Longer and wronger

I quite annoyed one of the authors of that "Kill All The Predators argument, who butted heads with me on Twitter and told me I had to go read this longer essay by Jeff McMahan which would address all my objections, because philosophers all seem to think that if they can babble long enough, they'll ultimately be persuasive. Spoiler alert: it just made the problems with their idea wordier.

In particular, I was told to read section 3 and 4, which deal with objections to their argument. So I'll just address that bit here, because I think their defense is dead with the second sentence.

The challenge to this simple case for intervening against predation is that it must be able to withstand the many objections that have been urged against it, including those that consist of moral reasons not to intervene. The most common of these objections is that the complexity of any major ecosystem so far surpasses our understanding that an attempt to eliminate predators within it, however carefully planned and well intentioned, would have unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ramifications throughout the system, extending, perhaps, into other ecosystems as well. The most obvious scenario is that the elimination or even significant reduction in predation would produce a Malthusian dystopia in which herbivore populations would expand beyond the ability of the environment to sustain them. Instead of being killed quickly by predators, herbivores would then die slowly, painfully, and in greater numbers from starvation and disease. Rather than diminishing the suffering and extending the lives of herbivores, the elimination of predation might increase their suffering overall and even diminish their average longevity. We can call this the counterproductivity objection.

This purely philosophical exercise founders on empirical reality. They claim that an objection is that stripping the predators from an ecosystem would have unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ramifications -- this is incorrect. It would have known, predictable, and definitely catastrophic effects. In case you hadn't noticed, humans have been busily pauperizing biodiversity in various habitats for a long time, and the changes have been measured and are obvious: knocking out whole species has a devastating series of consequences on the environment. The MacAskills and McMahan are playing a game involving a fantasy universe with very little connection to the real world, which is fine…except when they start making policy recommendations for our universe.


They're playing magic Jenga. Their proposed strategy is to, for instance, focus on removing all of the pieces from just the third row from the bottom. They know they can remove one piece and the tower won't fall down, so hey, that implies that removing all of the pieces from that level will be safe, especially since in their philosophical universe gravity is irrelevant, the relationship between the different pieces doesn't matter, and stability and balance are completely mysterious concepts.

They try to get away with it by casting doubt on known facts: they use "might" a lot. Well, if we remove that entire row, it might fall down. But maybe it wouldn't! They get to ignore all the facts about the physics of this system because they're bad philosophers, and all that matters is finding logical and rhetorical loopholes to permit their desired result to exist in their heads.

The way they get around ecological reality is to make the claim that someday Science might find a way to get around these current problems.

Given the state of our knowledge at present, this seems a decisive objection to almost any attempt to reduce predation now. But we should not be dismissive of Isaiah’s gifts as a prophet. Ecological science, like other sciences, is not stagnant. What may now seem forever impossible may yield to the advance of science in a surprisingly short time – as happened with Rutherford the first scientist to split the atom, announced in 1933 that anyone who claimed that atomic fission could be a source of power was talking “moonshine.” Unless we use Rutherford’s discovery or others like it to destroy ourselves first, we will almost certainly be able eventually to eliminate predation while preserving the stability and harmony of ecosystems. It will eventually become possible to gradually convert ecosystems that are now stabilized by predation into ones resembling those island ecosystems, some quite large, that flourished for many millennia without any animals with a developed capacity for consciousness being preyed upon by others. We should therefore begin to think now about whether we ought to exercise the ability to intervene against predation in an effective and discriminating way once we have developed it. If we conclude that we should, that may give us reason now to try to hasten our acquisition of that ability.

Has anyone read the short story, "Poor Superman", by Fritz Leiber? That. It's the idea that science is all about wish fulfillment, that we can get whatever we want if we just science the heck out of it, or if we can't do that, we put up an illusion of sciencing in the expectation that someday reality will align with our desires. Some things are simply not possible, and that other things are does not imply that everything is.

I have to mention the reference to Isaiah. Jarringly, the essay cites a fucking prophecy by a Biblical patriarch as if it somehow adds credibility to their argument. It's really weird.

