To be or not to be
If I label a thing solely in terms of its usefulness or convenience to me then I am bounded by my current opinion. I make myself pinched and narrow. I become poverty stricken. There is no horizon, only a wall. And I feed alone on my own history, recycling what I have lived on before. I am trapped in a museum. It’s all about me.
But if I allow a thing to have its own life and trajectory, to live on its own terms, terms which I may not be able to fathom, then I leave a gap of unknowing. Then my label is flimsy and contingent, loosely knotted to a mysterious space of wonder in the present world, and its unraveling leads to unpredictable future riches.
Olivia Judson’s arguments are persuasive and the biology she describes is virtuosic. Molecular engineering is clearly a high art. But forget the blinding cleverness. Of course, unquestionably, the lives of human babies are the top priority. All human life is of course worth more than anything else. But forget sentimentality too. After all, as she says,
there’s nothing sinister about extinction; species go extinct all the time. The disappearance of a few species, while a pity, does not bring a whole ecosystem crashing down: we’re not left with a wasteland every time a species vanishes.
She’s right. Now that we have entered the Anthropocene era, when human activities sculpt the entire planet, why should we not make ourselves comfortable and engineer a few little extinctions here and there?
If a mosquito is defined solely by its murderousness then it is easy for me to think of wiping it out. Anyway, we’re only talking about Anopheles, oh and possibly Aedes, the Dengue spreader. There’ll be plenty of other mosquito species left for you if you like them so much. We’re not going to quibble about little differences are we? I mean they all look alike don’t they?
But if I remove every mosquito from the face of the earth, another creature will rise up to bite me. The creatures are all around us. And they have the faces of monsters. Monsters from beyond our imagination. Countless monsters. And oh! have we tried to count them. We spent most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries trying to count them. Thank God we’re nearing the end of our task – now that they’re dying out before we can find them. But still, if I kill one, another comes in its place.
Not so long ago, and still today in some circles, it wasn’t so uncommon to talk about other humans in the same way we talk about mosquitoes. Ernst Haeckl the great champion of Darwin and inventor of the idea of the missing link used science to show that the intellectual ability of Papuans, “Hottentots” and Aboriginal Australians was slightly less than that of horses. Our modern outrage at that notion does a disservice to horses.
Perhaps I could lock myself in a sterile room alone, free from irritations. Screened against monsters. Hermetically sealed. Be a hermit. But then the itches and scratches will come from inside my skin. And eventually, inevitable they will kill me. Death and disease will win.
But perhaps there’s an alternative to that fight. What if I simply let things be? Pay attention to things as they are? Not as I would like them to be. What if I just pay attention? Could I be like the mosquito enthusiasts who publish in the Dipterist’s Digest? Who can tell the difference between the Anopheles atroparvus mounted and boxed next to me as I write, and the Anopheles messeae? Who know the kind of water each prefers, and the kind of resting place, who know which likes to sleep in a cool place and which likes to be warm, who have precisely counted the hairs on their heads, the patterns on their eggs, the spots on their wings, who know their moods. Who know their joys and sorrows.
Would I then, like them, alone in my lab, offer my own skin to feed the friends I so minutely study?