August on the Maine coast is a dream, or would be if it were not for the mosquitoes. As I stand in front of the house this Saturday morning greeted by a swarm of the little bugs, I am forced to reflect on the value of a life. If I were a South Asian sadhu of a certain religious persuasion I’d go around with cheesecloth over my face to fend off the possibility of extinguishing life by inhaling some small insect. Silly, isn’t it, but why? If life is the counterforce to entropy, and I’m going to base my value system on it, what’s the basis for my saying that the life of a mosquito on Haskell Island is less important than the lives of other, larger and more important creatures, including my good self?
Intuitively, I sense that the life of a mosquito cannot be said to equate to mine, at least by any rational standard, because the individual mosquito I just swatted is a whole lot smaller than I am, and its life span is miniscule. But are size and life span sufficient criteria when assigning different values to different life forms? Where does that leave me compared to an elephant or whale (size), or tortoise or parrot (life span)?
One notch up the road from intuition to reason, I sense that I’m more important than the mosquito because I can swat it, and it cannot lay a glove on me, except for a minor bite. This is satisfying in a selfish sort of way, in that it conforms to the fact that my species is far out front in the power to destroy. But is the power to destroy a sufficient moral reason for establishing different species-based values for the lives of individuals?
Whoa!, where did that idea of morality get into the argument? Aren’t we trying to be rational here? Well, the whole idea of establishing values differentially is based on the concept of morality, so we better get used to the idea that ours is essentially a moral argument. The name of the game is to develop a basis for drawing moral distinctions that is rooted in rational observations to the fullest extent possible, recognizing that as our knowledge of ourselves and the physical environment expands, we shall want to refine our moral distinctions ever further.
So let’s go back to that mosquito and see whether we can discern other rational arguments to support our visceral preference for assigning a higher value to the life of a human being than to that of a small and annoying bug. Like all other life, the mosquito is designed to reproduce successfully, but it has evolved a strategy to that end based on what you might call the scatter shot or shotgun approach. Life is a lottery. There is no such thing as a risk-free lunch. Perhaps one in a thousand of you little pests will succeed, but if you do succeed you will win big, and thousands of your descendants will proliferate to bear DNA-based witness to your triumph.
We humans are at the other end of the spectrum. Very few other species reproduce as sparingly as ours. No other species has evolved anything like the elaborate mechanisms we have for training our young, or places as much value, and bears as heavy social costs, as we lavish on our children. Can we see here, in differential reproductive strategies, a rational basis for drawing interspecific moral distinctions? I must say that intuitively I like it in that it puts us at the high end and bugs and such like way down the line, and probably works about as well as anything else at rank ordering animals that fall in between. (Please note that I am not prepared at this point to include vegetable life in this discussion. Maybe I’ll get to it later, or some of the rest of you can fill in this rather substantial blank).
There is an interesting extrapolation to be drawn from all this. There are differential reproductive strategies as between human societies, as many demographers have been noting of late. Hunter gatherer couples tend to produce up to about eight offspring, the gap between individual babies being mandated by the negative correlation between lactation and menstruation. Enter agriculture and for reasons I don’t fully understand that limit is removed. You get individual females producing many more babies than eight, during their fertile period. Large families continue as long as there is enough food, and kids are useful around the plantation, and child mortality rates are high, and life expectancy in general isn’t all that great. Then come modern times and you see another basic shift in reproductive strategy, arriving a generation or so after child mortality goes down, life expectancy goes up, and so forth. The two child family becomes the norm.
How are we to incorporate these shifts in reproductive strategy that have occurred within our species with our more general sense of how we value other animal life, when we base our judgements on this criterion?
I don’t know. I shall be interested in your comments.
Carl Coon 8/20/11