This is not an empirical fact about biology.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

That they keep bringing it up in the essay is a bit off-putting. I suspect some hidden religious bias in their ideas that they try to keep out of sight, because it's stupid.

I also have an objection that they don't address at all, because they don't have enough awareness of the complexity of biology to even think of it. These are people who divide the biological world into wolves and sheep, and have no knowledge of any animals other than familiar domesticated mammals, and see themselves as readily able to reduce nature to a barnyard. Here, for example, is one simplified diagram of a food web.


Which predator species do you remove? Sharks are always the bad guy, so let's pull out that Jenga piece. Hey, porpoises are eating the same things the shark does, better get rid of them, too. Seals and sea lions? Definitely big-time carnivores.

Then there are the difficult decisions. A huge number of different species are eating market squid -- do they all go, too? All the birds and fish, as well as the mammals? They have one excuse in their essay, that they'll have an exception for the eating of animals that are arguably nonsentient, such as oysters and clams. Are squid nonsentient? Where do they draw the line? Who draws the line? Is it OK to kill and eat anchovy or salmon? They do suffer when they're bitten in half, they bleed and struggle, so the argument for ending pain ought to apply to them, too. And what about the krill? Will no one speak for the krill?

I'm not a fan of simple-minded utilitarian arguments, but I at least expect some consistency and appreciation of the difficulties and trade-offs that we always have to make. These particular philosophers read like people who learned all their biology from the Bible, and think that qualifies them to judge the way the world ought to work. If you need lovely prose to appreciate nature, read Aldo Leopold rather than Isaiah. At least Leopold gets his facts right.

More like this

to be honest, I thought the article was tongue-in-cheek and am quite surprised the author would seem to be defending it as a serious argument. it's hardly persuasive, and not even very interesting or illuminating as a thought-experiment.

I really don't get the fringe vegan crowd. Like, if you want to go and have a moral objection to the conditions found inside factory farms and the like, I'm with you there. I think a lot of people would be. Regular livestock rearing and slaughtering can be grisly enough business without turning it into a soulless assembly line.

But then they take it too far and start talking about *all* predation is a terrible thing. I hate to break it to them, but pretty much all life is engaged in some form of predation or another. Even plants, who make their own food, are constantly trying to outmaneuver or sabotage competing plants. They're always trying to grow higher and wider to hog more sunlight, or dig their roots in wider and deeper to leech more nutrients from the soil. Not even counting plants that are outright parasitic.

The nature of life is to outlive other lifeforms. Whether that comes in the form of eating them to survive, or directly/indirectly sabotaging their own efforts to survive, just about every lifeform does it in some form or another. How many millions of insects do they think are killed to bring them their vegetables? It isn't like plants are just tasty inanimate objects either. They can perceive and react to outside stimuli, signal other plants about it, and even feel a kind of pain, in their own weird way.

RC, I think you've got it: that's why they're the fringe vegan crowd.

When I read the first essay... I wondered if it was from the Onion... then wondered if it was, as someone else suggested, argument by absurdity... but now...

Did the authors really try to defend this position as real? Not sarcasm? I'm dumbfounded. How &^%$#@! ignorant of population biology can they get?

I've been trying to figure the issue of food webs and ecosystem viability in reverse - as I've been writing a science fiction novel about seed ships. How could we terraform a distant world and then populate it with life, hopefully with a fully complex ecosystem that support tetrapods, including large mammals and birds... from the ground up, without that nascent ecosystem suffering collapse because you forgot an important link in the web? How do you create an ecosystem that is at leasty dynamically stable enough as each species is added to it? The problem isn't easy. But one thing I do know... one can't create a stable complex ecosystem of multicellular animals without predation. Heck, I'd be happy if I could figure out how to create such a system without &^%$#@! mosquitos !

By Candice H. Bro… (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

If we really got to a point where we could eliminate predators without complete ecological collapse, then we'd have other better options. Instead of eliminating the predators, re-engineer them so they're all herbivores!

Or re-engineer the prey so they enjoy being eaten. Presto! No more suffering!

What maroons!

