Speciesm and evolution

I have been thinking on and off a lot about a moral exercise raised by Christine Odone in a recent Observer column.

You are on a deserted beach with a rifle, an elephant and a baby. This is the last elephant on earth and it is charging the baby. Do you shoot the elephant, knowing the species would become extinct?

This was the dilemma Richard Dawkins put to me during a weekend in the country. Our host, publisher Anthony Cheetham, had mischievously placed us next to each other at table. I thought the dilemma was a no-brainer – my only doubt was whether I would shoot straight enough to kill the beast.

He was outraged by my answer: man, beast, they were all the same to him and the priority must be to protect the endangered species. He berated me for my foolish belief in the specialness of humanity for its soul.

The question as it’s posed isn’t a proper dilemma, because the last elephant is going to become extinct anyway. (I will give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt and put it down it down to Odone’s misremembering his question). But suppose it’s the last of a breeding pair of elephants (and exclude issues like possibly fatal problems of genetic defects from such a tiny genetic pool). What then?

Odone’s answer would be the one shared not only by Catholics like herself, but almost all Christians (including myself) and most other people of some religion or none. But what’s interesting is that it’s also the ‘right’ answer in evolutionary terms. For wild animals to show altruism towards a different species is extremely unusual (dolphins helping swimmers in trouble, a few cases of animals ‘adopting’ a different animal to rear when they don’t have offspring of their own). Tame animals (such as rescue dogs) can be trained to do such things, of course, but that’s a different matter. And I can’t believe that any wild animal would save an animal of a different species at the cost of one of their own species. On the other hand altruism towards unrelated members of one’s own species might sometimes make sense in evolutionary terms. For example, if you help protect other animals’/people’s young when they’re in danger, they may be more ready to protect your young when they’re in danger.

So we have a paradox: if humans reject speciesm, we are going against our own animal nature. The more we say that we are just like other animals and must reflect this in our treatment of them, the more we prove that we are qualitatively different from other animals. (If any chimps disagree, they are welcome to comment on this blog).

But Richard Dawkins also needs to consider a further case, if he truly believes in an egalitarian humanism (which I take as prerequisite for any extension of rights to animals). What if the baby on the beach is his child (or his grandchild, or some other child he cares greatly for)? To be consistent, his answer must be the same as if it is a child unrelated and unknown to him. Otherwise, he is implicitly saying that his (grand)child’s life is worth more than another’s child life, which can’t be morally right on his terms. If Dawkins is prepared to sacrifice his own baby to the last but one elephant he’s morally consistent. I leave it to other to judge whether they think that would be the humane choice.

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