In a Trust meeting this week, one of the participants noted that she preferred ecological research proposals where the methods did not harm animals. She definitely preferred investigation of DNA from soils to establish the ecosystems present, over a proposal to investigate the effects of climate change-induced heat waves through experimentally heating invertebrates. A discussion ensued about formal animal ethics requirements in research. Animal ethics requires ethics approvals only for specific animals that humans ‘value’ more – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, octopus, squid, crab, lobster or crayfish. If you are an invertebrate humans can do pretty much anything to you in New Zealand without anyone asking questions, unless you are one of a few specifically protected invertebrates, including katipo spiders and giant wetas.
In this same week I was also pondering on how my friend Terri is truly amazing in that she absolutely values all humans equally and has a mission to support people who society is not treating well, irrespective of their status or behaviours or competency. I would love to be as egalitarian, but my brain just fails on the matter. I cannot see all humans the same way. This got me to thinking, if all humans are equally valuable, why aren’t all living organisms equally valuable? One can have a physically vegetative human who is not adding much value to the universe from the point of view of labour, or intellectual input, or even emotional value (where they can’t express emotions). If I said that I my pet cat is more valuable than a vegetative person, there are a considerable number of people who might object to my sentiment. Standard questions one might ask oneself, or others, to investigate this concept are – if there was a fire in the building and only one organism in the building could be saved:
- Would I save my pet cat Loki, or a vegetative human being?
- Would you save my pet cat Loki, or the vegetative human being?
- What would fire fighters do? What would they do if I just said ‘Save Loki’, not clarifying that he is a cat?
I was further thinking on our value systems in relation to life on the planet given the information coming out from the COP26 meeting on climate change. We consider that we need to halt climate change to prevent degradation of life for human beings. We include mention of minimising the effects of climate change on other species; however, the rhetoric generally says minimising climate change effects is important because the other species support the existence of humans on earth. In this mode of thinking we value biodiversity as an input to human existence, we don’t value it on the basis that all life has its own intrinsic value.
From where does our huge weight on the value of human life come? One source is Judaeo-Christian religion, which attributes ‘souls’ to human beings but not to other organisms, and which regards beings with souls as intrinsically more valuable than any other organism. In the current world where significant portions of populations are ‘post-religion’, we sometimes shift this model to valuing intelligence above all else and argue that humans have intelligence far superior to other animals. We tend to see humans as an apex of the evolutionary tree, as if the evolutionary tree has specific or special apices that are more valuable than the steps to reach that apex (one additional thought on this is that the tree could have dead ends!).
Our weight on human life also comes from a pragmatic, evolutionary point of view. It is in the nature of organisms to protect their own survival and, by extension, the survival of their species above survival of other species. This apparently got translated into an existential religious precept, but it is more like a fundamental practical rule for existence. If you value other organisms over yourself, your lifespan is going to be short without any opportunity to reproduce, as you will likely not be able to eat or move without harming or killing another organism. Therefore your species will die out (maybe there have been species of that sort and they were not around for very long?). Have we turned a practical rule into an existential one, because that is the only way we can justify to ourselves our destructive behaviour impacting other organisms?
Humans have thus used our ‘superior’ minds to give ourselves a status beyond that of ‘animals’ – we do not see ourselves as part of the rest of the natural world, but as something other and better. This appears to be our fundamental, and quite possibly fatal, failing. We are not ‘other’, we are yet another species on the planet, behaving just like every other living species in trying to survive and propagate. In our massive expansion we are threatening all other species, and we continually struggle with the concept that we are as dependent on other species for survival as is every other species on the planet. This is a web we live in and depend on. We hope that the complex technological systems we have created remove us from such reliance on other organisms, to the point where we envisage ourselves in space, completely removed from any other living systems (however we will still have taken along our integral bacteria, if nothing else). This is the apparent dream of Elon Musk’s and of many science fiction authors – abandon the planet that you have wrecked with your waste products and head out to a new existence, supported by your technology which means the living Earth is no longer necessary to you.
Is this what we have done? Created a vision of technology as an ultimate replacement for the living world? Created the hope that we can make everything we need from inanimate building blocks combined with raw energy, and thus separate ourselves from the tiresome demands of the complex set of systems that are life on earth? Perhaps this is where I show my life stage, in that, if my choice was to leave the planet to survive, or die with our ecosystems, I will choose the latter. And here I leave you with the myriad of questions I have raised today.