There Are In Nature Neither Rewards Nor Punishments–There Are Consequences

There Are In Nature Neither Rewards Nor Punishments–There Are Consequences December 1, 2015

Lupa Greenwolf’s note: My apologies for being absent from this blog for the past few months. I got pretty overwhelmed with work-related things and other obligations, and I’m just now back to the point where I can focus on things like blogging again. My thanks to my co-blogger, Rua Lupa, for keeping the flame lit here.

“There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments-—there are consequences.”

So said 19th century orator Robert G. Ingersoll. It’s something I’ve been letting roll around in my head for a while now. Humans are such peculiar animals in that we apply morality and meaning to everything in our world, even beings that do not recognize either morality or meaning as we know them. From Aesop’s Fables to putting livestock on trial we seem to delight in treating other animals as we do our own kind. Sometimes that’s beneficial, when we wish to treat our fellow creatures with care. But other times we forget that animals live according to consequences, not moral rewards and punishments.

Take wolves, for example. For centuries humans (particularly, though not exclusively, in Europe and North America) have demonized gray wolves as murderers, livestock thieves and the incarnation of Satan himself. They’ve used this attitude to slaughter wolves to the point where they’ve been exterminated from a large portion of their historical range; several subspecies, including the Hokkaidō wolf of Japan and the buffalo wolf of the North American plains, were driven extinct entirely. And yet we continued to hate and destroy them, more than perhaps any other creature of the wild.

We justified it through myths and legends, the big bad wolf that ate Little Red Riding Hood and chased the pigs around. We told stories of monsters, humans taking lupine form to devour babies. We made of the wolf the ultimate evil–all along, beneath it all was the real deal, wolves of fur and flesh and bone, who died when shot or strangled or starved. We feel that we have to punish wolves for being wolves. They hunt our livestock when we have driven their normal prey out of their hunting territories; they can only follow so far before they end up on the turf of another pack, which can lead to a fight. But because they took what we saw as ours, we felt the need for retribution, yet we rewarded those wolves that bent to our will and became dogs. To this day we still treat our domesticated animals with rewards–and with punishments.

Let’s look at the wolves themselves, though. When a wolf pup nips a playmate too hard, the other pup yelps and perhaps snaps back. It’s not meant as punishment and retribution, simply “Hey! That hurt! Knock it off!” Similarly, when the pup then goes to an adult to beg for food, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve been beating up on their siblings or not–everyone gets fed. Adult wolves don’t snuggle with their more peaceful young more because they’ve been quiet and not waking the neighbors. And this continues as the pups grow up; the well-known hierarchy in wolf packs isn’t to show inherent value of one wolf or another. One wolf’s snarling at another that gets too close is a simple consequence of needing to make sure order is preserved. Wolves don’t hunt other animals because they hate them; the consequence of not hunting is starvation, while the consequence of a successful hunt is to feed and live another day.

This extends further into nature. If I am walking down a trail and I twist my ankle on a rock, it doesn’t mean the forest is trying to tell me to leave because I’m one of those filthy humans messing everything up. I stepped wrong, the rock was slippery, and physics did the rest. My injury was a consequence of me not watching where I was going, or walking a particularly rocky trail, or wearing the wrong sort of boots for that terrain. If, instead, I find a particularly neat-looking rock, maybe a chunk of petrified wood or a small fossil, nature is not somehow rewarding me in some deliberate manner. I may learn that it’s good to keep my eyes out for stones of a particular color and shape, but the rocks didn’t decide I was a good enough person to be given one to take home. I simply benefited from the consequence of being more visually oriented than some people. Apart from any personal myths and meaning I might work into my spirituality, there’s no morality to the twisted ankle or the petrified wood.

This is not to say we should just upend all sense of morality. Our morals and our sense of right and wrong–even if we disagree on the particulars–are part of what make us human. If anything, we should be giving more thought to why we feel the way we do, rather than blindly accepting “This is always right, that is always wrong, for everyone, forever and ever”.

But what I do feel is necessary is to divorce our morality from nature in general, and stop making everything else take on the burden of our biases. Our exploitation of resources is, at its heart, a self-centered idea that we deserve to be rewarded for being supposedly the smartest, most resourceful species out there. Our destruction of any species that annoys us results from our feeling that they should be punished for their transgressions against us. We encourage deer to come to our suburban yards by leaving food out for them because we want to have Bambi visit us, and then cry when the deer get hit by cars. we glorify the wolf to the point where we ignore less charismatic but more crucially endangered species like the wild axlotl.

Let’s stop romanticizing and demonizing the other beings in our world, and simply take them for who and what they are. Let’s approach the environmental problems we face not with a sense of right and wrong and whether beings deserve to be saved, but with science and facts and compassion for all of it. Because we are in denial of some of the greatest consequences of our actions while we bicker over notions of reward and punishment, and our hubris threatens to destroy us all.

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