Eradicate cruelty: “reprogram” predators

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2009

hungry lionI’m sure that almost everyone would rather live in a world that featured less cruelty and pain for living creatures… but what if it were possible to eradicate them completely? Via Accelerating Future comes a provocative essay by one David Pearce, who suggests that not only would it be possible for us to engineer a biosphere without suffering, but that it is our moral duty to do so. Global veganism in the wake of readily available vat-grown meat would be merely the start of the project; next would be the engineered extinction of all obligate predator species. [image by Tambako the Jaguar]

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?

There’s a whole raft of obvious objections to the idea, of course, but Pearce has covered pretty much all of them with the logic of our obligation to compassionate stewardship of our biosphere. I’m not even close to agreeing with him – frankly, the whole thing seems no less hubristic to me than believing that we have a moral right to impose cruelty by dint of our top-most position on the evolutionary chain, though (as Pearce points out) that’s representative of a fundamental bias toward the biological status quo. But it’s a fascinating and challenging read nonetheless… not to mention a spark for dozens of science fictional story ideas.

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7 Responses to “Eradicate cruelty: “reprogram” predators”

  1. Chad says:

    I couldn’t disagree with this guy more. In fact, I think it is rather ludicrous we could make a change this large and not see disastrous effects on every aspect these creatures lives and ours.

  2. James says:

    I couldn’t agree with this guy more. In fact, I think it ludicrous we don’t immediately start working for this change so that we can prevent the disastrous effects the status quo has on these creatures lives and ours.

  3. Ananda says:

    I think I’ve heard of this school of thought before. The next logical conclusion is of course that we could eradicate all suffering if everything is dead.

  4. Chad says:

    Are we in 2nd grade James?

  5. Rick York says:

    This reminds me of the PETA group that protested the name of Fishkill, NY. The didn’t know that the word “kill” in old Dutch meant “creek”. And they never tried to find out.

    Most of these idiots probably consider themselves to be espousing a more “natural” life. What is more “natural” than the existence of predators and prey?

    Have they given any thought to the secondary and tertiary effects of the changes they propose? A truly horrendous cascade of unintended consequences.

    Idiots, I say, idiots.

  6. Alan Dawrst says:

    I strongly support Pearce’s basic suggestion that the “blind, pitiless indifference” of nature (to quote Richard Dawkins) ought urgently to be revised. However, I also agree with some commenters that reprogramming predators is infeasible any time soon without disastrous consequences. There may be better approaches altogether (like neuroengineering away the pain of being eaten) that would be more feasible, especially in the nearer term.

    Because current humans can do little directly to address the problem, I think we should focus our efforts on just spreading the notion that the brutality of nature is unacceptable. I envision a society in which people find it obvious that the “natural” agony endured by, say, a frog being digested whole by a snake or an elephant being chewed alive by hyenas is no more acceptable than the “natural” suffering of a child afflicted with malaria. I commend Pearce for helping to do this.

  7. Gloria says:

    James just has a good sense of humor, Chad!

    “What is more “natural” than the existence of predators and prey?” Rick, I’m going to assume that you live in an area that has been cleared of all predators except humans. Does that change your stance on this at all? The bears and mountain lions that most likely roamed around your house were natural, but we got rid of them a long time ago and have been chasing them to the corners of the Earth ever since. There are many reactions one could have to this idea, but to try to say that it’s “unnatural” or that humans shouldn’t do anything to interfere with what is left of nature is a bit laughable considering all that humans have already done in that vein. We’re not dealing with what nature intended anymore, we’re dealing with a human-managed world.

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