A world without carnivores?

I meant to link earlier to this piece from the NYT Opinionator blog by philosopher Jeff McMahan. He poses the following question:

Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones. Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?

McMahan concedes that we lack both the knowledge and wisdom to carry this out, but he speculates that we may have it one day and that decisions about which animal species to save and which to allow to become extinct may be forced on us by our ever-increasing environmental footprint. He argues that it makes sense to see carnivorous predation as a “flaw” in nature, one that we would–other things being equal–be better off without.

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10 thoughts on “A world without carnivores?

  1. This is the sort of thinking which absolutely sends a chill down my spine. Human beings have NEVER had the wisdom to avoid the unforeseen consequences of their meddling, and they never will. We already HAVE driven many carnivorous species to the brink of extinction, with the consequence that the species they prey upon experience explosions in population, over-taxing their now-inadequate food supply, and falling victim to starvation and disease. Witness the white-tailed deer, now spreading lyme disease throughout the northeastern U.S. Anyone with a modicum of ratiocinative ability should be able to work out for himself the potential consequences of such an arrogant scheme.

    My view is that fascination with the boundless potential of human ingenuity is the disease that needs to be held in check.

  2. My reaction was pretty close to yours.

    The real interest of the article, in my opinion, is the more theoretical reflection on predation and whether we should regard it as in some sense “bad” or at least regrettable. It has affinities with the thought of Andrew Linzey–the Christian theologian of animals–that I find interesting.

  3. I believe that, with humanity, the entirety of nature is fallen from it’s intended state. So I could entertain the notion, in theory, that predation was not part of God’s original intent in creation.

    What we need to stop doing, though, is thinking we can answer these questions so definitively that we have a right to alter the innate wisdom of the compensatory balance that has developed in the natural world.

    I haven’t read Andrew Linzey. William Law, in The Spirit of Prayer, expresses some interesting ideas about the nature of the original creation and its degradation to the condition in which we now experience it. At first Law’s assertions seem beautiful, but kind of crazy, because unaccustomed to our contemporary assumptions: but they grow on you. They have an astonishing imaginative integrity, and provide a potential conceptual link, I think, between the biblical story of the creation and fall, and scientific thinking about evolution.

  4. Does he plan to introduce famine, disease, or war among animals to replace the lost natural predators?

    Has anybody told him about the white tail deer of Pennsylvania, or about the multitude of environmentally harmful invasive species that cause havoc primarily because of a complete lack of natural predators to hold down runaway populations?

    1. He does recognize those issues. I think it’s more of a thought-experiment: suppose we find ourselves in the position where we have to pick and choose between species; what values should guide our choices?

  5. I think that we must stick with “God so loved the world.” In the words of William Stringfellow, not some other world, but this world, with its carnivores and predation, including that fallen animal, human beings, whose dominion had become domination rather than service to the earth.

    Once we start thinking “eschatologically” of the past of what God must have intended, it can tend to suggest God did not come in Jesus Christ and reveal a God who loves us not as we should be but as we are as the starting point for our completion in the consummation in Christ, which is something we can anticipate in our lives, but cannot complete ourselves. In the meantime, I would suggest that God loves the cheetah and the gazelle, the fox and the hen, and we dare not arrogate to ourselves what finally only God can complete.

    Do I think predation was God’s will for creation? No. I think collaboration was God’s will. However, predation begins before we have living and sentient beings. It begins in stars swallowing others, etc. I would also suggest that this may not just be for human and other animals, but for plants. And maybe even creatures we assume without life, rocks and water. Linzey is great and I would suggest that because we know still not enough about plants, we should be careful in pretending that there may not be simply life but sentience of types foreign to our understanding. I also find his dismissal of thanksgiving using an either/or, Gospel anti-Gospel dichotomy not useful. Rather thanksgiving is sign of recognition of having taken life and therefore to do so sparingly, with reverence and humility. He misunderstands, in my opinion, the whole thrust of the thanksgiving/sacrifice tradition of the Hebrews in this regard because perhaps it has been too captured by a prosperity Gospel. But it is, in my opinion, part of the solution nevertheless.

    1. “I think that we must stick with ‘God so loved the world’ … not some other world, but this world…”

      I like that way of putting it.

      I do think there is a tension between “God so loved the world” and “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” I’m not sure Linzey always strikes the right balance, though. Some of my more recent reading has led me in a slightly different direction.

  6. While we’re indulging in magical thinking, how about getting rid of the part where you kill an animal to eat it but not the actual meat-eating?

    My wife told me that at one point while raising her daughter (my step daughter) she had to explain the turkey in the super-market was totally unrelated to the turkeys down on the farm.

    Likewise chichen, beef, etc.

    No killing animals to eat them.

    No siree.

    And it works for me, too.

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