A program of the Center for Inquiry
As you may recall, in my last column I refuted the perverse thesis of Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig that because animals are too stupid to know they truly suffer, the massive suffering of wild creatures does not argue against the existence of a good god. In this column, I’m going to examine a related issue of animal anguish. Again, we turn to Craig in his debate with Stephen Law:1
Now let me say one more thing about animal predation and suffering, since this featured largely in [Law’s] argument. Animals are part of a broader ecosystem in which the human drama is played out. And such an ecosystem must be balanced if it’s to be viable. It is no accident that every ecosystem involves predators of some sort. For example. I also recently saw a program on television about how the Canadian authorities are reintroducing wolves into the wild in Canada. Why? Because in the absence of these predators the caribou herds were over populating because there was no one to pick off the diseased and the aged. And as a result they were overgrazing and therefore dying of starvation! The predators actually enhanced the survivability and the health of the caribou herds on which they preyed, so that predators are an essential part of an ecosystem. In a world without predators, the insects would take over, since there would be nothing to eat them, and all the animals would soon die because all the vegetation would be consumed by insects. And once the insects had consumed all the vegetation, they would die off as well. So any viable ecosystem needs to have predation in it in order to succeed.2
One reason Craig’s argument can fool so many is because he makes an assumption that almost everyone does: that all creatures reproduce as fast as they can. If the reproduction of any given species is not culled by some form of predation, it will overpopulate the planet and it will be a big mess. Right?
Craig lied when he said it “is no accident that every ecosystem involves predators of some sort.” There have been places where big animals do not fear big predators.
Before we get to those happier locales, let us consider the big modern ratites: your ostriches, rheas, emus, and cassowaries. They all live on continents where they are subject to predation by big cats, hyenas, and canids—and on Australia, until recently, thylacines. These big ground birds are all fast breeders, what biologist call r-strategists, a category that also includes rabbits and rodents. Every year a given female ratite deposits half a dozen to dozens of eggs in a communal nest, almost all of which are eaten as chicks by predators small and large.
Now let’s go back in time, but not very long ago, less than one thousand years, when Europe was a Christian-dominated feudal hell of castles and armored knights—and let’s move in space to New Zealand and Madagascar.
There were gigantic birds then and there: super ratites. On New Zealand nine species of moas, of which the most titanic were twelve feet tall and weighed over a third of a metric ton. Madagascar sported the elephant birds, a couple of species of which were ten feet tall and also over a third of a metric ton.
An interesting thing about the moas and elephant birds: While living ratites all have elegant, slender legs for running for their lives, the legs of the island ratites were massive, clunky affairs, even among the smaller species. Moas and elephant birds were not adapted to run.
Why? Because there were no big land predators to run from on Madagascar and New Zealand. So ecosystems can lack major predators. And here is where things get very interesting when it comes to the non/existence of a good creator.
You see, we know how the super birds of the islands reproduced. We have preserved eggs and nests. When an elephant bird nested, it laid only one big egg per year. Moas deposited just two eggs. The island ratites were slow reproducing k-strategists.
Do you see where we are going here, dear reader—and William Lane Craig? Because moas and elephant birds were not seriously preyed upon, evolution did not adapt them to reproduce rapidly! Fast reproduction is expensive in terms of the energy that has to be put into all the eggs or fetuses and in the food that has to be provided to the juveniles when such parental care is provided. So most herbivores have to over-reproduce—but only in order for enough juveniles to survive all the blasted predators!
For a contemporary example of locales where herbivores do fine without the presence of the loving god’s murderous large predators, try Darwin’s Galapagos, where the giant tortoises enjoy not constantly dreading being mauled for lunch, the chronic fear that afflicts most of the world’s beings.
The “balance of nature” in which predators are vital to keep things running right is an old eco-trend concept based on flawed early bioscience about a century ago and long since refuted. Nature is out of control and chaotic. Because predators force their poor “victims” to adapt by evolving survival mechanisms, including fast reproduction, to make up for the otherwise-unnecessary culling of so many juveniles and adults, the predators are causing the very problem that most people think they are helpfully solving—rather like how the gun industry urges people to purchase more guns to protect themselves from all the guns the industry has already sold.
Think about it for a minute. Whether pious or secular, some people like to patter on about how the balance of nature is okay because the predators kill off the excess young and the defective, diseased, and aged. Say what?! How can killing animal babies be a good thing? And keep in mind, it’s juveniles that are by far the most numerous targets of predators—as well as those afflicted by birth defects and disease or who are getting old. That’s like Nazism.
All the more so because being killed by predators is a form of death by torture. There is no pressing biological need for a creator of our planet to have either specially created or allowed the evolution of predators—or parasites and diseases, for that matter. If a creator had real intelligence and true ethics, then it could have simply and caringly ensured (one way or another) that all herbivores would breed at a rate that would not result in overtaxing the resources they depend upon. When a given animal gets too old to function properly, the creator could arrange things so it would just painlessly keel over and die. Remember, we are talking about a supernatural entity of immense if not infinite power. It could set things up that way if it wanted to.
That we instead live on a planet plagued by ruthless killers is compatible with the following: There is no supernatural creator, and mindless evolution has stuck us with a dangerous world of a whole lot of suffering. With no one in charge, enormous amounts of bad stuff has happened. Or, the creator is sufficiently immoral to either directly create or allow the evolution of torturous killing organisms for no critical reason biologically or ethically. It’s one or the other, folks.
Gregory S. Paul is an independent researcher, analyst, and author. His latest book is The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2010).