here and now.

Of course, as I matured, I learned how to feel accountable for distant things -how to blame myself by proxy. To paraphrase Donne, any death diminishes me, because I might be involved somehow. For example, it would matter if, say, I tried to rid the world of mosquitoes. I mean, I don’t particularly like mosquitoes, and although they do spread some pretty serious diseases and have cost me a fortune in cans of DEET, I don’t think I should work towards their extinction, or anything, because other things that I don’t mind, eat them. I don’t want to have to deal with the guilt of any collateral damage.

Or, take cows, for example; there’s a movement away from meat because it has bad footprints. So, should we let them go extinct? Let’s face it, cow-belch is also bad for the atmosphere, and maybe my need for a weekly tenderloin is not a counterbalance.

Actually, I’d never really felt any need to protect them from Armageddon, but then again I didn’t think many cows would be involved in that kind of fighting. I did stumble over an essay discussing the ethics of letting them go extinct, however. It was written by Neil Levy, who is, among other things, a professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney. https://aeon.co/ideas/so-youre-too-ethical-to-eat-meat-but-should-cows-go-extinct

He writes that ‘[the] trend away from farmed meat-eating looks set to continue. From an environmental perspective and a welfare perspective, that’s a good thing. But how far should we go? Would it be good if the last cow died? … Do we – should we – value cattle? Should we be concerned if cows (or a subspecies of cows) is threatened with extinction? Should we take steps to preserve them, just as we take steps to conserve pandas and wolves?

‘There is a distinct difference between cattle on the one hand, and pandas and wolves on the other. Modern cattle owe their existence to selective breeding by human beings: they are very different animals from the wild oxen from which they are descended… we have a duty to preserve the natural world as far as we can. Wolves and pandas belong to that natural world; they occupy their place in it due to the mechanisms of evolution. So we have a duty to preserve them.’ But cows don’t really belong to that ‘natural world’ because they owe their very existence to our selective breeding, not evolution. I must say that I hadn’t thought about them like that. Of course, when the only cow-stuff you see are parts wrapped in cellophane in the meat section of Safeway, it’s hard to understand why it would be better to keep cows and lose koalas, if it comes down to it. And they both exert selection pressures in their own Umwelten, don’t they?

Levy doesn’t just leave us guessing about our choices, however. ‘[There] is a difference in how we exert selection pressure on cattle, compared with how predators exert selection pressure on prey animals. We have deliberately shaped cattle, while predators have inadvertently shaped prey. We bred cattle so that they would provide more meat, for example: lions had no plans to make antelope run faster…’

But, we’re humans, eh? ‘We exert selection pressure in one kind of way, because of the kind of animal we are; other animals exert selection pressures in other kinds of ways, depending on the kinds of creatures they are.’ To each his own -and anyway, although we’re the list makers, ‘If we think that being cultural is itself an adaptation, a natural feature of human beings, then we shouldn’t think that the ways in which we are cultural exempt us from nature, or that the products of our culture are themselves unnatural.’ So, ‘If differences in their origins don’t make a difference to their value as a species, are there other grounds to think that cattle are less valuable than pandas, wolves or stick insects?’ Nope. If it’s not okay to let wild animals we can’t put in zoos, or don’t come across very frequently go extinct, the classic Catholic binary of sins of omission vs commission also protects cows. And, although we eat cows, ‘even if individual cows are less valuable than individual pandas, the species can be just as valuable.’ Of course by that logic, I suppose it would also be okay to petition for wolf liver pâté, or koala chops at McDonald’s. Uhmm… I mean as long as we didn’t overdo it or anything.

Anyway, I liked his arguments -even though I didn’t really think cows needed much advocacy. And yet it just shows you what happens when you spend too much time reading world news. Polar bears get far more mention in the Sunday New York Times than your average cow; it’s always save the grizzlies, don’t torment the cute little urban coyotes, and don’t eat farmed salmon. All of these are worthwhile, of course, but maybe the world would also be a better place if more people just pulled over to the side of the road, turned the engine off, and showed their kids the uncellophaned cows belching innocently in the still green field.


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