19 September 2009

Life, And The Value Thereof

I was cutting up a pineapple this morning when I suddenly found myself reflecting on the life cycle of said fruit, and the various twists and turns of fate that had brought it to rest on my kitchen counter under the relentless onslaught of my carving knife.

When the pineapple tree first gave birth to her little fruitlet (let's assume for the sake of discussion that the tree was female or at least mother-like), did she envision him journeying across the ocean to be hacked up and devoured by a man she'd never met? As our little pineapple friend ripened and grew under the warm tropical sun, did he have visions for the future, of what destiny life might hold in store? Being brutally ripped from his mother's sheltering arms, thrown into cold storage, and delivered into the hands of someone only interested in the flavor he might contain can't have been foremost among such visions.

Of course when you get down to it, what is the destiny or purpose of a pineapple? No points for those of you who answered "a tasty treat." As with any form of life, the ultimate purpose of a pineapple is preserve its DNA and pass it on to future generations. Being a food source for other species is entirely incidental, and, in the event that pineapples are capable of sentient thought, almost certainly not something any self-respecting pineapple would aspire to.

Of course people, and vegans and vegetarians in particular, prefer not to think in terms of fruits and vegetables having thoughts or feelings, because that would negate one of the major premises of their refusal to eat meat. So they come up with cutesy formulas like "I don't eat anything with a face," completely overlooking the fact that you can discern some fairly complex expressions emanating from a head of broccoli or cauliflower. If you're stoned enough, anyway.

But ok, you can't get too worked up about the widespread slaughter of the planet's fruits, vegetables, roots, seeds, etc. (to tell the truth, neither can I), try this one: I'm about to get in the shower when I notice a smallish spider struggling frantically to escape from the growing pool of water that's gathering on the floor of the stall. Every time he starts to climb up the wall and out of the deathtrap my shower has become, a new ripple of water rolls over him and drags him back down into the maelstrom. I figure it's only a matter of time before he's swept down the drain and into The Great Cobweb In The Sky, but I wait because I don't particularly want to share the shower with him, and I especially don't want him using my leg as an escape route.

Then, against all odds, he makes one last superhuman, er, superarachnid lunge and breaks free of the rising tide. He stops to rest on the rim of the shower stall for a moment, before trundling off in search of a new home somewhere else in my bathroom, and I, still filled with admiration for the little bugger's struggle, suddenly realize that I don't really want him living somewhere else in my bathroom. When I was a hippie, I used to be more tolerant of spiders, until one bit me in my sleep, causing my arm to become so badly infected that I nearly had to have it amputated. I give a quick flick with my fingernail and little Mr. Spider is back in the drink and off into oblivion.

I feel pretty bad about this, though not as bad as I would feel if I were shaving or using the toilet a couple days from now and discovered Mr. Spider crawling on me. I also feel more guilty than I might otherwise because just the other day I watched a friend, confronted with a similar situation, pick up a spider by a strand of his web and gently carry him outside and set him free. Free to get eaten by a bigger predator or to freeze to death in the oncoming winter, the cynic in me argues, but nonetheless, my friend did go to considerable effort to give that spider another chance, whereas I would have been more inclined to swat it with a newspaper or a shoe.

What's that, you say? It's "just" a spider? Very true, but we have no way of knowing what kind of spider he might have gone on to be, what sort of spider destiny might have been cut short. What if, for example, it was this spider who was about to make a breakthrough in webweaving technology that would have revolutionized life and insect catching for his entire species? What if he was the missing link in the next stage of spider evolution? (I will have to note here that if the next stage of spider evolution looks anything like those eight-foot high monstrosities that confronted the hobbits in the last of the Rings trilogy, I'm very glad to have done what I did.)

Or one last example: I was sitting at my computer trying to write, and suddenly a mosquito is buzzing around my face. With Obama-like precision my hands snap out and crush him. I'm completely elated, because in my book, mosquitoes are the embodiment of pure evil in physical form, and killing them is always a Good Thing. This is especially true around here, where the little bastards frequently carry the West Nile virus. Nonetheless, there are those who would condemn me for taking it upon myself to kill any living thing. There are people so devoted to the cause of doing no harm that they breathe through a cloth so as not to inadvertently inhale any small insects, who sweep the path ahead of themselves so as not to step on any such creatures.

