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Home > Articles > The Problem of Predation (Part 1 of “Reprogramming Predators”)

The Problem of Predation (Part 1 of “Reprogramming Predators”)

Posted: Sat, November 10, 2012 | By: David Pearce

“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the
 calf and the young lion and the yearling together and a little child shall lead them.”  
Isaiah 11:6

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the 
minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are 
running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping 
parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so.” 
Richard Dawkins
 - River Out of Eden (1995)

A biosphere without suffering is technically feasible. In principle, science can deliver a cruelty-free world that lacks the molecular signature of unpleasant experience. Not merely can a living world support human life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of human well-being. If carried to completion, the abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, immunocontraception, marine nanorobots, rewriting the vertebrate genome, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage a compassionate global ecosystem. Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice whether intelligent moral agents opt to create such a world - or instead express our natural status quo bias and perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely.

This utopian-sounding vision isn’t the upshot of some exotic new theory. The abolitionist project follows quite straightforwardly from the application of a classical utilitarian ethic and advanced biotechnology. More controversially, the abolitionist project is the scientific expression of what Gautama Buddha aspired to some 2500 years ago: “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. Provisionally, let’s assume that other things being equal, a cruelty-free world is ethically desirable, i.e. it would be ideal if there were no [involuntary] physical or emotional pain. As our technology matures, some hard choices are ethically unavoidable if these noble sentiments are ever to be turned into practice.

First, a cruelty-free world entails a transition to global veganism. Realistically, global veganism won’t come about purely or mainly via moral persuasion within any plausible timeframe. Such a momentous transition can occur only after the advent of mass-produced, genetically-engineered artificial meat that is at least as cheap, tasty and healthy as flesh from slaughtered factory-farmed animals - with moral argument playing a modest supporting role. For sure, there is still the “yuk factor” to overcome. But when delicious, cruelty-free cultured-meat products become commercially available, the “yuk factor” should actually work in favour of cultured meat - since meat from factory-farmed animals is not merely morally disgusting but physically disgusting too.

However, this transition isn’t enough. Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle.

Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian lifeforms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth’s species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an “exchange of energy” between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet’s 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

A few forms of extinction are almost universally applauded even now. Thus the demise of the smallpox virus in the wild is wholly unlamented, though controversy persists over whether the last two pathogenic Variola copies in human custody should be destroyed. The virus could be recreated from scratch if needed. Technically, viruses aren’t alive, since they can’t independently replicate. Yet the same welcome will be extended to the extinction of scores of bacterial pathogens that cause human disease if we can plot their eradication as efficiently as the two Variola variants that cause smallpox. Likewise, exterminating the five kinds of protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium that cause malaria would be almost universally applauded; a human child dies from malaria on average every twelve seconds. Protozoans have zero consciousness or minimal consciousness, depending on one’s ultimate theory of mind. Either way, it makes no sense or minimal sense to speak literally of the “interest” of the plasmodium. Only figuratively do plasmodia have interests.

Plasmodia matter significantly only insofar as their existence affects the welfare of sentient beings. Our reverence for the diversity of life has its limits. More complicated than plasmodia are parasitic worms, locusts or cockroaches, which almost certainly do have at least limited consciousness. Yet that consciousness is still comparatively dim compared to vertebrates. Cockroaches have decentralized nervous systems. In consequence, they presumably lack a unitary experiential field. This is not to say that cockroaches should ever be wantonly hurt. Perhaps their constituent nerve ganglia in individual segments experience sharp pains; cockroaches retain rudimentary learning skills and live for up to a week without a head. Yet if the world’s 4000 species of cockroach were no longer extant outside a handful of vivariums, then their absence in the wild would be accounted no great loss on any plausible version of the felicific calculus. Nor would extinction of the swarming grasshoppers we know as plagues of locusts. A swarm of 50 billion locusts can in theory eat 100,000 tonnes of foodstuffs per day. Around 20% of food grown for human consumption is eaten by herbivorous insects. A truly utopian future world would lack even minuscule insect pangs of hunger, and its computational resources could micro-manage the well-being of the humblest arthropods - including the Earth’s estimated 10 quintillion (1018) insects. In the meantime, we must prioritize. On a neoBuddhist or utilitarian ethic, the criterion of value and moral status is degree of sentience. In a Darwinian world, the welfare of some beings depends on their doing harm to others. So initially, ugly compromises are inevitable as we bootstrap our way out of primordial Darwinian life. Research must focus on how the ugliness of the transitional era can be minimized.


