What was it like to be a bat?

by Mike O’Brien

They say that everyone’s a critic. Some more than others. I have a particularly critical streak, that occasionally strays into full-on curmudgeonry. I have a few excuses. First, the generally awful and worsening state of the world tends to put me into a bit of cranky mood. Second, I am lazy, and picking at the flaws in other people’s work is easier than creating something new. And third, there is a lot of really awful, slap-dash work being done in the world of letters that cries out for detraction.

As a break, if not an antidote, to my nay-saying tendencies, I’m going to attempt something a little more constructive this time around. My first column, way back when, was basically a riff on all the facets of my generalized anxiety, and the ecological facet featured prominently there, but there’s still some unpacking left to do.

First, some predictions. After all, anxiety implies that I think something is going to happen, and in this case that something is very bad and very difficult to avoid. Mass extinction will continue, and continue to accelerate, for the rest of my life and beyond. Global warming, ocean acidification, habitat destruction and atmospheric carbonization will continue to blow past every “point of no return” that scientists set, and narrowly human-regarding effects will continue to immiserate billions of people. If we were the kinds of creatures, organized in the kinds of societies, that were capable to avoiding these inevitabilities, we would not be as far along the road to perdition as we are. This is not about what might happen. This is about what has happened and will continue to happen.

The human toll (generally and as regards this particular human) is of course awful, and many people are quite properly preoccupied with this. I tend to focus intellectually on the plight of animals, perhaps simply because it is the less well-explored, and therefor more interesting (to me) area of moral theory. I don’t think about their actual plight, mind you, but my imagined version of their plight, based on fragmentary recollections of news items, NGO releases and abstracts from journal articles. I feel powerless to save them, which is probably accurate, so instead I channel the energy of my moral outrage and grief into intellectual busy-work. This busy-work mostly takes the form of accounting for what is lost when these myriad forms of life disappear.

The moral responsibility for extinctions is not shared equally, but the ubiquity of carbonization’s effects on the world’s ecosystems, and the ubiquity of practices that contribute to carbonization, has something of a levelling effect, in contrast to more strikingly direct but circumscribed outrages like shark-finning or burning down rainforests. As a materially comfortable Canadian, I’m a particularly bad offender, whatever boutique ethical choices I may choose to offset my footprint. Doing the right thing, even in the face of futility, is a moral demonstration to myself, an act of vanity as much as one of piety. Sometimes I think it’s better than nothing. Sometimes I’m not sure.

(Yes I know that’s not what “carbonization” means in chemistry speak, but I already wrote that bit before I checked on Wiki, so it’s staying. Also, I should point out that chemical and radiological pollution is possibly a bigger problem for life on earth generally, but climate change is still a “bottleneck” event for existing species.)

I have two chief concerns, one purely ethical and the other purely gnostic. The first is that the lives of animals will continue to be degraded and worsened, and eventually disappear altogether, which is bad because they are moral patients and their suffering matters. The second is that the lives of animals will continue to be degraded and worsened, and eventually disappear altogether, which is bad because they are instantiations of conscious life and their absence impoverishes the enterprise of science. (Speaking of enterprises, I’m pretty sure there was a Star Trek movie where they travelled back in time to save whales. I do not think that that is a viable plan, but any theoretical physicists and/or conservationists are welcome to disagree in the comments.)

Much of what we believe about ourselves and the material determinants of our experiences is grounded in an evolutionary understanding of biology. And much of what we understand about evolution is attributable to Darwin’s observation of speciation in the animals he encountered during his voyages and studies. Imagine if, by the time he had visited the many stops of his Beagle tour, the local variants had already been extinguished, deprived of habitat or replaced by managed monocultures. It is not impossible that ideas of evolutionary development could have arisen without a rich natural menagerie spread out in front of Darwin’s eyes. But every deleted phenomenon shrinks the space and chances for empirical discovery.

Future conceptual advances in our understanding of life may provide unimagined advances in our self-understanding. Some of these advances will come from further study of our own species, and of those Frankensteinian beasts which exist by the millions in laboratories for the sole purpose of satisfying our curiosity. But there are dimensions of life that are only observable in situ, among the lives of creatures enmeshed in their richly interacting environments. Preserving genomes or embryos to be re-animated after the disappearance of wild species is, in some respects, like building a smartphone in a Faraday cage. It is only by interacting with its proper “ecosystem” that its most essential and interesting features are manifested.

The creatures that interest me the most are those with the most complex behaviours, because I am a vain human who fancies himself a member of the most complexly behaving species. Chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, octopuses, but also bees and termites in their polymorphic multitudes, these are the creatures from whom I expect to learn about my favourite subject. Whales in particular represent a wealth of knowledge easily lost, because much of what makes them interesting is ephemeral and dependent on stability across vast lifetimes and geographical ranges. What good to me is a whale that was never taught to sing, or a bee that never learned to dance? The cultural aspects of these creatures’ lives, necessarily performative and transitory, won’t be captured in amber. Their fragility is such that they can be lost before a population is exterminated outright. One terrifying possibility (or inevitability?) of the increasing carbonization of our atmosphere is that all air-breathers will get gradually more stupid. I assume things are even worse for water-breathers, maybe for different reasons. Imagine learning to parse the songs of the ocean, after its inhabitants had forgotten how to sing them. Is that more sad than their outright absence? Both are devastations.

I suppose one thing that can be done, besides launching an all-hands-on-deck effort to halt and reverse ecosystem destruction (worth a try maybe?), would be to hoover up as much acoustic, visual and positional data as possible, aided by satellites and robots, and crunch it afterwards. Assuming an ideal situation where all the data we currently know to look for was captured, perhaps we could answer the question “what was it like to be those kinds of creatures, and what does that mean for our kinds of creatures?”.

Or perhaps not.

The title of this piece is a play on Thomas Nagel’s 1974 article “What is it like to be a bat”, in which he discusses the irreducibly subjective aspect of conscious experience. Like many people who cite this piece, I vaguely remembered maybe reading it in university, so I went back and read it again. As it turns out, his arguments don’t really help my case; his main point is that the observable correlates of conscious experience (e.g. synapses firing) remain categorically distinct from the subject experience itself (e.g. hearing). We can imagine the experiences of beings like us, because (presumably) we have experiences like theirs. To the degree that different beings’ experiences are analogous to ours, we can imagine what they are like by analogy from our own experiences. But no amount of data about the physical correlates of experience can give us insight about experiences alien to our own.

I’m on board with all that. Luckily, evolution recycles successful designs, and there are many analogous structures and strategies across species. Computer-aided crunching can find non-obvious like-to-like comparisons hiding in the data, further shrinking the scope of the uniquely human, and broadening the scope of the generally cognitive. But the whales will still be dead, and therefore unavailable for follow-up questions. The “unknown unknowns” beyond any historically situated horizon of understanding guarantee that we never ask all the questions we need to get the answers we want.

Cultural genocide, with or without biological genocide, is a recurring event in human history. I am open to the possibility that some of the lost cultures had truly unique insights that are never to reoccur in any other culture. I am also open to the possibility that, given enough people and time, each variation of experience reoccurs and is not forever lost with any one instance. But the truly alien nature of non-human cultures, particularly non-mammal cultures, is not something that I believe we can imagine back into existence after we have destroyed its bearers. It is a brute fact of life, instantiated in matter and time in a manner that may be inconceivable to us. As much as I disparage this kind of talk, our “self” is formed by encounters with “The Other”, and a species-level sense self requires a species-level “Other”. If not God or aliens (maybe AI, but not yet?), the animals are it. Do we really want to be left alone here?