But most of humankind unhesitatingly kills for food, for pleasure, for convenience, or just for the hell of it, and as long as none of the creatures being killed are human, little notice is taken of it (apart from PETA and its ilk, of course). Which leads me to wonder: if it is so patently clear to most rational beings that it's impossible to live on this earth without a significant amount of death and destruction, why do the rules undergo an immediate and drastic turnabout for the every-fetus-is-sacred (or the even more fanatical every-sperm-is-sacred Catholics, who would condemn the use of any sort of birth control apart from abstinence.

This is not a pro-abortion argument; I think abortion is violent and ugly and to be avoided if at all possible. Still, only a complete fanatic would argue that it was feasible, let alone desirable, that every zygote should grow to maturity. Were it not for birth control, abortion, disease, war, etc., and in the absence of any effective predators, humans would long since have been crowded every other species off the planet before proceeding to eat themselves out of house and home.

And hey, it still could happen, but this isn't an environmental argument, either, or even an argument at all. I'm just curious as to how we arrived at a world view where every other form of life is disposable while human life is meant to be inviolate. It can't just be the Book of Genesis, with its grant of "dominion over every living thing," because human chauvinism cuts across all cultures and belief systems. And it's not just the normal self-preservation instinct; all species possess that, and will presumably kill and/or eat anything that gets in the way of survival, yet it seems to be only humans who have elevated themselves to the level of the sacrosanct.

At the same time, you've got humans raising money to save the polar bears or the sharks, i.e., animals that prey upon humans, and what other species takes up collections to benefit its natural predators? It's never happened yet - at least not to my knowledge - but I honestly don't think I'll be surprised if one day someone knocks on my door with a pamphlet explaining why we've got to Save The Mosquito. In other words, I don't have any idea how it gets decided which forms of life are sacred and worthy of preservation and which are wholly disposable, and I'm not sure I ever will. I just know that I hate mosquitoes with a passion, spiders are not welcome in my house, I will probably go on eating pineapples, and any polar bears that come prowling around Brooklyn can expect no mercy from me.


J'net said...

Philosophical thoughts while carving a pineapple. Sometimes you remind me so much of myself :). I don't think I've told you lately how much I enjoy reading everything you write. It brightens my day to see a new post on your blog/facebook. You have such a talent for expressing your thoughts, such an openness about what they are, and such a way of turning them into fascinating stories. Please never stop!

Sarena said...

I have to applaud this. I take it you've heard of The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird? Being a vegetarian, that made me feel guilty as hell. I'm a Buddhist too, and my family never kills any insect or spider if we can help it. That includes black widows, recluses, and skeeters ;)
There's actually this kid's toy that has a small vacuum built into it, and it sucks spiders and bugs into a small plastic chamber with a built-in magnifying glass that you can close without harming them. We use it up to 5 times a day and just take the creatures outside and release them into the bushes. Just recommending it. I'd love to see more philosophical blogs like this from you, keep it up dude!

Amanda L said...

Hi there, nice to discover you again. I used to read your column in MRR and we corresponded through some letters and met once in London in 1990, when I was a teenager. I'm so glad that you're still writing, and I'm happy to discover I still enjoy it.

I think people want to save those who they identify with--those in whom they can see something of themselves. This can either be narcissistic or altruistic, depending on what the person understands about the nature of their own humanity.

Those who would avoid inadvertently breathing in or stepping on bugs are trying to get to the point where they identify with all living creatures.

But, my question is: if you make a practice of expanding your ability to identify with all living creatures, shouldn't you learn something also about the nature of life itself--and the place of illness, age, accidents, and death, as well?

I am suspicious when people try to be too pure. My take on it is that they want to fundamentally vanquish the aspects of living that are difficult, painful, ugly, and violent--and this itself is extremely dangerous, leading directly to them in ever-magnified forms.

Although, I can say that I have met some people over the years who have cultivated a genuine (not narcissistic) gentleness in themselves that is very powerful. This kind of gentleness extinguishes violence and ugliness in others when they are in their presence, just in the way that violence spreads from one person to the other--the way we are is contagious.

I'm for cultivating that kind of gentleness, but in order to achieve that, people have to commit themselves to rooting out as much of their narcissism as they can, and that's a really tough job.

CorinaLily said...

I've just discovered this site, and this particular article made me smile. My son is one of those people who refuses to kill spiders, and chides me regularly about murdering them just because I'm afraid of them. I've never gotten zen over a pineapple before, but now I'm not sure I'll ever cut one up without thinking of having read this. :)