Friday, October 2, 2009

A Landscape of Fear

Olivia Judson writes in praise of predators that establish a “landscape of fear.” (New York Times, 9/29/09, “Where Tasty Morsels Fear To Tread”)

Well and good it might be for wolves to help willows by hunting the elks that munch them; or for spiders to plunder the population of grasshoppers down; but there is a serious danger that little Neros of all flavors, including politicians, pundits, sensationalists and advertising marketers, might misconstrue or misuse Judson’s article.

We get such insidious insinuations on the Nature Channel all the time: The animal world is cruelly competitive; so expect human society to be too. It translates into a wonderful plug for corporate capitalism: It’s okay and natural that one company ruthlessly devours another, that employees are callously fired, that profit rapes the environment, and in general that feverish competition sets the benchmark for proper behavior, not justice, civility, kindness or (gasp) conscience.

The horrible perversion comes easily to mind: Judson’s article in hand, brandished like some Holy Grail, a blustery ideologue proclaims in a spew of spittle, “Humans are better off in a landscape of fear!”

And so through sophistry and callous expropriation, a scientific thesis leads us closer to living in hell. A landscape of fear.

The antidote for such demagoguery is reason. It is a fallacy to leap from animal behavior to what is right for humans. For example, “Male lions sometimes kill cubs, so it is okay for human males to kill children.”

You CAN’T blindly craft ethics from the wilds. If you do, you commit a failure of inference. This failure is so common and egregious that it has a special name: the naturalistic fallacy.

Judson’s ostentatious article invites demagogues to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

If you open your mind, you can see through the dark.


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