I really wondered how that whitish-green hard puffy leaf worked. What was it made of? How hard would it be to burst it? And when I did, what would come out? At the age of four, ooze, jelly, a million tiny red spiders, or an emerald all seemed about equally likely. I began to squeeze it with my fingernail, slowly and carefully increasing the pressure. I concentrated so hard I didn’t notice my grandpa coming up behind me. He told me not to hurt the plant. I asked him to clarify that statement. (Of course, I didn’t use those words but I knew the word “hurt” could mean to damage or to cause pain.) He insisted it was both. I remained skeptical. But I did know he took great care of his plants so I didn’t molest them again.
On the other hand, I never had the slightest doubt that other animals actually feel pain much as we do. For that matter, I still don’t have any doubts. We co-evolved for billions of years and then much more recently grew separated into species such as human, dog, cat, horse. To me, it is much more “parsimonious” to believe emotions and consciousness are in all living things in some degree and in vertebrates to much the same degree as we have it — than to imagine that emotions and consciousness “emerged” when our brains passed some critical threshold of complexity; one that just happens to give us a great excuse to kill anything else we please, not so co-incidentally.
So even at an early age I at least credited all living animals as being pretty much like us. That is why it shocked me to read in a Walt Disney comic (of all places!) about lemmings following each other over a cliff to drown in the ocean! Why would they do that? Can’t they see there’s a cliff there? Are the ones in front doing it on purpose? I could imagine some of them get pushed by the ones behind, but what about the last rank? At least they should be scraping their tiny claws into the earth in a last ditch attempt to save their lives. And, if all the lemmings drown in the sea, how can there be more lemmings?
Only a few short months later, this time in school, I learned that buffalo did the same thing! Buffalo! Big headed buffalo. What are they thinking? “Hey, everybody wouldn’t be stampeding if we weren’t headed to the lushest greenest most goodiest pastures of plenty our herd has ever seen!” And then, in that last second before the terrible and explosive rib smashing landing do they think in their bisonic code equivalent, “Damn!” or “What the…?” or “Oops!” or “Take me God!” Perhaps it’s more likely they think, in essence, “Hey, everybody wouldn’t be stampeding unless we were being chased by a horrendous bison-eating monster!” I doubt they think something like, “Whoopee! A stampede! Great chance for me to work a few pounds off. I don’t mean to be putting it on, but the grass here is like, sooooooo good, man. I eat one blade and the next thing I know, I’ve munched down 10000000. (Not that big a number; bison use binary).
Of course, from our perspective outside the herd, it looks as though all the lemmings or bison or beached whales agree that the self-destructive behavior is a great idea. It might well be that one, or two, or even many of the bison are just as bewildered as we would be. They might be thinking, “Hold on. Why is everybody rushing so madly toward…what was it exactly? Shouldn’t a couple of us go up a hill and see where we’re heading? Hello! Let me take a minute…hey! Quit shoving! I’m trying to get a better look! I’m not sure this is…Arghhhh….I knew it!” They are wondering whether a stampede is wise but they are so pressed by the others on all sides, they can’t convince the herd to slow down. It is even possible that someone in the herd actually knows they are headed for doom and they still can’t do anything. “Wait, guys! I recognize this patch of sweet clover! We’re headed for the cliff! Stop! Stop!” Over they go along with everyone else.
All kidding aside, these were serious questions to me at the time. I certainly wanted to live. And, from everything I could tell in life or on the radio or on TV or in the movies or the cartoons or books, everybody and every thing wanted to live. But somehow, these creatures were doing something that caused their own deaths! That just seemed perverted. Odd. Weird. Life should be propagating life, not destroying itself. I don’t even need a Bible lesson on that one.
Although non-human animals most likely feel emotions and are conscious, I don’t actually think they think in words in the way we humans do or communicate with all the subtlety that we do (despite all those Disney movies). So, it came as another shock to learn that sometimes people commit suicide. Still later, I learned that they sometimes do it in packs! (See, for instance, an article on Heaven’s Gate cult).
Meanwhile, even more commonly, huge numbers of people march off to wars. Many are maimed or killed. In this case, people are generally convinced that they are doing something for their group, tribe, or country. For instance, with two armies lined up at the border, it is pretty much assumed, with some justification, that simply giving up will also result in death or slavery. This behavior is not unique to humans. At about the age I was learning about suicide, my cousin and I observed an ant war between red and black ants in my grandfather’s garden. At that point, I already knew about human wars, at least in broad outline, but watching ants fight made it seem perhaps more inevitable that humans too must fight rather than that they choose to fight.
It often happens in war, that the soldiers, and indeed, the whole nation is more or less tricked into fighting and in that sense, it is effectively a kind of mass suicide but with a lottery system thrown in. Not everyone who fights dies, but it is by no means an impossible or even unlikely outcome. From the perspective of those fighting, it is a brave thing to do — a selfless act that is designed to help save their people and their nation. After the fact, looking back, it sometimes seems that only a few people such as arms dealers and leaders actually benefit much from wars. For example, Hitler convinced people in Germany that aggression and conquest would be to their benefit and in newsreels, the masses of people saluting him look every bit as mindless as lemmings following each other over a cliff to drown in the ocean.
And what about our human species? On the one hand, we devote a large proportion of our resources to fighting each other, committing crimes, defending against crimes, punishing crimes, defending against invaders, and building machines to help us in fighting other humans. These conflicts always cause massive suffering and always benefit a few people but occasionally help reach some national objective that has broader benefits. Meanwhile, we are collectively headed for numerous cliffs. Although population growth may be slowing, we are in danger of reproducing way beyond the earth’s carrying capacity in terms of food and drinkable water.
At the same time, our activities are contributing to global climate change and to pollution. As our population density increases, and as our immune systems are assaulted with an ever greater quantity and variety of chemicals that make it harder to fight off disease, we face increased odds of a pandemic. And, we are not spending money on preventing it.
The threat of atomic war still looms.
We can disagree, argue, do more research on which cliff we are headed for, but why are we headed toward any cliff? Why don’t we simply decide collectively that we are better than that; that we don’t have to plummet off any cliff at all. We can just decide that we need to make this planet habitable for a long long time and collectively decide how to do it. We would not only save the lives of countless people in future generations but also the lives of many of our fellow living beings.
Or, we could wait until we are over the cliff in free fall and as the ground appears to loom up to us faster and faster think to ourselves, “Oh, darn, we should have…”
But we are not lemmings after all, nor bison. We are human beings who are capable of seeing where we are going and changing direction. Right? Right?