Adventures in Ethics and Science

We’ve been watching some episodes of Blue Planet here, marveling at the beautiful cinematography, as well as at how emotionally gripping they can be.

Especially in the Frozen Seas episode, I found myself feeling almost wrung out by the dramatic roller-coaster. This is definitely nature red in tooth and claw (and blood-soaked maw), although as my better half points out, there’s actually rather less on-camera carnage than you might expect from the narration.*

I think part of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that most of the animals featured in this episode are fairly charismatic mid-sized to full-sized mammals. My better half opines that it’s hard for humans watching nature programs not to root for their fellow mammals, especially when it’s a matter of whether they will survive in harsh conditions. (There are also penguins, which are sufficiently charismatic that they’re practically honorary mammals.) We also get scenes in which these charismatic critters are shown with their young — cute!

Of course, part of what these critters do is try to protect their young from predation. The other part of what they do is try to protect their young from starvation by teaching them how to hunt.

So, you’re rooting for the wee polar bear cub, learning to hunt (belugas, at holes in the ice) from her mom. But at the same time, you’re rooting for the beluga trying to find a safe moment to come up through a hole in the ice to take a breath without getting munched by the polar bears. You’re rooting for the beautifully sleek leopard seal to get a good meal, but you’re also hoping that the penguin who might become that meal won’t slip off the ice and into the leopard seal’s clutches (because the penguin’s partner is there all alone on land with the wee kiddo penguin, waiting for his or her chance to go out and find a meal, and if his or her partner doesn’t come back, who’s going to help keep the wee kiddo penguin safe?).

And watching all this, you don’t even have the psychological advantage of knowing which critter is going to win, so no matter which animal you identify with emotionally, there’s a good chance you’ll end up sad. How could it be otherwise? If one of these critters were much more likely to win the eat-or-be-eaten struggle, its prey wouldn’t be able to survive in these conditions … and then what would the winning critter (and its cute offspring) eat? That adapting to the niche puts these various sorts of critters pretty much on a par with each other in the evolutionary arms race means that for each particular encounter, it’s anyone’s game!

Well played, nature.


*I wonder, actually, whether the nature program carnage I remember from my youth is at all related to the fact that the big sponsors of these programs were insurance companies. Was there a conscious effort to convince us it was a dangerous world out there so we’d buy insurance (in case we got gobbled by cheetahs, leaving behind a little of wee young wildebeests who’d need food and protection and schooling)?


  1. #1 bill
    March 15, 2009

    mid-sized to full-sized

    That… sorta doesn’t make sense. Mid-sized to large? Roughly human-sized or bigger?

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    March 15, 2009

    Yeah, I guess I was thinking about the sizes of the charismatic megafauna in analogy to rental cars. They’re bigger than the compacts, but not all of them are the gas-guzzling bowheads.

    I blame California.

  3. #3 Laelaps
    March 16, 2009

    “I wonder, actually, whether the nature program carnage I remember from my youth is at all related to the fact that the big sponsors of these programs were insurance companies.”

    Maybe insurance for the on-screen personalities. About a year or so ago I bought the “greatest hits” collection of the original Wild Kingdom run. It had little to do with observing animals. More often it was about the relocation of a “problem” lion or trying to dart a moose or rescuing a jaguar that did not want to be rescue (lassos were the instrument of choice to accomplish most of this work). Removing the human element and simply observing nature seems to have appeared more recently, although some (i.e. Jeff Corwin, Steve Irwin, etc.) still feature “hands on” interactions between people and animals. I much prefer Attenborough’s work.

  4. #4 Jim Costopulos
    March 17, 2009

    Blue Planet is a phenomenal documentary and a joy to watch. The series producers and “behind the scenes” segments however refer to the agonizing time it took for each team to find many of the animals they were looking for. This is not surprising when one considers the stark changes in ocean ecosystems globally, particularly the significant disappearance of large fish, apex predator species and whole commercial fisheries over the last century, accelerating over the past few decades, due to overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. A remarkable presentation by Dr. Jeremy B.C. Jackson of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, given at an NAS Colloquium last year at UC Irvine, together with his PNAS paper “Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean” (that’s “brave new ocean” as in Huxley’s Brave New World) – documents a picture of the not-so-future ocean that is already morphing into a pre-Cambrian-like ecosystem dominated by bacteria, blue-green algae, viruses and jellyfish. Very disturbing, but we need to know what we are in the process of losing forever and why. And maybe even what we can do about it before it’s too late.

    See the presentation here:
    PNAS Paper:
    Dr. Jackson Bio:

  5. #5 Larry Davis
    March 21, 2009

    Hello, doc. I have the Blue Planet set and treasure it. If asked whether I think it’s full of carnage, I’d have to say yeah, definitely, though it isn’t bloody, by-and-large. The bloodiest segment has to be the killing of the whale calf by the pod of orcas – very dramatic – but one may also watch coral polyps in full assault on their neighbors, terrified reef fish trying unsuccessfully to avoid hordes of hungry sharks, a sea lion killing penguins, orcas killing seal pups, a sea eagle snatching a sea bird out of the air, small schooling fish being picked off by tuna, sailfish, dolphin, sharks, whales, diving birds, and predators of all types catching and devouring their prey. The most repulsive carnage, to me, is the footage of the jawless fish and the large shark feeding on the whale carcass in the deep ocean.

    Of the many fabulous segments in the series, my favorite by far is the one featuring the bachelor right whale in full song. Coral Seas, I think. Transporting.

    I’ve often wondered why there is absolutely no mention at all, in the series, of the damage we have done to ocean life and habitats, and the mounting threats they continue to face. Mystifying.

    Caught you on bloggingheads today. I look forward to exploring your blog.

  6. #6 Larry Davis
    March 21, 2009

    I’ll introduce myself briefly. I’m a designer and painter, but love all things Natural History. One of my best friends is a retired professor of the History of Science at the U of Houston, Loyd Swenson. Loyd wrote the official histories of three of NASA’s programs, years ago, and three years ago launched the annual Joseph Priestley Lectures, for young people, at First Unitarian Church in Houston. The first speaker was Nobel prize-winner Robert Curl of Rice U. Loyd is deeply immersed in emergence theory, and I’m getting started in it as well.

    I’m very interested in developments in neuroscience by people like Rodolfo Llinas, and in the ideas of folks like Pat Churchland and Stuart Kauffmann, among others. Also Mike Gazzaniga and the Neuroscience and the Law group of thinkers.

    I agree with Mike, Pat and Rodolfo that our decision-making is shaped by our experience and our genetic make-up. Actually I came to that conclusion before I found them and others like them. It became apparent to me a few years ago that free will is illusory and that people do only what they are capable of doing, based on the two factors I mentioned. This seems obvious. Therefore what we call ‘character’ is an illusion and there is only capability, which of course is always in a state of flux as our lives play out. What I have never heard anyone else aver, but which seems obvious to me, is that people never do LESS than that of which they are capable. In other words, every action we take is the only possible action we are capable of taking. This is true because our inclinations or predelictions are formed, just like our capabilities, by our experience and our genetics. Can this be proven wrong?

    You needn’t post this if you feel it’s inappropriate. I haven’t read your work and don’t know how you stand on free will. I’ve never posed my idea to a professional, other than Loyd, and he just chuckles..!

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