Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Waiting for Photosynthesis
"In the strict scientific sense we all feed on death---even vegetarians."
Mr. Spock, Star Trek, "Wolf in the Fold."
It's common for us carnivores to stereotype vegetarians either as sissified, ineffectual wimps or self-righteous Puritans trying to impose their abstemious ideology on the rest of society. I did, too, when I was young and ignorant. Being no longer young and slightly less ignorant, I now know better. My vegetarian friends are of several sorts, from strict vegans to those who'll also eat cheese and eggs, and none of them is either sissified or self-righteous. Just the opposite, in fact. Their reasons for vegetable diets range from simple preference to the deeply personal to the religious; what they have in common, though, is respect for other people's choices. I'd no more think of parodying them than I would my Orthodox friends, who go to considerable effort following the letter of Jewish dietary law. I admire all of them for living their convictions, even if I don't share those convictions.
But there are exceptions to my embrace of dietary diversity. The PETA types, ("A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.") for instance. These militant vegans would rather millions die of disease than have doctors experiment with animals, however humanely. They're just bad people.
Then there are the plain silly ones, the self-proclaimed "bioethicists" who devote volumes of exquisitely convoluted reasoning to the question of which plants we might in good conscience consume. One of these is Michael Marder, research professor of philosophy, who (in the New York Times, of course) discusses the ethical implications of recent research showing that pea plants exposed to drought chemically communicate their distress to other pea plants. These plants, "forewarned," adapt better to stress. In other words, there is communication and planning in plants. Another is Natalie Angier, a science reporter (also of the Times, also of course) who wrote in 2009 of plants that emit chemical "cries for help" when attacked by caterpillars. These chemicals attract dragonflies and other insects which then eat the caterpillars. Who knew plants could call in air strikes? Special-ops teams?
Research in plant communication is not the issue. None of this is really new. I recall learning in the 80's that insect-infested trees chemically signalled others in their grove, which enabled those others to better resist the bugs' invasion. In other words, plants "talk," albeit on a level we can't detect, and act on what they "hear." Can they also communicate joy, or anxiety, or lust, or philosophy, at some level we can't comprehend? Maybe.
However, some people take this to ridiculous extremes. If plants communicate like people, say these philosophers, what right do we have to take their lives just to prolong our own? Marder, Angier, et al., worry about finding an ethical way to kill and consume our distant vegetable cousins. Even the Swiss, who I always thought were practical, no-nonsense folks, have incorporated "plant dignity" into their Federal constitution.
Enacting these sentiments into law means that we're not simply having one of those quasi-intellectual discussions you might hear in a liberal-arts college dorm. Is every harvest a massacre? Do potatoes scream as they're ripped from the warm, comforting earth, bagged, sold, and thrown alive into vats of boiling water? Do oaks and pines cry as they're brutally mutilated into planks? Is a dandelion the moral equivalent of a rose in its right to live and reproduce? Does it gasp, choke and shudder when doused with herbicide? Scream like a potato when the gardener tears it from the soil?
Of course not, one might say.* Plants don't think, don't decide, aren't rational like humans are. Well, maybe, but then there are those who claim that despite all our chattering, people have no more free will than, say, oysters, which are almost plants.
You don't need to claim that humans are exceptions to the rest of the natural world to avoid this silliness. Just the opposite. Consider natural selection, the driver of evolution. Natural selection works by competition; the winners get to live and reproduce, while the losers become food and, eventually, compost. That's the circle of life. You may not like the game but it's the only one in the universe. Plants compete just as animals do, albeit more slowly. Vines climbing that oak we can't ethically use for 2"x4"s will kill it as surely as a pack of hyenas brings down a baby zebra. Plants steal each other's water, nutrients and sunlight, the vegetable equivalent of chimps killing each other over territory. Why, then, should we ponder the ethical implications of a baguette, or wonder if cracking walnuts is equivalent to making an omelet?
That doesn't mean I disrespect other people's choices, as long as they respect mine. It doesn't mean I tolerate cruelty to animals or people, or the senseless destruction of plant life, for that matter. Some things are just evil, and I'll fight them. If some philosopher tells me my standards are arbitrary, culture-bound, and emotional, my response is, "So? Everybody's are; these are mine. Don't mess with them." That, remember, is how natural selection works.
Meanwhile, for those upset at the thought of consuming any other living thing, here's my suggestion: Dig a hole. Take off all your clothes. Step in and cover your feet with soil--the composted remains of once-living things. Next, spread your arms to the sky and wait for photosynthesis.
Good luck with that.
* See Wesley Smith's essay, from which I borrowed references. I owe him one.