Dino e Sauro, by Umanoid, 2018, Unsplash license.

Reply to “Consider the Dinosaur”

Response to Dayton Martindale’s Issue 2 piece “Consider the Dinosaur

It’s not often that, in the face of the ongoing environmental catastrophe, we’re called to consider the consequent decimation of nonhuman life as a wrong in itself. Instead, we’re asked to consider the dangers that declining biodiversity and ecological instability pose to us. Those who urge us to care for birds for bird’s sake are derided as frivolous and moralizing1 See, for instance, this review of a Jonathan Franzen essay collection in Vox: https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/11/16/18098864/jonathan-franzen-end-of-the-end-of-the-earth-review when compared to the sober, rational appeals to protect birds insofar as protecting them is an investment in our own security.

In claiming the asteroid impact that exterminated the dinosaurs as a genuine tragedy, “Consider the Dinosaur” precludes retreats to instrumentality. The dinosaurs are long gone, the asteroid is ancient prehistory, and we have no way to alter the past. After all, to identify an event as a tragedy is to assert that something has gone wrong while acknowledging we have no power to prevent it. If the mass extinction of the dinosaurs is a tragedy, it is not because counting it as such offers us any returns.

Instead, the asteroid impact is made tragic by and is tragic for the dinosaurs. The countless dinosaur lives lost to the asteroid are worth mourning, as are the myriad dinosaur species – taken over and above the lives of each individual species member – rendered extinct. It’s easy enough, when nonhuman animal subjectivity is acknowledged, to see why the suffering and death of dinosaurs is worth posthumous concern. In order to clarify what’s lamentable about the extinction of a species, Martindale proposes a couple of grounds: first, there is the collective project toward survival that is only respected if future members of the species carry on; second, there is the diversity of “ways of being” that is diminished when a species goes extinct.

Martindale notes, however, that conflicts arise between these ways of valuing individual creatures, on the one hand, and species, on the other. These conflicts can be found within the fallout of the asteroid impact – the death and extinction of the dinosaurs left room for the proliferation of the mammal, an essential step toward our own existence. Extinction-level events are not the only place to find these conflicts, however. An ever-present example is that of predation. While we take the existence of predators for granted as an inevitable and even salutary part of nature, when we reflect on animal suffering as a concern somewhat separate from the demands of ecology, a question arises. Should we hope for a future which is ecologically stable, but where all predators have gone extinct? This would presumably be a world in which herbivorous animals lived far longer and happier lives.

A clear objection comes to mind. Realistically, such a scenario would not in actuality be ecologically sustainable. Overwhelmingly likely, it would make the remaining animals worse off, with no natural check on their population size. But over the long course of evolutionary history, past and future, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a species of plant-eating animals which, though lacking a natural predator, evolves a natural contraceptive mechanism which reliably keeps its population within its so-called “carrying capacity.” The predator’s role as a population inhibitor is, in however modest a sense, contingent. Are predators a valuable part of nature even when their ecological role is fulfilled by other means?

We could say that, in a predator’s species having gone extinct, the collective striving of its ancestors has been thwarted. But which matters more? The predator-parent wants its children to flourish; the prey-parent wants its children to survive. How do we weigh these wants against one another when we can’t appeal to the need for ecological harmony?

Another variant: let’s suppose the predators didn’t all die out, but rather all evolved to be herbivorous instead. Should we then mourn the loss of the predatory way of being? Predators perceive and experience the world in ways wildly different from the way that grazing animals do. Is this diversity of Being worth more than the flourishing and security of individual beings? As an analogy, a serial killer experiences the world in a way markedly different from how an ordinary person does. The existence of such strange minds is no doubt interesting; in fact, there is a cottage industry of documentary series all claiming to reveal the mind of a killer. But it’s nonetheless untenable to insist there should be any serial killers at all. The lives of their victims matter more than any interest or diversity of experience they contribute to the world.

In the end, there may be no way to resolve these conflicts or to offer a universal hierarchy of values. Instead, these considerations reveal to us that predation is, itself, an ongoing tragedy. Predators are sometimes obligate carnivores and in any case lack the cognitive prerequisites for moral agency, and so they can’t be blamed for killing their prey. Yet something is going wrong so long as the lives of prey animals are not protected; still, predation cannot – and should not – be prevented. What, then, can be gained from a designation of tragedy?

The existence of predation is often used as a foundation for two affective stances toward nature. The first is nihilistic, social darwinist and right-wing: nature is cruel, and we are no better than it; thus, any cruelty I enact, whether upon others or upon nature, is not only fair game but laudable. The second is a liberal theodicy, memetically entrenched in culture via The Lion King as the “Circle of Life”: predation may seem like a cruel and unfair part of life, but it is really part of a not just necessary but beautiful system, whose more brutal incidents are, seen aright, acts of grace.2 “The Lion King and its Trashfire Remake [Big Joel]” on YouTube (6 September 2019) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oHa2XT89x8  What both affects have in common is their propensity to mollify and disempower, especially when they are extrapolated to the certain tide of human-caused mass extinction and cataclysm currently underway, whose most horrific outcomes lie just beyond the horizon. They encourage “zooming out” either to dehumanize (or desubjectivize), or instead to find comfort in the clockwork harmony afforded by picturing geological timescales large enough that local calamities get so blurry as to feel smooth.

Viewing predation instead as an ongoing tragedy recognizes its moral salience while admitting the futility of ecosystemic intervention as a wholesale solution. Adopting this perspective empowers us not to fix the tragic situation but rather to mitigate the tragedy in larger or smaller ways; though predation is ineliminable, we shouldn’t make things any worse for non-human animals, for example. The recognition of ongoing tragedy reasserts our moral agency which, in the wake of callousness, despair, or denial, is all too easy to disavow.

Bill Marcy

Brooklyn, New York


Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.