More controversial than the case of tapeworms, cockroaches or locusts would be reprogramming or phasing out snakes and crocodiles. Snakes and crocodiles cause innumerable hideous deaths in the world each day. They are also part of our familiar conceptual landscape thanks to movies, zoos, TV documentaries, and the like - though a relaxed tolerance of their activities is easier in the comfortable West than for, say, a grieving Indian mother who has lost her child to a snakebite. Snakes are responsible for over 50,000 human deaths each year.

Most controversial of all, however, would be the extinction - or genetically-driven behavioural modification - of members of the cat family. We’ll focus here on felines rather than the “easy” cases like parasitic tapeworms or cockroaches because of the unique status of members of the cat family in contemporary human culture, both as pets/companion animals and as our romanticised emblems of “wildlife”. Most contemporary humans have a strong aesthetic preference in favour of continued feline survival. Their existence in current guise is perhaps the biggest ethical/ideological challenge to the radical abolitionist. For our culture glorifies lions, with their iconic status as the King of the Beasts; we admire the grace and agility of a cheetah; the tiger is a symbol of strength, beauty and controlled aggression; the panther is dark, swift and elegant; and so forth. Innumerable companies and sports teams have enlisted one or other of the big cats for their logos as symbols of manliness and vigour.

Moreover cats of the domestic variety are the archetypal household pets. The worldwide domestic cat population has been estimated at around 400 million. We romanticize their virtues and forgive their foibles, notably their playful torment of mice. Indeed rather than being an object of horror - and compassion for the mouse - the torment of mice has been turned into stylized entertainment. Hence Tom-and-Jerry cartoons. By contrast, talk of “eliminating” predation can sound sinister. What would “phasing out” or “reprogramming” predators mean in practice? Most disturbingly, such terms are evocative of genocide, not universal compassion.

Appearances deceive. To get a handle on what is really going on in “predation”, let’s compare our attitude to the fate of a pig or a zebra with the fate of an organism with whom those non-human animals are functionally equivalent, both intellectually and in their capacity to suffer, namely a human toddler. On those rare occasions when a domestic dog kills a baby or toddler, the attack is front-page news. The offending dog is subsequently put down. Likewise, lions in Africa who turn man-eater are tracked down and killed, regardless of their conserved status. This isn’t to imply lions - or for that matter rogue dogs - are morally culpable. But by common consent they must be prevented from killing any more human beings. By contrast, the spectacle of a lion chasing a terrified zebra and then asphyxiating its victim can be shown on TV as evening entertainment, edifying viewing even for children.


How is this parallel relevant? Well, if our theory of value aspires to a God’s-eye perspective, stripped of unwarranted anthropocentric bias in the manner of the physical sciences, then the well-being of a pig or a zebra inherently matters no less than the fate of a human baby - or any other organism endowed with an equivalent degree of sentience. If we are morally consistent, then as we acquire God-like powers over Nature’s creatures, we should take analogous steps to secure their well-being too. Given our anthropocentric bias, thinking of non-human vertebrates not just as equivalent in moral status to toddlers or infants, but as though they were toddlers or infants, is a useful exercise because it helps correct our lack of empathy  for sentient beings whose physical appearance is different from “us”. Ethically, the practice of intelligent “anthropomorphism” shouldn’t be shunned as unscientific, but embraced insofar as it augments our stunted capacity for empathy. Such anthropomorphism can be a valuable corrective to our cognitive and moral limitations.

This is not a plea to be sentimental, simply for impartial benevolence. Nor is it even a plea to take “sides” between killer and prey. Human serial killers who prey on other humans need to be locked up. But ultimately, it’s vindictive morally to blame them in any ultimate sense for the fate of their victims. Their behaviour supervenes on the fundamental laws of physics. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner. Yet this indulgence doesn’t extend to permitting them to kill again; and the abolitionist maintains the same principle holds good for nonhuman serial killers too.

This essay appeared originally at HEDWEB, HERE


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