No Pain, No Sympathy

Which living things merit our sympathy? Our pets? Certainly. What about human embryos? And plants? Is it consciousness or complexity or being human or the capacity for pain that makes an individual life worth our empathy?

The debate over animal rights has reinforced one ancient measure of an organism’s worth. An organism that shows signs of experiencing pain is said to be entitled to live without that pain. These sentient beings include cats and dogs and most of the animals that we eat or use for clothing or experiment on. Insects, with their minimal nervous systems, are on the margin of the sentience line.

Below the line are the simplest animals such as sponges and jellyfish, along with plants and single-celled bacteria and other microbes. These don’t experience suffering and have no awareness of a kind that we would recognize. They may have value collectively as part of the environment, but a single jellyfish or an individual plant has no standing for human commiseration.

diseased tree (skylinetreesvc.com)

slylinetreesvc.com

Although I understand its role in the cause of animal rights, I find this sentience distinction unsatisfying. If an organism appears to be “feeling” a disease or injury, we give its condition more weight and urgency than we would if the organism—a plant, for example—were one that did not consciously experience such a condition. A tree may be attacked by insects or suffer other life-threatening conditions, but if we are accustomed to imagining the terror of a pig going to slaughter, we probably won’t empathize much with the stress on the tree as chemical messages sweep through it.

When we feel compassion for another being that is in dire straits, what are we feeling sympathy for, exactly? Is it for the possible loss of an individual life? Is it for the dangerous condition that is attacking the organism? Or is it for the pain that the organism is enduring? I think it is the last, if only because the evident pain in an animal reminds us of our own capacity for suffereing. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that non-sentient beings, though without visible torment, may struggle, crave, and weaken as relentlessly as sentient ones.

The uniqueness and persistence of life over 3.8 billion years endows all living things, both with and without awareness, with value. I’m not recommending the ludicrous extreme of not killing plants; we, like all animals, can not survive without eating other living things, either plant or animal. But I am suggesting that we heighten our awareness of the sentience distinction that cleaves the living world in two and can diminish our connection with non-sentient life.

Darwin’s Dark Vision: “Ten Thousand Sharp Wedges”

Darwin has gotten to me. The third chapter of On the Origin of Species has changed how I look at nature. The name of the chapter sounds quaint at first: The Struggle for Existence. But it is an apt name for a dark, violent vision.

For Darwin, the central reason that life is a struggle is the numbers. Seeds, larvae, eggs, babies—most living things reproduce in big numbers, every year. We modern humans with our small families and our one or two pets don’t think of reproduction on that scale.

But, as Darwin writes, we should not forget that in truth “every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old…Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.”

And then this astonishing simile: “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

purple loosestrife

The invasive purple loosestrife. Each plant produces one million seeds each year, every year. (fenton.patch.com)

We don’t notice the intensity of this competition in part because plant life takes place in slow motion. Darwin studied what lived and what died; he counted the seedlings in a patch of his yard and saw that most did not survive the struggle against competing weeds and insects. “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.”

gulls

Whether an animal is sustaining itself or is destroying other life is a matter of point of view.  (telegraph.co.uk)

Although he uses the word “competition” to point to one obstruction or another, Darwin doesn’t find that word sweeping enough. And indeed today, for us, the term usually refers to what goes on between two individuals or teams or companies and the like. Struggle, however, points to competition in all directions at once—to the competition between a living thing and others of its own species, competition with other species, struggle against disease, against climate. It is the intensity of this struggle between the numbers of one’s offspring pitched against the strength of the adversaries that makes natural selection so effective. Any advantage, no matter how small, is big.

At the chapter’s end, the vision of the struggle slides over to “war”—along with a dubious consolation. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

roadside plants

Along a roadside, the slow-motion war goes on. (nps.gov)

Where I live, the plants and insects look vigorous and healthy as always, but I see them differently now. In the small overgrown zones between suburban backyards and along roads, I used to see beauty, vitality, and tranquility. That is what we are expected to see in nature, after all. But now I look first at what plants are the greatest in number; they are, at the moment, the winners. They are the best adapted, putting other plants out of business in slow motion, and producing the most variations that might make their offspring even fitter.

Humans are similarly primed for struggle and competition of all kinds. Even here in suburbia, we are all alert to shortages or price increases in food and fuel, to drought and flood, to violence and car crashes, to drugs and diseases, to potential enemies in the neighborhood and in the world–“incessant blows” on the “sharp wedges” that are driven in on the “yielding surface” of our lives.

Katydids, Cicadas, Crickets, Grasshoppers

Katydids, Cicadas, Crickets, Grasshoppers

In last Sunday’s New York Times (September 23), in her wonderful article, “A Little Night Music,” Diane Ackerman contemplates the chorus of katydids, crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas whose evening serenade from backyards and fields in temperate zones this time of year reaches almost to a roar. I suppose I could have guessed what drives all the buzzing and clicking, but as Ackerman points out, we humans are quite content hearing the dramatic sound without seeing what all those insects are actually doing out there. “The males do all the serenading, lustful for females, each of whom waits in the dark loins of the night…. They haven’t much time for dalliance before the first heart-stopping frost.”

This is evocative information. It turns the late summer evenings into a second spring. May and June surge with color, fragrance, green growth—all steps toward renewed life and regeneration. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin emphasizes what we humans with our few children lose sight of: the huge number of offspring that plants and most animals produce every year so that a few will survive the intense competition for light, water, and food. Now, in early autumn, as in spring, I witness the same frenzy for new life—a lot of new life, since each mating female will produce 100 eggs or more.

The seductive cicadas, katydid, crickets and grasshoppers have been filling the summer nights this way for 300 million years. I can’t picture all that time in any way I can hang on to easily. But I can feel the force of songs that have been handed down through 300 million approaching winters.