Last week, I was standing on my outside deck, enjoying the valley. A small bug alighted on me, and I was pretty sure it was a firefly as I’d recently managed to capture one on video. I thought it might interest a friend who was coming to dinner that evening, and I went inside to find an empty plastic yoghurt tub in which to keep it till she arrived that night.
But when it came to actually sealing the tub, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I imagined this small creature with a short life going around and around in circles on the smooth plastic, forced to breathe the subtle fumes that most plastics emit (you can smell them; you’d smell nothing if they were not there). I feared I might that evening open the tub and find a dead firefly.
I released it again.
Most scientists, I believe, would probably simply seal in the firefly without a moment’s hesitation. A scientist might take thousands of fireflies and keep them in captivity; might pulp their bodies to extract chemicals; might randomly reconfigure their DNA creating uncomfortable mutations; might take out a patent on that DNA. (Which, come to think of it, rather suggests that patenting DNA sequences is every bit as absurd as claiming copyright on the books you’ve read.)
I don’t mean to suggest that scientists are wicked people, only that they mostly work with a certain set of values; and that it would be quite a lot more difficult for them to do their work without those values. An embryologist, for example, who has reservations about stem-cell research, might well find their work or professional image compromised as a result.
It seems we often cannot gain knowledge of life without changing it, and sometimes that change is rather brutal. Scarlett Thomas, in her novel The End of Mr Y, includes an extraordinary narrative that places us in the individual heads of a multitude of laboratory mice, with rather obviously stomach-churning empathetic consequences. (I see now that this section of that tale made as much of an impression on Ursula Le Guin.)
If all scientists had my qualms, we might have a very different body of evidence about the mechanics of living beings. As it is, the knowledge we do have has often been deployed with the best possible intentions: medicine being the most obvious example. Surely, some will argue, the greater good is served by torturing a million mice to save a thousand humans. But I am always suspicious of “the greater good”-type arguments. They are abstract, artificially binary; they apply reasoning that is general and mechanical, not specific and creative, to ethics.
My broader point is that the biological sciences are not ethically neutral, are inextricably marked by an ethic that — unscientifically — privileges human beings. The pursuit of knowledge is considered to trump the value of the lives of non-human beings, and indeed, has at times trumped the value of the lives of humans considered at the time to be less than human.
We now inhabit a world which is being eroded by technologies deployed without respect for life, technologies built on the back of science that all too often has shown little respect for life. The result is consistent from beginning to end: a planet that is beginning to be terrifyingly degraded.
What kind of science, and what kind of technology, might we have, if our eagerness to have our questions answered was matched by respect for the world we are interrogating?
As it happened, the evening my friend visited the fireflies turned out in abundance. They weren’t glowing; not, I suspect, the season. But there to be observed, without captivity.
That was the only night I have noticed them; I cannot help feeling that they were graciously acknowledging my respect. They reminded me of some bothersome ants that quietly left my kitchen after I’d written a poem about them.