jointly written by Brian Tomasik and a friend
First written: 30 Oct. 2012; last update: 6 Jun. 2015

Summary

Ecosystems are extraordinarily complex and require care to understand well. However, other systems are complex too: Macroeconomies, national political structures, and even the human body. Complexity has not stopped us from rightly aiming to improve those systems by careful scientific investigation, so why shouldn't we apply a similar attitude toward intervention in nature to reduce wild-animal suffering?

Translations:

Medicine analogy

Imagine if we treated human illness as a curiosity, the way we treat wild-animal suffering. What if the mechanisms of human disease were known in great detail but were regarded with academic dispassion, with no discussion of treatment, cure, or even pain? Any talk of interfering with the human body would sound naïve and foolish. How could we hope to influence the complex network of molecules that signal and regulate an equally large number of chemical reactions? Each molecule activates or represses others, which each have their own influences. Chemical messages can be amplified in signal cascades and positive feedback loops. In other cases, negative feedback loops keep chemical processes in check, like a thermostat maintaining a constant temperature. Adding to the complexity, most biological molecules are only active within a narrow range of temperature and pH. A few degrees up or down, or some extra protons or hydroxide ions, can be fatal.

It is interesting then that the narrative of balance and harmony did not infiltrate molecular biology the way it did ecology. The language used to talk about ecosystems could just as easily be applied to molecular pathways. A quote by the naturalist John Muir seems perfect to describe the intricacies of the human body: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Some in the humanities comment on how cultural forces influence the way we speak about science.

While this idea is often taken too far, it has some truth to it, and one example is the romanticism that permeates environmental science. We should be thankful that the study of human disease has been optimistic rather than romantic.

Let's return to our alternate history. Since intervention in the body is out of the question, there is no need to develop drugs, and a theory of organic chemistry and synthesis has never developed. "Even if you knew which molecules you needed, how would you assemble them?" the skeptics ask. "You can't piece together atoms like beads on a string." A world where an undergraduate can synthesize aspirin would be a fantasy.

Perhaps humans, with their penchant for optimism, would come up with platitudes to help them cope with ubiquitous disease: "You shouldn't mess with nature. Suffering is part of the balance of life. We'd be playing God." If you are more cynical, you might imagine grisly TV shows about the fascinating ways that humans can succumb to disease (see Appendix: Predation and thrill-seeking). There would be no need to watch zebras being eaten if we came to see human suffering as part of the circle of life (see Appendix: Circle of life).

But this is not the reality we live in. We have drugs for high blood pressure, depression, nausea, and many other types of suffering. We are able to tweak the finest details of the human body, such as the length of one's eyelashes, often with few adverse side effects. People didn't intervene in the human body because it was simple or easy, but because the costs of inaction were too high. Why has this not happened in environmental science? Medicine has shown that we can intervene in complex systems for good, so maybe it's time that nature got some treatment.

In closing, consider this aphorism: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest." Suffering is always experienced in earnest, whether inflicted in sport, on a factory farm, or in the wild. Nature isn't an abstraction. It's not a laboratory, tourist attraction, or metaphor. Is animal suffering acceptable, given that billions experience it in earnest?

Other complex systems

Climate

Another example of a ridiculously complex system that humans have grappled with is climate, both on regional and global scales. "How can you possibly predict the weather?" someone might ask. "There are so many factors that influence pressure, temperature, rainfall, etc., and they're all interacting in a highly connected system. That project is hopeless." Well, predicting the weather is indeed hard and often error-prone, but we can do it much better than chance once we apply enough effort to study how it's done and build measuring technology.

Similarly, global climate and ecology trends are really complicated. In addition to direct atmospheric factors, you also have to consider changes in forests, oceans, ice cover, methane release, plankton productivity, and on and on. There are many conflicting climate models and huge noise. But with thousands of scientists studying questions like global warming for many years, we have enough of a handle on the problem to make some confident statements (e.g., the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity) and also to make reasonable predictions of exactly how much global temperatures will increase. This is hard stuff, but we did it because people have enough incentive to invest in the topic.

