An Attempt To Understand Painlessly Killing Predators

Image Credit: Larissa Uhryn, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

I just want to start this article off by saying that I had TWO amazing pieces scheduled for today, and I’ve put them both off for next week (my apologies to Yi-Kai Tea and Charlie Woodrow). I’ve done so because the start of this week saw a paper come to Ecology Twitter’s attention that is just plain wild (excuse the pun).

For those who don’t spend too much time on Twitter procrastinating, the paper is called Painlessly Killing Predators, and it is just the strangest thing. I eventually made it through the article, but as with the last time that I went out of my way to… let’s say “deliver extended musings on” an article, I don’t want to spend excessive amounts of time trashing it. I’ll try and wrap up the weirdest parts of it in a few sentences.

  • The first sweeping generalisation made here is that predators are inherently bad (or something) because they inflict pain and anxiety on prey animals.
  • The author debates the merits of two different methods to stop this evil: painlessly killing all predators, or genetically modifying all predators so that they evolve into herbivores.
  • The loss of all predators is at one point rationalised using the argument that we as humans still ‘benefit’ from dinosaurs, despite their extinction, and dragons, despite their non-existence, so the loss of all predators wouldn’t be that bad.

There’s a lot more to it than that. I will say one thing for this paper, despite it being very esoteric, the language is very accessible, and no matter your familiarity with philosophy or biology, you can understand what’s being said. Why it’s being said… that might elude you. Here’s the link.

Painlessly Killing Predators

Ecology Twitter pounced on this thing. Rightfully so, I feel. There are so many questions. What about mesopredators? Do they have to go too? Are insectivores on the list? How about species which are primarily herbivorous, but will occasionally take meat, like the European brown bear? And what about the impact on plant life of all these herbivores? And what happens when the huge increase in competition leads to increased starvation, like it has with kangaroos in Australia? Do we then painlessly kill herbivores? WHY ARE DRAGONS BEING MENTIONED? The list goes on.

BUT. BUT. BUT.

Unlike that “girls vs. cats” article, this was not published in an ecological journal. It’s in a philosophical journal. So maybe we were missing something? Like I said, that language is weird. Maybe there’s a key aspect of philosophical publishing that puts it in a new light? If there’s one thing that whole debacle of “ecologists and coronavirus” should have taught us (as well as the historical failing of ecology to embrace social science), it’s that we need to do a bit of research before blindly rushing to comment on other disciplines.

This little scoundrel is undoubtedly a predator but if you hurt him (even if you hurt him painlessly) I will come for you (Image Credit: Soumyajit Nandy, CC BY-SA 2.0)

With that in mind, I turned to Hannah Monsrud Sandvik, a philosopher friend who started on her PhD thesis earlier this year. Hannah works on the ethics of aquaculture, and had a more nuanced take:

1) It is not uncommon for a certain kind of (utilitarian) applied philosophy to bracket aspects of reality in order to explore implications of concepts and theories.

Ok, this explains SOME things. The casual assertion that it would be possible to complete either of the two proposed methods here for one. The blanket assumption that predators are morally bad and we should feel bad. BRACKETED.

2) There is in fact some literature on the ethics of wild animal suffering. Some philosophers argue that we have positive duties of assistance towards animals in the wild, and I guess this author wants to contribute to that discussion.

I am not very familiar with that literature, but I think it the general argument goes something like: If we recognize that animal suffering is bad and should be avoided, we should stop practices that cause harm to animals. Much literature on animal ethics has been concerned with captive animals, but why stop there? Much suffering is happening in the wild too. Do we have positive duties of assistance towards these animals to avoid this suffering?

Ok, this IS an interesting question, and a discussion worth having. As a kid I’d remember asking my parents why the camerapeople wouldn’t help the zebra when it had been chased down by a lion. I (and I would garner that most of my colleagues would agree) accept that interference here is wrong (though for a heart-wrenching take on this go and watch the 2018 documentary Dynasties). But what if species are getting close to extinction? Do we ward off predators then? What about other aspects of conservation? Do we return lost juveniles to their mothers, potentially voiding behavioural evolution? Deciding on our responsibility to the natural world in general is far from an easy, or objective, task.

