In the early 1980s wanting to be a naturalist — a coleopterist, in particular, that most Darwin-like of naturalists — I spent a couple of summer months in Killarney National Park, in Ireland, making a collection of chrysomelid beetles. This was the first of many such collecting trips, part of a series of increasingly violent engagements with the natural world that served as stepping stones that link my life as an Irish teen to the one I live now in Chicago. All of them involved the killing of animals or plants for the sake of science.
The Chrysomelidae had been offered up to me by Dr Jimmy O’Connor, an entomology curator at Ireland’s Natural History Museum (The Dead Zoo, as it was called in Dublin). Apparently, the Irish representatives of this group were poorly known, not having been taxonomically revised since early in the 20th Century. Chrysomelid beetles include a number of notorious pests such as Leptinotarsa decemlineata, the Colorado Potato beetle, but for the most part these insects go about their business without causing us much bother. They are remarkably pretty though, many of them possessing metallic elytra (the sclerotized outer-wing of the beetle) and when you train your eye to notice them you see them as a marvel of shimmer and vivid color. Some of them, the flea-beetles, have greatly enlarged hind-leg femora, so that when disturbed they erupt into action and spring away from you like a glorious idea that thought you had but now cannot seem to fully recall.
Collecting them is easy enough. Using a sweep net, I thrashed my way across the grassier spots in the National Park; in other locations I’d search the under-leaves of shrubs and low hanging plants, catching them on the tip of a wetted paintbrush.
The issue of killing them was quite another matter. After all, I wanted to collect them because I had conceived a liking for them, and was concerned that if neglected, we, the scientific community, would not know, ironically, if these animals needed more vigorous protection. I loved them enough I suppose to want them dead; a couple of specimens of each species at the very least. I was the Noah of death and my ark was a killing jar.
However, when one sees glamorous creatures such as these looking up at you, as it were, from the bottom of the net, the ethical calculation concerning their dispatch is not an easy one to make. Should these few glimmering Isaacs be sacrificed so that others of their kind might flourish. Or perhaps more proximately, since the question of how data might be used is always somewhat further down the road, should they die so that the storehouse of my knowledge could grow?
Perhaps in matters concerning cultural affairs there exists a parallel to Ernst Haeckel's evolutionary conjecture that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It certainly seems as if the youth are adept at inventing rituals, and sacramentalizing their lives, in a way that seems culturally primordial. Certainly children often are ritualists in ways that those of us who are older have little patience for. So it occurred to me, youth that I was back then, that in the matter of the beetles, though my commitment to their dying was unwavering, the manner in which I put them to death mattered.
The recommended way to kill insects is to pop them in a killing jar: a sealable glass container on the base of which is a layer of plaster of paris charged with ethyl acetate, a synthetic poison. Now, I had learned around that time that the leaves of cherry laurel, if crushed, give off hydrogen cyanide. Crush cherry laurel in your hands and that delicious aroma like toasted almonds that is given off, that’s the smell of a kinder, gentler death. This being the way some plants deal with its more aggressive insect visitors, I thought, therefore, that the crushed leaves of cherry laurel might provide for my chrysomelids a sweeter, more appropriate end. Thus my routine for the summer was to walk in measured paces, sweep at regular intervals, and transfer, when the time was right, insects to a killing jar.
The law of conservation of mass asserts that matter is neither created nor destroyed: that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It may be reformulated as the assertion that sacrifice is a universal. Everything that is born has death nipping at its heels; life is an unwinnable race. Ecological cycles are powered by organisms that simply can’t wait for death to come to their prey in the slumber of old age. Animal ecology is thus a search for the patterns established when one animal accelerates death, and consumes, in whole or in part, the body of another. The life of the prey item is given up for the sake of the life of its consumer, the continuity of whose own life is a more pressing concern to it.
This is not to say, of course, that animals are troubled by the ethical burdens placed upon them by trophic necessity (it’s not for us to know that). But it does mean that sacrifice is the commonplace of the natural order. Admittedly this is sacrifice meant in a low register; I am using here the OED’s fourth definition of the word as “the destruction or surrender of something valued or desired for the sake of something having, or regarded as having, a higher or a more pressing claim…”.
Humans, being ecologically consumptive and not primarily productive, are not exempted of course from the universal ecological engagement in the economy of sacrifice. There is, however, in the most naive forms of environmentalism, a desire to opt out of this economy, and to descry our inevitable involvement in the affairs of the universe. You hear it, for instance, in gushy claims that we are all one with nature, made without acknowledging that this oneness is a trophic oneness: we eat other beings and other beings will consume us. Any environmentalism that mumbles on the question of consumption is sentimental, in the sense of that word that William Jordan III the ecological philosopher uses it. That is, to quote novelist Milan Kundera, “shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist.” The task of philosophical ecology is the ethical contemplation of the universal necessity of consumptive sacrifice. It should deal with the shit.
