Saturday, January 28, 2006

Does a bee care?

"Does a bee care?" is the title of a 1957 science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. It describes how an alien intelligence pushes humanity along to the point where it can help it escape the Earth. This is a theme also pursued in the Dr Who episode "City of death". The idea is that parasitic organisms don't care about the fate of their hosts - even if they are conscious beings.

In an episode of "Life in the undergrowth", a documentary series on terrestrial invertebrates, David Attenborough looks at the partnerships that insects form. Some of these appear to be on equal terms, with some trees providing homes for ants, who in term ward off insects who would dine on the tree, and destroys rival plants. Others are definitely one way relationships. In particular, wasps parasitise the grubs of many insects. The victims are paralysed and placed into the ground with the grub. One wasp larvae feeds off of a spider while it is still alive, web building and capturing food. It is finally sent mad, unable to construct its (to us) beautiful web. The wasp larvae consumes what is left of the spider and lets the husk fall to the ground.

I sometimes mildly berate my wife for being squeamish about this sort of thing, but if we replaced a spider or grub with a bird, mammal or even a human, we would be quick to feel some sort of empathy. Should we empathise with an insect? It feels no pain as we would experience it, certainly none of the mental anguish. I don't mean to reduce invertebrates to mere automata as Descartes did with all non-human animals, but insects are not people, not mammals. I feel sympathy when my dog feels arthritis, but not for the many flys I swat whilst walking him. Likewise, I know that when my wife is not well, Hercules spends more time with her on the bed. No bee cares if it has stung me.

So should we empathise? How suitable is it to watch the kind of violence that one invertebrate inflicts on another? Is it really violence if no one really suffers? Even at this level, does this sort of behaviour speak against the existence of a good god (using lower case to not presuppose anything at this stage)?

Firstly, whilst the insect may not suffer as we do, taking delight in what happens to them is not appropriate. Can we enjoy such a documentary? I don't think the "that's just the way nature works" argument is sufficient. However, it is the way things are - the way things God has allowed them to develop. I find little support for the idea that carnivory (meat eating) is simply a result of the "Fall", however understood. Not minding if God used evolutionary processes to sovereignly achieve his ends, somehow this must be "good". For every grub eaten in this way, the life of a wasp is redeemed. Is there a better way for this to occur? Philosophical eingedanken aside, it is the way it is. Ecological niches are filled, from insect parasitism to consciousness. Creation transcends nature because it is the work of a creator who gives free will for it to proceed. It is messy design, because things can design themselves, but it is design nonetheless (though not of the sort that some US states would understand).

Still, even if we don't feel sympathy for suffering per se, yet we can identify with the life and death struggle. We can, and should marvel at this struggle, the technique of death, the miracle of life. One of the great merits of Attenborough's style is that he shows this sort of behaviour in context. It is not the sort of thing that Alan Jacob's criticizes in "In on the kill" in his volume "A Visit to Vanity Fair", because it does not focus soley and wholly on the violence, the technique. It is part of life, one of many aspects - along with sex of course. The series lacks a philosophical, and for the most part conservational focus. And that is its weak point. There is the cautionary note that if we disappeared, along with mammals and birds, they would get along fine without us - but if the opposite occurred, we'd be knee deep in shit and infertile soils. But no comment on profligate use of insecticides (while ultimately also poison us).

So. while a bee (more correctly in this case, a wasp) doesn't care, we should. This means some form of empathy without anthropomorphising, romanticising or idealising, a great deal of wonder and (for a theist) praise and worship. Of course, if this is appropriate for invertebrates, how much more nuanced in the way in which we think and watch predation in higher animals should we be?

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