It's gotta be a joke and he's gotta just be doing an extended troll on PZ, right??

By Nick Matzke (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

PS: a word or two missing: "I quite annoyed one of the authors "

By Nick Matzke (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

scratch that, I was misreading, I thought PZ said he was annoyed, instead he was saying the vegan guy was annoyed...

By Nick Matzke (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

As I remarked about this elsewhere, "Will no one think of the bacteria?"

By Christopher Young (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

Perhaps some apropos Peter Watts reading for the weekend, sir? Always good for a hearty mind scrub, I find.

Nobody trying to analyze this beyond human perspective? From a universal perspective?

Painful predation only exists at regions/times of Nature in state of chaos and chaos under entropy. Under ordered state, there is predation at its phase of formation, but neither predator nether pray percepts it. It is the case when each adult eat a child, like a teenage disappearing inside an adult, or a planet inside a star. It is the normal flow of vital cycle that transforms the shapes of systems.

From each state of chaos, lift up the state of order, till the transformation/mutation/transcendence to a more complex system, this way evolution walks. This terrestrial biosphere is product of chaos that succeeded the state of order of the system that created life here, the Milk Way, which entropy radiates through stars, like our Sun. So we are the sons of chaos, the entire biosphere. The Law says that it must lift up the flow of order, which will exterminate any kind of violence, like the painful predation. We could be the agents of this flow; if we don't do that, Nature will do by any way. But, we have been doing it, like the domestication of wild dogs, cats.

But.... the transitions from chaos to order takes long time, almost in astronomical scale. That's why we are not finding a quickly solution for eliminating the pain: the ecosystem obeys the natural law, so, the transformation must be slow. I have a suggestion how to do the best we can do now, but, there are others elements to be remembered. One is:

Humans has inherited the duality "criminal predator/inertial victim" from the inferior animals. So, we created several social systems based on the rules of the jungle. Then we have the big predators animals/the billionaire class of humans; the medium animals predators/ the class media of humans, and the animals preys/humans that are vampirized in theirs energy through hard labor. So, we are trying to perpetuate the chaos state because the high and the media class - who has the real power - never will be motivated for eliminating predation because they have the instinct of privileged predation into their blood, from where emerges their moral codes. Eliminating predation in this planet should be the whishes of workers under lower wagers, but they have the instinct of inertia/prey encrypted into their blood, which turns them blind to the success of the force of majority. A force that begins its essay when emerges from buffalos attacking lions in group.

So, the first thing to do for to facilitate the transition from chaos to order, while Nature is waiting and giving an opportunity to us, is attacking the instinct of painful predation/inertial prey that is encrypted into our genetics and is ruler of ours neurons. . As said Dawkins, we need a war against our selfish gene.. These genes can be mutated by transformations of the internal brain's environment. And inside Matrix/DNA Theory we know how to do it, how re-wire neuronal connections. But.... this is a long issue and I must finish this post., if not,, I will stimulate the predation instinct of PZ Myers and he will eat ( banning) my post again.

By Louis Charles … (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

Okay, so who let the Markov chain out?

Of course philosophers need to publish, like any other academic, and they have the luxury of being able to make sh*t up and publish it. But regarding this particular absurdity, where do we stop? Everything eats life and is ultimately eaten.

As far as the ecological consequences are concerned, we can go directly to Darwin himself. In OOS he says that the prevalence of flowers in an area depends on bees to pollinate, but bee's nests are destroyed by rodents, and the rodent population is kept in check by cats. So the number of cats in an area can influence the prevalence of certain vegitation. Since since rodents are mammals, and likely feel pain much as we do, we will have to eliminate cats, and therefore ultimately flowering plants.

Oh,... the Mathematicians! But, the Markov chain is a sub or by-product included in my post's first phrase: " Painful predation only exists at regions/times of Nature in state of chaos and chaos under entropy".

The effects of Markov chain are seen at short times, but, natural selection as the agent of the big system where the random effect is occurring will null it or will include it into the tree's trunk of evolution - if so, it will be about longer time - if the event fits with the system evolutionary functionality.