Macroeconomics

Macroeconomics is notorious for being difficult to model properly. Some models are overly simplistic, while others are massively complicated and overfit to the data, but all play a role in informing policy choices. As one example, the G-Cubed intertemporal general equilibrium model "contains over 5,000 equations and 110 intertemporal costate variables" ("The Theoretical and Empirical Structure of the G-Cubed Model," p. 2). Yet, this massively complex tool has made concrete recommendations on questions like "the implications of greenhouse gas policy, trade liberalization, tax policy and macroeconomic policy" (p. 1). In a lecture called "Are economic models useful in the global macroeconomic policy debate?," Warwick McKibbin says of the talk's title (1:08-1:28):

The answer is clearly "yes," and as with most economics, it's always "Relative to what?" And ... if you don't have a model to think through complex systems, I wonder how you do it. So, yes, I think models are useful. There's a lot of problems in the existing models, but then, models aren't perfect.

Needless to say, G-Cubed is one of a long history of large-scale macroeconomic models that are widely used to inform actual government policy.

In general, macroeconomics shares a number of features with ecology:

  • The complex system arises from the behaviors of a large number of optimizing agents engaged in cooperative and competitive interactions.
  • Both systems exhibit short-run and long-run equilibria that may be perturbed by exogenous shocks.
  • The normative variables we measure are inherently subjective and not "physical" but are still meaningful to us.
  • The measurements don't come for free but require lots of statistical work on our part.
  • It's hard to do controlled experiments because you're working on the whole system at once. Indeed, it may be easier to experiment with ecosystems because in principle they can be mostly isolated, whereas economies that trade with other countries cannot be. (It's easier still to experiment with individual human/animal bodies compared with ecosystems, and this is one reason medicine is arguably less difficult than reducing wild-animal suffering.)

Learned helplessness

Historically, human suffering has been justified in many ways, including in the context of theodicy. "Suffering is instructional." "It builds character." "It comes with man's free will." And so on. These are essentially coping mechanisms: Given that suffering exists, find a way to explain why it's okay so that you'll feel better about it. Sometimes these excuses are applied toward suffering in nature: "It teaches us about the natural order." "It's the way nature works." Etc.

As humanity advances, more and more forms of suffering become unnecessary. Surgery can be done with anaesthesia. Diseases can be prevented by vaccines. Rates of death from violence decline. The excuses for suffering become less salient.

Some embrace the changes and seek to find ways to reduce suffering. Others continue to take the original fairy-tale justifications for suffering seriously and insist that it would be wrong to change the status quo. This can be seen as a kind of learned helplessness: Even once a source of suffering becomes preventable, people continue to avoid doing anything about it.

Some examples:

  • Many religions continue to oppose euthanasia. Typically this is because of its association with murder, but part of the rationale is also that only God can decide when and how someone dies. The Vatican's 1980 "Declaration on Euthanasia" explains: "According to Christian teaching, however, suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God's saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ's passion and a union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father's will."
  • In Ending Aging, Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae note how people develop elaborate justifications for death, presumably as a cognitive coping mechanism. Then when it looks as though death might be vincible, people aren't interested in trying to overcome it. (Note: I'm pretty certain that anti-aging work is not an altruistically optimal use of resources. I cite this just for illustration.)
  • Wild-animal suffering fits the same pattern. For most of human history, and largely even today, it was and is difficult to address the structural dynamics that cause so many animals in nature to suffer. As a result, we have deep social narratives about why it's okay for wild animals to eat each other alive. Sometimes philosophers go so far as to praise predation when viewed in a certain light. Ned Hettinger: "While the suffering and death of animals due to predation are important disvalues that must be recognized, predation’s tragic beauty has positive aesthetic value that can be appropriately aesthetically appreciated."