Things being what they are, humans cannot persist without other beings perishing even if this perishing comes about indirectly. It’s not our fault that sacrifice is universal. Even if there was only one human on Earth this would be true.
The issue for humans is how to deal psychologically, ethically, and practically with the necessity of sacrifice, the inevitability, that is, of prioritizing our lives over that of other beings. Clearly some killing is easier than others. There is some, admittedly fairly muted, ethical debate over the ultimate fate of small pox; I don’t know of anyone willing to offer themselves up as habitat. Try this thought exercise: If you had a button in front of you — imagine it just to the side of your screen — that would eliminate the common cold, or next season’s sniffles say, or even all the cockroaches of the world, would you press it? I’ll give you a moment to decide. Tick-tock. Did you hesitate at all?
Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist, once claimed that if you arrayed a row of animals from lower life forms to higher ones and invited people to kill them, the person who could move along the series slaughtering with equanimity as they go is a sociopath. But necessity makes sociopaths of us all. The question for us though is what sorts of necessity justify killing, and assuming that killing lifeforms higher than a virus (if that is a life form at all) inflicts some sort of trauma, what psychological games must we play with ourselves to overcome our deepest revulsions against killing sympathetic life forms?
Many of us enjoy consuming meat, and can justify, it would seem, the realities of contemporary animal husbandry. Playing a different psychological game some of us have engaged in the most profound consumption of all: participating in the Eucharist in which, with unswerving belief, we consume the flesh and blood our Our Saviour.
In contemplating an escalating scale from the sacrifice of a lamb to the sacrificial consumption of the Lamb of God we traverse the meaning of sacrifice from its lowest register (a secular “giving up” for sake of a higher value) to sacrifice meant in its highest possible sense: where according to the OED it means “the slaughter of an animal as an offering to God or a deity.” It is conspicuous that along the axis of sacrifice from the secular to the religious that the role of special agents, the sacrificator, becomes more important, and the way in which ritual sanctifies, makes holy the offering, becomes pronounced.
Two axes can be defined in relation to the matters we have been discussing: one is the axis of sacrifice from secular to sacred, the other is the axis of the offering from lower to higher life form. These intersecting axes define four quadrants. On the top right where the lifeforms are advanced (perhaps even human, perhaps a god) and the sacrifice is sacred there is oftentimes a sacrificator, priest, shaman, and so forth, and the dispatch is highly ritualized. The lower right is sacred but may be performed in a lower key, at a family altar, for example. The lower left tends to elicit nothing but squeamishness: the squishing of a bug and so forth. The upper left calls for a secular specialist, the secular sacrificator – the sniper, the wolf hunter, the sharpshooter, the butcher and in sad circumstancesm the vet. All but the lower left call for some form of ritual.
One of the difficulty of the times in which we live is that there are a range of animals and plants, often that have value to us, and often beautiful, that we must destroy for the sake of someone other more valuable goal. Our tendency is these less than deliberative times is to act as if these creatures belong in the lower left quadrant even though many others think they do not. The destroyers of these living things demote their valuable and the ignore their beauty for the sake of some putative psychological ease. But rarely, in fact. is such a mental contortion comfortable.
Let me provide just one illustration from the field of conservation biology and restoration ecology, in which I work. Novice ecological restorationists present themselves at a work-day at a prairie, say, or a woodland, ready to save a beleaguered ecosystem. The steward presents them with loppers or a saw, and provides them with a brief tutorial on what to kill and how to do it. And off they go, but not without some perplexity. Now, I happen to strongly endorse the idea that a greater good emerges from the restorative management of some ecosystems. In many, perhaps most, circumstances the foundational step in repairing ecological health of degraded habitat is the removal of an aggressive invader. Now, many of the invasive plants that I am most familiar with in my work are handsome small trees or shrubs. Two examples: Rhododendron × superponticum in Ireland and Rhamnus cathartica in the US. To make their destruction more palatable there is a tendency to vilify these species: advocates for their eradication are inclined to talk of their removal as “bashing” and “hacking”. I am suggesting that the vilification of these plants, or any other species that get in our way as we advance upon other goals is not always fruitful. We may need to proceed using another tack. A more sacramental way in dealing with nuisance species is called for. What might look like I will describe in detail in a future essay.
I’d like to come back for just one moment to my chrysomelids, the killing of which I attempted in my own way to ritualize. On that first day in Killarney I mourned their tiny deaths and returned to my tent. I placed their little bejeweled carcasses in an open wooden box, one I inherited from my grandfather. As I slept I dreamed of beetles. In my dreams they were flying and in as much as one can establish such a thing for beetles I thought that they were happy. But in that slumber I became aware that I was swiveling in my sleeping bag and became convinced that something was in the tent with me. A dozen tiny things were in fact. I awoke to find that all the chrysomelid had revived from the mild narcotic of cherry laurel! What had began in ritual had ended in a miracle.
The day after that I switched to the use of poison, and nothing has since revived.
Image of chrysolmelid from Wikipedia.