May 11, 2011

3 Stories from Nature: Don't look to Nature for Morality

Well, I think that my last post was the most widely read post that I've written to date, so to capitalize on that momentum I've waited a few weeks and made sure the previous interest has waned.  Now it is often said that humanity shows a truly unique notion of cruelty and evil; this is true. There is no animal equivalent to holocaust or genocide, and animals aren't able to possess  the 'guilty mind' that makes up part of a crime, yet the roots, even of such 'unnatural' behavior, can be been from the acts of different animals.

At this point a brief disclaimer is necessary, because despite what I just said in the previous sentence some people may accuse me of anthropomorphism. I am of the opinion that American Law got it right when they expressed that an animal cannot be charged with a crime, for the reason I stated above. The quick brown fox that jumps over the lazy dog to kill a mouse isn't doing so out of malice.

This leads many people to say that animals kill only out of necessity, and don't show anything that would be described at immoral behavior. These beliefs are like that of the noble savage that lives at one with nature and other people, they exist only in a romantic dream, not in reality. Nature is not where morality can be found like a rare fruit in the upper branches of a tree, it is where the roots of both moral and immoral acts can be seen.

Story 1 - The Necrophiliac Mallard

Natural law proclaims that things have a purpose and should only be used for that expressed purpose. This is the foundation for calling homosexual acts 'unnatural'. Now it has been shown that this unnatural act happens in many different types of animals, making humans no special case, but that's not really interesting and doesn't really have the feeling that comes with an act that is considered immoral behavior.  However, there is one case that I know of that does.

In 2001, the first case was described of homosexual necrophilia in Mallard Ducks. In June of 1995, there was a loud bang. The sound was that of a duck crashing into a window, but when C.W. Moeliker went to see what it was he saw two ducks not one. Next to the dead duck that had just crashed into the window was a male duck and from the title of this first story there will be no prizes for guessing what happened next.

"He forcibly picked into the back, the base of the bill and mostly into the back of the head of the dead mallard for about two minutes, then mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force, almost continuously picking the side of the head."

C.W. then watch as the rape continued for 75 minutes, with two short breaks. It was only broken up when C.W. approached to within 5 meters of the ducks and even then the other male didn't fly away, but walked a few meters away.

This may sound like a unheard of event, but 2-19% of ducks are in homosexual couples and there have been descriptions of heterosexual necrophilia in ducks, so while it may seem too strange to be true, it's really just a matter of probability that the two actions be observed together eventually.

That said, clearly even depraved sexual actions take place in nature and animals don't live in the the heterosexual harmony that most assume. The birds might wait until the bees get stunned and fly over to mate with them in their death....bringing a whole different meaning to the birds and the bees.  

Story 2 - A Killer on the Loose

In the Essay, "The Horn of Triton" Stephen J. Gould reflects on the power of different individuals to change the history of a local population by way of two rather chilling stories from the animal kingdom.

The first killers were two Chimpanzees from Jane Goodall's studies named Passion and her Daughter Pom.  In 1975 Passion began to kill and eat newborn babies of the other females in her band, but she could not easily steal the babies from their mothers watch, but Passion didn't have to work alone. Pom would work with Passion to steal, kill (biting the infants through the skull), and eat the infants of other community members.

This immoral act was seen by observes three times, and may have happened an additional 7 times, as over a four year period only one mother was able to keep her offspring safe.

This again isn't an isolated event, our closest animal relatives may be more inclined to kill that Gould and Goodall first though as new descriptions of this type of occurrence have been detailed since then.  Live Science has an article that describes infanticidal attacks by female chumpanzee's.  It describes an event where,

"Alerted to the killings by sounds of chimpanzee screams, last year Townsend and his colleagues directly witnessed one infanticide, where a bleeding mother with a one-week-old child in tow was pursued by six females, five of which had clinging infants themselves. After a 10-minute struggle, the infant was taken and killed with a bite."

They also found evidence for two more killings of this type as dead chimpanzee infants were found with bite marks in the skull.

These killings don't happen out of necessity, or defense, they are murders on community members and while done without the knowledge of being a crime are enough to show that the term murder wouldn't be completely out of context within nature.

Story 3 - Dog Days of Summer

The second story from "The Horn of Triton" essay by Stephen J. Gould takes place in New Zealand where Micheal Taborsky was studying brown kiwi's. The kiwi's had a population of 800-1000 members and Micheal had managed to tag 24 birds with radio transmitters.

August the 24, a dead female kiwi with a radio transmitter was found dead, and by September 27, over half of the tagged birds had been killed. The birds were mostly found burred and missing feathers in different areas. 10 other birds without transmitters were found the say way, running the death toll up to 23.

The culprit of this culling was not a new migrant species or even a group of animals. It was a single German shepherd. Distinctive footprints were found along with dog droppings of a single type and size, and on September 30th that single female German shepherd was shot and the killings abruptly stopped.

Now 23 birds may not seem like a big deal, but the sample is skewed, for there is no reason to think that the birds with transmitters were special. The percentage of there deaths probably provide a more accurate understanding of the true scope of the killing performed by that single dog.  The actual total wouldn't be 23, and Taborsky estimates the real number to be 500-800 of the birds who had a total population of 1000.

He gives 3 reasons for this seemingly high estimate, "First, given the remote chance of finding a buried, untagged carcass, the ten actually located during the interval of killing must represent the tiny pinnacle of a large iceberg. Second, other evidence supports a dramatic fall in total population: Taborsky and colleagues noted a major drop in calling rates for these ordinarily noisy birds; a dog trained to find, but not to kill, kiwis could not locate a single live individual (although she found two carcasses) in a formally well-inhabited section of the forest. Third, kiwis, having evolved without natural enemies and possessing no means of escape, could not be easier prey."

This leaves Gould to conclude that the romantic notion that animals kill only for food or defense is a complete misconception and this German Shepard was following the killing pattern of many animals.

These three stories from nature have shown the roots of behavior in indiscriminate killing of other species, perverse sexual acts, and even within the group group murder. Man and woman are only special in the regard of truly being able to appreciate the consequences of their actions. We are not special in being unique in committing the acts themselves, as they are only natural.

Nature isn't a place of ideals and morality, it is a reflection of the causes that created us as killers, rapists, and altruistic cooperators. Nature may be able give us a framework to tell us why we are who we are, but it can't tell us how we should act in the future or who we should be; Nature is no ethical guide.

Thanks for reading,