I want to add that even though technology does allow for avoiding suffering that once seemed inevitable, this doesn't mean we should promote faster tech progress. Faster tech growth (especially in certain domains like artificial intelligence) may cause more suffering in the far future.

Conclusion

"We don't know enough to intervene in the wild" may be true in many cases, but this reflects a paucity of research on the matter rather than an intrinsic barrier. Moreover, the track record of most human ecological interventions is not very relevant here because most of them were not done with the intention of improving the wild. As far as I'm aware, many interventions done with the intention of restoring ecosystems have had some success. The problem is that "restoring ecosystems" may often be the wrong thing to do if such ecosystems just contain more wild-animal suffering. Going forward, let's work on learning how to reduce suffering in these ecosystems instead.

Comments from a wildlife helper

Mason Hartman and her family have spent years helping wild animals. Her mother is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and Mason has been trained by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). Mason writes the following:

I have yet to hear anyone give a compelling reason for believing that a prey animal has any sort of preference for which species the predator that ends its life belongs to. If anything, it might prefer a human being - at least we can *sometimes* be quick about it.

I've worked with wildlife; I have family that works with wildlife. People who haven't (and haven't done the research due) usually have no idea the magnitude of the suffering nature offers most of the creatures unfortunate enough to live within it. They have no idea how long an animal's body can keep functioning while coping with debilitating illness, injury, or starvation.

My mom once rescued a group of young squirrels whose tails (and portions of their bodies) had been fused together by muck and tree sap. They weren't mobile enough to find food or water and were suffering extreme infections, as well as dehydration and starvation. They were suffering intensely and were too weak to be likely to survive surgical separation and the removal of the necrotic tissues, so they had to be euthanized immediately.

Anyone who has an aesthetic or moral preference for *that* can fuck right off, in my humble opinion.

Nature is babies with teeth growing up into their skulls. It's animals with open wounds rotting over without treatment. It's swollen feet and hunger and painful, infectious blindness. I see a healthy-looking animal getting ripped open and eaten alive by a predator, and while I flinch, I honestly think "Wow, it looked healthy - it was really lucky that only those last 30 minutes were intensely painful."

Wildlife rehabilitation is largely resolving nature's botch jobs, usually (and unfortunately) by humanely killing animals that have been damaged too severely to have any quality of life, even after treatment. Burnout is probably the field's #1 problem, and I'd wager that's because there's not enough therapy in the world to help someone cope with the sort of things you see - especially knowing that *those* animals are only the tiny, tiny fraction that happened to wander into human contact during the course of their suffering.

Appendix: Predation and thrill-seeking

Sometimes the suffering of wild animals is seen not just as an unavoidable fact of life but even as a glorious part of nature. Consider, for instance, one of the most horrific real-life videos I've ever witnessed: lions eating a pregnant warthog. As the lions rip open the warthog's flesh, the warthog's gestating babies fall out and squeal on the ground. At the end, one of the lions grabs a screaming baby in its jaws and runs off to the side, presumably delighted for its juicy meal. The description on the video reads: "South Africa, the footage taken was like winning the lotto. Nature at its wildest !!!!!" If this is winning the lottery, I wonder what kind of lottery it is....

I (Brian) can attest to having experienced the feeling, which is probably fairly common among young males, that nature is an exciting gladiator show. When I was a kid, I loved watching nature programs and dinosaur movies, and the most fun parts were scenes of predators chasing prey and ultimately killing them; it was thrilling to witness. I even made my own dinosaur stop-motion-animation movies with my home video camera, and the main course of the films was always the predation sequences; everything else was basically lead-up to that point.

In Running the Books, Avi Steinberg reports the following:

The most popular genre among male inmates was nature documentaries about carnivorous animals. [...] even from the other side of the library, I’d know the lioness had finally pounced when I’d hear inmates yelling at the screen, “Get ‘em! Get ‘em!” Once, and only once, I heard an inmate take the gazelle’s side and cry out, “Run! Run!”