Markov based on statistics of random events due interactions of state spaces does not apply to the understanding of biological predation, because we know the causes are not by chance.

I am horrified at what goes on these nowadays non-naturalistic philosophy departments, these exceeding masturbations confusing short processes with whole large systems at Mathematics departments, and these reductive but absently systemic method at Biology departments, personally.

Yes, the Markov chain is responsible for some effects of chaotic states, and so, predation phenomena, thanks by mentioning it - it will take my free Sunday researching Markov philosophy and the foundations of the magical thinking that believes in a world ruled by chance. I would appreciate to debate with you today ( since that you would be an advocate of Math and yours beliefs that it applies to depredation), because I will have questions that will be hard to find today in my books and Internet.

But in parallel, on this Sunday I will doing another research related to predation, based on Matrix/DNA world view. Based on Matrix's formula for perfect natural systems we can search solutions for to diminishes the carnage. First we need to understand how chaos creates concrete tools ( like the strong winds) for expressing its elementary forces. Then we need to know the causes that living systems are conducted by bad ways to be predators. I have discovered today very interesting things never imagined before due Matrix's formula

By Louis Morelli (not verified) on 13 Sep 2015 #permalink

The Markov chain drivel is just that - drivel. My sophomore students know better than to write stuff like that.

Absolutely barking.

Although I don't support for a moment the suppression of predator species, you could at least do the argument justice rather than dishonestly misrepresent it. As you well know (having read it), the article posits the perfectly reasonable alternative of chemical contraception to control prey species populations. In New Zealand there are a number of introduced wild prey species with no natural predators (deer, horses, rabbits) and we also have some of them here in England. At the moment their numbers are controlled via hunting, capture and poisoning, but the development of chemical contraception is a viable alternative which is being explored and will undoubtedly be used when it becomes viable, and probably at least in part on moral grounds. In short, its one thing to argue that predators deserve life too (with which I agree) - its quite another to dishonestly ignore the fact that we could not one day soon adequately control the consequences of their removal, should we decide to do so. As for choosing a marine ecosystem composed largely of interdependent predators, a system in which predators could never practically be removed, as a way of ridiculing an argument based upon land predator/prey species where predators could certainly practically be removed, a strawman is a strawman - they never get any more attractive.

By Warren McIntosh (not verified) on 14 Sep 2015 #permalink

"the article posits the perfectly reasonable alternative"

On Htrae, perhaps. Back here on the real Earth, H. Sapiens can't even regulate its own fertility reliably, never mind that of the many thousands† of other species running all over this overcrowded rock. Hell, we can't even guarantee fabulist fools won't reproduce; we just have to hope natural selection and/or academia will weed them out of our gene pool eventually.


(† And that's just assuming you're one of those elitist Warm-Bloodist types who gets terribly squicky when furry things get eaten but thinks the filthy cold bloods deserve everything they get. And Dog help you should you wish to Save The Spineless too.)

At least for Salmon, we could "harvest" them after they've swum upstream and laid eggs. Since they will all be dead within a couple of days anyway. A few animals have similar lifestyles, breed/then die. I guess these philosophers could try to engineer some controlled ecosystems of this sort as an ethical source of fresh meat?

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 15 Sep 2015 #permalink

PZ and others: you're being trolled for fun, and you're swallowing it by taking it seriously.

Philosophers are allowed to goof off. That's what they're doing. I can smell it from this far away and you should be able to do likewise.

The way to play and win is to engage them at that level. For example humans are the apex predator, QED eliminate the humans and nature will be in perfect harmony. This we can do via such means as nuclear war, pandemics, or climate change. In fact we seem to be doing quite a good job of it right now, as we head for +3C and beyond. Oh wait a minute...


eliminate the humans

At last, a cogent argument!

I really don’t get the fringe vegan crowd. Like, if you want to go and have a moral objection to the conditions found inside factory farms and the like, I’m with you there. I think a lot of people would be. Regular livestock rearing and slaughtering can be grisly enough business without turning it into a soulless assembly line. Dekorasyon

By Dekorasyon (not verified) on 19 Sep 2015 #permalink