Thursday, August 06, 2009

Unnatural naturalism

One of the ironies of naturalism is the unnatural way in which naturalists relate to nature. Let’s take a few examples involving animal rights. It’s striking to see the way in which a naturalist rises to the defense of animals.

I don’t know how many nature shows I’ve seen in which the host lectures the audience on how we shouldn’t blame a predator for acting like a predator.

One of the problems is with the gratuitous and condescending assumption that we need to be told that. That unless a naturalist delivered this admonition, we’d be too stupid to realize on our own that it’s only natural for a predator to act like a predator.

On the other hand, having assured us that animals, being amoral, are blameless, we are then treated to naturalists who confer legal rights on animals because animals have moral status. Indeed, some animal rights activists want to confer equal rights or special rights on animals. More rights than a human baby.

So which is it? Are animals innocent because they are amoral? Or is it that animals are entitled to legal rights given their moral status?

We also told that our basic emotional makeup is rooted in the primitive brain, which we share with other animals. But in that event, why wouldn’t a naturalist render value-judgments about animal emotions in the same way he’s prepared to render value-judgments about human emotions?

Here’s another way in which they feel the need to stick up for animals: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a naturalist say, after a shark attack, that the shark “mistook” the surfer or sailor or swimmer for a seal or some other prey species. The shark was confused by surfboard or sailboat.

Now, for all I know, that may be true. But I don’t see how the naturalist is in a position to speak for the shark. How can a naturalist get inside the mind of a shark and tell me its true motives?

Put another way, why wouldn’t a shark eat a human being that strayed into its domain?

Yet the host is quick to assure us that sharks are “misunderstood.” They talk about sharks the way bleeding-heart liberals talk about juvenile delinquents.

I’ve also heard the same thing about killer whales. They pose no threat to human beings.

Maybe not. I’m not a marine biologist. Still, a killer whale is an alpha predator. It kills sharks, elephant seals, and sea lions. It will kill a swimming polar bear. Is there some presumption that a human swimmer or diver is off-limits? Why would that be?

Likewise, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it say that there’s no documented case of a wolf pack killing a human being.

Well, I have to problems with that claim:

i) Just in terms of antecedent probabilities, is there some presumption that a wolf pack wouldn’t kill a human being? I’ve seen many programs show hungry wolf packs in winter hunting an elk or moose. Food is scarce in winter. Wolves are desperate for food. Surely an unarmed human being would be a lot easier to take down than a bull moose.

ii) Another obvious question is, under what circumstances would we expect a fatal attack to be reported? It can only be reported if there are witnesses. If there’s a solitary victim, the evidence winds in the stomach of the wolves and scavengers. If, on the other hand, there are witnesses, then the attack is less likely to be fatal since there are other men to come to the aid of the potential victim and fend off the attack.

For example, if you have two or three hunters, I wouldn’t expect them to report a fatal attack for the obvious reason that armed men moving in groups are far less likely to be the victims of fatal wolf attacks.

In the same vein, I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that there are no documented cases of an alligator killing a human being.

But, once again, a successful attack would mostly dispose of the evidence. It’s one-stop shopping: kill the victim, eat the victim.

And a successful attack would most likely take place on lone individuals, where there’s no one else around to come to the victim’s rescue.

Likewise, why wouldn’t an alligator kill and consume a human being? If the gator is big enough, what would deter it from doing so? Alligators are not all that finicky, are they?

In addition, whether or not there are documented cases of alligators killing human beings, there’s no doubt that Nile crocodiles and salt-water crocodiles are notorious man-eaters. If a crocodile, why not an alligator?

Not all alligators are big enough to pose a threat to a man, but some are. And we know that some alligators attack dogs. If a dog, why not a man?

Why do we so often encounter this knee-jerk defense of natural predators?

Let’s take another example. I recently heard a report about Burmese pythons in the Everglades. There’s a man who captures them. They recently caught a 17-foot python.

Yet he assured the TV reporter that a 17-foot python isn’t dangerous to a human being. That’s because, he said, we’re not their natural prey. We’re too big to consume.

Well, that’s a stupid non sequitur. It’s true that a python can’t swallow a full-grown man. But that hardly means a huge python cannot or will not kill a full-grown man.

In fact I’ve seen nature shows which highlight that danger. I once saw a nature show in which a zookeeper was nearly killed by a python. He only survived the attack because his assistant came to his aid. And even then it was very difficult to prevent the python from killing him.

I saw another show in which a wildlife photographer went all the way to Borneo to snap some pictures of a giant python. He succeeded in finding one. It chased him. Lunged at him. Barely missed.

Had he been alone, had the python gotten a hold of him, that’s the last anyone would have heard of him.

And, of course, the focus of the the current effort is to capture Burmese pythons, then take them to a place where they can be “humanely euthanized.” You mustn’t shoot one on the spot. That would be “inhumane.” Instead, a human being must assume the risk of trying to catch it.

And, indeed, the major objection to Burmese pythons in Florida is not the threat they pose to human beings. No, it’s the threat they pose to other wildlife. That’s the stated concern. They ruin the native habitat. Which may well be true. But notice the priorities.