Now, there are debates about whether and to what extent violence in video games contributes to violence in the real world, and one could make similar assertions here -- that just because we find violence thrilling to watch doesn't mean we support it. After all, there's plenty of thrilling human violence in movies too. However, my perception is that when it comes to nature documentaries, there's not always a clear norm to say that "this is fun in fantasy but tragic in real life"; indeed, the nature documentaries are real life, and when we see such things happening to humans in real life (on the news, in genocide films, etc.), we're shocked and horrified. How long will it be before predation scenes in nature shows are regarded with the solemn sadness they deserve?

According to the 1984 study "Attitudes Toward Animals: Age-Related Development Among Children," male children knew significantly more about predator animals than female children. My guess is this partly reflects a difference in thrill-seeking. The study goes on to explain: "Species preference results also revealed a more negative view of predator animals among female children." The study author suggests that disliking predators indicates a "lack of ecological understanding":

Most children interpreted predation [...] in anthropomorphic and negative terms, rarely appreciating or identifying the ecological values of these activities. [...] many children regarded predation as "wrong."

I guess this is one case where children are more morally mature than adults!

Appendix: Circle of life

Disney's The Lion King features the following exchange:

Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.

Young Simba: But, Dad, don't we eat the antelope?

Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connnected in the great Circle of Life.

In response, The Onion featured a brilliant article, "Dying Lion Sure Doesn't Feel As Though He's Completing Some Great Cosmic Circle":

According to a male lion currently dying on the Serengeti Plain, his agonizing demise certainly doesn't seem as though it's part of some transcendent cosmic circle of life, but rather as if he’s slowly and painfully bleeding to death.

The expiring lion, who dragged his weakened body onto an isolated patch of grassland Monday after being mortally wounded by a poacher, confirmed to reporters that he is not experiencing a tranquil, satisfying sense of harmony with the universe, but is instead mainly feeling intense physical torment brought on by a fatal wound to the abdomen.

"I could be wrong, and maybe this is all an enchanting and noble chapter in life's great cosmic narrative, but right now it pretty much just feels like I'm dying alone on the ground in a puddle of my own blood," said the 500-pound big cat, releasing a deep moan as violent spasms seized his body. "Shouldn't I be feeling a stirring sensation of kinship with all living creatures or something? Yeah, I'm not getting any of that."

For the record, it's likely that having fewer lions is net good, but dying is horrendously painful for whomever experiences it.

A sick art exhibit: Food Chain

In 1995, when I (Brian) was about 8 years old, I watched an Eyewitness documentary about reptiles or frogs -- I can't remember which. The ending showed a frog being eaten alive by a snake, in front of a pure white background in the filming studio. I remember being extremely angry at the thought that the photographers had deliberately set up the frog to endure the agony of live predation just to show it to viewers. I found it sickening.

Fast forward to 2014. Artist Catherine Chalmers has put together a sadistic art exhibit of exactly the same kind: animals deliberately being fed to one another against a white backdrop. Chalmers's work is called high culture, while dogfighting is illegal and considered degraded barbarism.

If Chalmers's exhibit served as an outcry against the cruelties of nature, maybe it would have some redeeming merit. But to the contrary, Chalmers sees her work as a vindication of evil:

I’m not killing anything. I’m only raising one thing to sustain another. Either the mouse dies, or the snake dies of starvation. There is no way around that. The mouse wants to live, the snake wants to eat, and we come along with a third, highly subjective judgment, which often slants these days toward rooting for the underdog. Why should we go by our opinion? If anything we should be rooting for a healthy ecosystem.

By the same logic, I could say that by growing smallpox to disseminate in public places, I'm not killing anything; I'm only raising one thing to be sustained by another. Why should we go by our opinion? If anything, smallpox would contribute to a more healthy ecosystem by reducing human overpopulation.

Chalmers is right that there's moral significance in her work, and most people in urban settings don't think about the brutality of nature enough. But she draws the wrong conclusions from her vile project.