Of course I’m oversimplifying here. Potentially I’m ‘bracketing’ aspects of reality in some of the above questions. In a sense, we all do. Most research papers are about providing answers to complex questions, answers which in themselves are in some way simplified. The point is, that conservation decisions are human decisions, and often based on what we feel is right, not on any objective understanding of the natural world. For a more applied take, here’s Mark Davis’ thoughts when I asked him about reintroducing predators to islands:

That’s a non-scientific question. Even if a scientist answers it, it’s not a scientific answer, it’s a preference… is rewilding good or is it bad? It depends on the local situation. In some circumstances, the same individual may have different answers depending on the location. But it’s not a question that can be answered in an absolute way. And the key thing is to remember is that it’s not a scientific question, and a lot of people don’t realise that. They feel that scientists are making a decision that’s scientifically based, but preferences are not scientifically based.

So with that approach, I can understand why a philosopher may want to get involved.

That said, this paper is still absolutely bonkers, and thankfully Hannah assures me that it’s not representative of the majority of applied philosophy. Again, in the same way that ecologists should have reached out to epidemiologists before publishing models concerning the coronavirus, I would strongly suggest that philosophers looking to address questions like these at least reach out to an ecologist for input.

Lastly, if any of you are interested in learning more about philosophy and ethics when it comes to animal suffering, there are some really interesting debates being had. The article linked below is one such article, and though it is somewhat biased towards one side of the argument, as I stated earlier, these are human decisions, and they’re not likely to be as objective as we’d like.

Related: The Great Fish Pain Debate

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who welcomes any more weird articles that you want to send him. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

3 comments

  • Sam: True that, as self-described enlightened beings we often interfere in natural processes (like predation) which have been operating since the dawn of life, and which set themselves in motion without reference to ethics, philosophy or, sorry to say it, cheap sentiment. Then, we are inevitably bent over backwards under the freight of our moral convictions. Suppose we ban blood sports, as many believe we should. I don’t know how many times it’s been pointed out to animal rights people (among whom I count myself, by the way) the devastating consequences of the resulting overpopulation of both predators and herbivores. It doesn’t register. I often think they need to be educated with microchip implants in preference to dialogue. But let’s leave the William Gibsonesque arguments to his next novel.
    We also bend over backwards to keep our debates civil, which of course is all to the good. That we often fail when confronted with the kind of ingrown stubbornness that characterizes fanatics of any position in any subject is a donnee and has been since before Huxley and Wilberforce. And yet, when confronted with an article like this – yes, I followed the link and read the whole thing with my mouth hanging open; it was as if Ed Wood Jr. had written a wildlife documentary (and honestly, what wouldn’t you part with to be able to screen it?), so utterly lacking not only in philosophical acuity but in common sense, we still insist on treating it as something worth discussing, again, with civility.
    Thoughtful people instinctively seek to explain distortions of logic and science by recourse to “other possibilities” that might explain such distortions logically. There’s an inclination to seek courtesy as a perspective before going ahead and parsing the absurdities of the subject. For the most part I applaud this. But I also think that when we abandon “stupidity” as a simple yet elegant explanation for, well, for stupid propositions like this article, we reinforce the habit of tangling ourselves in gratuitous arguments.

    We have all often read the averrals of cosmological physicists who have just embraced a new perspective or theory that they were convinced of its deep truth “because it is simple.” The stupidity explanation for stupid ideas is like that. Help snakes evolve to become vegetarians? Right. I would almost prefer to believe drinking bleach is the answer to COVID-19.

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    • I should reiterate that this is not a defence of the article itself, which is mind boggling. This is more a caution against writing off any possible contribution that philosophy could make to ecology.

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  • Andre Whatsapp about lettuces rights ? The are eaten Alice! Horror! Horror!

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