Friday, May 21, 2010

Trying to Interfere with Natural Selection

We spend a lot of time and effort and money interfering with natural selection. It is a good thing that we do this. We do not just let nature take its course. We do not wait for natural selection to bring about resistance to a disease in a population, after the deaths of thousands of people who lack the resistance. We invent medicines. We do not wait for natural selection to other forms of knowledge. Some people point out that we are contributing to the accumulation of bad genes in human populations by interfering with natural selection. This may be so, but it is irrelevant—since the most important human adaptation to have evolved is our cultural transmission of knowledge. Not only do we have big brains, but we have cultures that allow the availability of more knowledge than any person could possibly have. Among the items of cultural information that we share with one another and that we pass down to future generations is the knowledge of medicine, and other ways to keep the hands of natural selection off of our human bodies.

The situation becomes a little less clear when we consider interfering with natural selection that happens in non-human species. We want to relieve the suffering not only of our fellow humans but all of our fellow creatures, so long as we do not spend too much time or money doing so. Well, at least bleeding-heart empathetic people like me do. But it usually doesn’t work. My wife and I were walking one morning, and as we went under a bridge, we saw a giant wasp carrying a paralyzed cicada as big as itself. The wasp was looking for a place to bury the cicada and lay eggs in it, allowing the wasp grubs to have fresh meat (the cicada was paralyzed, not dead) as they grew up. But there was nothing but cement under the bridge. I got the bright idea of trying to scoop up the wasp and cicada with my hat and move them out to the grassy embankment where the wasp could bury its victim. But I succeeded only in making the wasp drop the cicada, get confused, and possibly angry. I was just wasting its time and energy and possibly endangering its life.

The very same day, I found that a spider had built a little web in my sink, right under the faucet. There is no way it could survive there. So I scooped it into a spoon and put it under the drying rack. (My house, as you may have guessed, resembles a natural ecosystem in some ways.) Now, I thought, the spider could live in peace and continue its good work of eating insects that I did not want in my house. But there was already another spider there, and it came out to fight off the intruder that I had forced upon it. The intruder was bigger but retreated. I hope it survived. (These spiders are too small to pose any threat to people.)

In both cases, I tried to interfere with nature by helping its creatures out. It just didn’t work. This reminded me that nature is not ours, to destroy, to enslave, or even to help out. There is only so much we can do. Saint Francis of Assisi would pick up earthworms stranded on the road after a rain. I used to stop and rescue turtles from the middle of the highway. But we just have to accept our place. Our hands are full just helping one another. It is the integrity and beauty of whole habitats and ecosystems that we must protect—and let the individual animals and plants take care of themselves.

(This essay also appeared on my website.)

No comments:

Post a Comment