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.

Plants as Aliens

Plants are so familiar to us that we don’t see them very well. We look at them and think about them according mostly to how we use them—for food and beauty. To shift our perspective, I’ll look at plants as if they were strangers from another planet, as plant-aliens. Making them weirder may make them more vivid.

  • Plant-aliens don’t eat anything. They make their own food. For that purpose they anchor themselves to a water source and grow their own solar panels.
  • Plant-aliens follow a clock that is geared only to the sun light and the seasons. Small plants push out leaves and flowers quickly in early spring so that they can catch maximum sunlight before the slower growing leaves on the trees above them plunge them into shade.
  • Unlike the many animals that cooperate so they can secure food, plant-alien food makers have little reason to be social. They don’t appear to react to each other at all as they seek out the sun. In fact, however, research is showing that their root systems commune with fungi about soil conditions and they share nutrients.
  • Many plant-aliens are giants. They tower over all animals.
  • Through their sophisticated plumbing and evaporation mechanisms, tree-aliens pull water up long distances without using any kind of pump. Animals, on the other hand, must all use small pumps just to keep fluids moving inside their fragile bodies.
  • Life below freezing (blendspace.com)

    Life below freezing
    (blendspace.com)

    Plant-aliens survive sub-freezing temperatures that last for weeks or months. They get as cold as the frozen earth around them. Animals can’t survive if they get that cold; hibernating animals cling to a slow metabolism that keeps them above freezing.

  • One process that plant-aliens do share with animals is sexual reproduction. Their equipment for doing so, however, is a little kinky. An individual plant-alien may contain flowers with structures that are male or female or both or that change from one to the other.
  • Plant-aliens breathe in carbon and exhale oxygen. Animals do the reverse.
  • Plants-aliens have successfully colonized the earth. They occupy the coldest and hottest zones, they outnumber animals and they are both larger and smaller than we are. And we animals are at their mercy for our food and oxygen.*

Plants are so different from us and so impressive that it’s actually not too difficult to portray them as aliens. And after that exercise, it’s pleasant to see them again as our comfortable companions and allies. I wonder if they feel the same way about us.

 

*With appreciation for David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995)

Journey from Small to Smaller: Spirituality and Size

Try out the moveable “lens” on a great graphic from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. Slide the button to the right and zoom in from a grain of rice down past human cells to chromosomes and bacteria on down to viruses, glucose molecules, and finally a carbon atom.

Cell Size and Scale

(2008 Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah)

The zoom takes you down into the roots of life. But the graphic is also a time machine, taking us back billions of years, from complex single-celled creatures and building blocks towards the not-quite-alive viruses that perhaps predate full reproductive life, back to the atom that makes it all possible. Small came first—and life stayed small for a long time.

Then it got bigger. Today humans are not only complex but also relatively large. There are elephants and whales and trees larger than we are but also hundreds of species—from cows to dogs—in our size range. Up to a point and with exceptions, a bigger body is better at surviving.

Perhaps this trend underlies our perceptions of authority and even spirituality. The entities that we “worship” in any sense of that word are bigger than we are—not only gods but powerful people who seem “larger than life,” or the universe itself, or nature, or the breadth of evolution. They are the something-larger than we are often seeking. We grant even big trees and elephants a majesty that we don’t attribute to bushes and mice. Large things, if they seem to be the friendly kind, offer protection and inclusion.

Sunset worship

What we worship is larger than we are. (experiencinghope.net)

But we don’t extend such sentiments to tiny things. That’s partly because we can’t see them. I wonder what it would be like if we were able to see individual bacteria, skin cells, the cells in a piece of fruit in the same way that we can easily see individual blades of grass. Imagine seeing the single-celled creatures floating in the air and the water and on our skin, on other skins, in our food, in our rooms. Would we feel enveloped by life in the way we do when walking in a forest or watching flocks of birds? If we could see all those individual cells pumping, crawling, swimming, dividing, would we find our something-larger in that something-smaller?