I also don’t know how many times I’ve been told that venomous snakes will leave you alone as long as you leave them alone. And I expect that’s often the case. In many situations, avoidance is the best policy. However, some species are quite aggressive. The black mamba is an obvious example. Some cobras seem to be quite aggressive. Same thing with the Tiger snake–or so I’ve read.

Moreover, a snake doesn’t have to be aggressive to be dangerous. I don’t think the Krait is very aggressive, but it kills a lot of people every year.

In the past, the US has been spared some of the venomous snakes that plague other parts of the world. But because they’re imported here and released into the wild, it’s only a matter of time before we combine all the most venomous of Africa, Asia, and Australia!

In their defense, we’re told that snakes are necessary to keep the rodent population under control. And there’s no doubt that this is a natural function of snakes–not that a naturalist is entitled to invoke teleological explanations.

But even in that respect, cold-blooded predators eat less often than warm-blooded predators. So as far as rodent-control is concerned, warm-blooded predators are more efficient. Indeed, we even bred a dog to do that (the Rat Terrier).

We also witness this unnatural outlook on nature in the way we deal with vicious dogs. In the past, if a vicious dog were prowling the neighborhood, a neighbor would shoot it. Most neighbors had hunting rifles.

But nowadays you’re supposed to call animal control. And when it arrives, animal control is not supposed to shoot the vicious dog. No, it’s supposed to take the dog alive–even if the dog will be euthanized a few days later.

Since dogs are faster than dog-catchers, this is a very time-consuming and labor-intensive exercise. But more to the point, it’s dangerous to catch a dangerous dog. Hazardous to get that close to a vicious dog. But in terms of our enlightened priorities, it’s better to endanger a man than endanger a dog.

Same thing if a bear invades the neighborhood. You mustn’t shoot the bear. Oh no. You must tranquilize it, move it miles away, and hope it doesn’t return.

If the bear kills a man, the bear will be destroyed. But the bear must kill a human being before a human being is allowed to kill the bear.

Of course, this is irrational even from the standpoint of naturalism. For one thing, the survival of the species is hardly dependent on the survival of one or two specimens.

Moreover, why should we care more about other species than we do about our own? It’s not as if other species return the favor.

Furthermore, our sun will go supernova one of these days. And long before then the earth will be uninhabitable. In the great scheme of things, why should a naturalist even care what happens to an endangered species when every species is doomed to inexorable extinction?

For that matter, why this desperate effort to save the life of an animal which will take the life of another animal? And the predator itself is bound to die sooner or later.

In fact, naturalists frequently spend their time trying to save wild animals from natural hazards. Save marine animals that wash ashore. Save crocodiles from drought conditions. Save nature from itself.

It’s dangerous to lowball the danger of dangerous animals. So why do so many nature shows indulge in this reckless propaganda?

Well, at one level, they’d rather protect predators from human beings than protect us from the predators. They’re afraid that if we fear them, we’ll kill them. So they downplay the dangers.

Yet that, of itself, requires an explanation. Part of it is simple perversity. A rejection of the Christian worldview. Rejecting the view of man as the vice-regent of the natural world.

Not only does a naturalist repudiate the Biblical doctrine of creation, but also the doctrine of the fall. We live in a dangerous world. To some extent a hostile world. And there’s a reason for that.

You and I are exiles. Living in exile. Adam and Eve were banished from the safety and security of the garden.

The flipside of naturalism is “bonding” with the natural world. Since a naturalist deems himself to be a product of nature, he also deems himself as just another cog in the ecosystem. On that view, he doesn’t have a right to value his life more highly than animal life.

Back in the bad old days, when people moved into an area, they would eliminate the natural predators–since these posed a threat to both the human inhabitants and their livestock. But environmentalists disapprove of that practice.

Of course, they can afford to since environmentalists are generally urbanites who live in areas where the natural predators were eliminated before they moved in. They get their food from a grocery store, where food was shipped in from other states. If they were farmers and ranchers, they’d sing a different tune.

Not only is the naturalist at war with Christianity, he’s also at war with nature. He lacks a stable worldview. Yet he imposes his views on the rest of us, thereby imperiling the rest of us in the process.


  1. I heard a third-hand story once:

    This person (a girl I think) had a pet snake, which she was very close with, to the point that it even slept in her bed with her at night. One day the snake stopped eating its meals, and the owner got concerned. Later the owner woke up one night and the snake had stretched itself out beside the owner.

    She didn't understand what was going on, and was concerned, so she took the snake to the vet. When the vet heard what was happening his face dropped and he told her to immediately destroy the snake.

    Basically, the snake was starving itself and trying to stretch itself out to see if it could swallow its owner. It decided to skip the appetizers and go for the main course.

    One possible criticism of one of your arguments: I think you could biblically make the case that least some animals have some rights (thinking of the Proverbs about a man taking care of his animals, or the law about an ox not being muzzled, or maybe even God's statement to Noah that he would hold accountable any beast who killed a person (Gen 9:5)). But that doesn't really affect the substance of your argument, since it certainly does not imply animals have anywhere near the rights that human beings have.

  2. I don't object to the idea that we should avoid inflicting gratuitous harm on animals. I'm mainly responding to secular animal rights activists on their own grounds.

  3. True. I apologize for my misleading response.