Friday, June 30, 2006

Shakespeare and the Whales

The Sainted Greer (bbke) in her SHAKESPEARE, A Very Short Introduction, makes a couple of very interesting points (actually, more big, round, black circles than points). The recent debate over the rights and wrongs of Whaling - and the reaction of both the public and media (or at least the media I have access to) brought these points quite strongly into focus for me.

King Lear is a play very much about the relationship between (wo)Man and Nature. Lear, in the arrogance of his some-time-power, at first attempts to control and give orders to the goddess, Nature. He is "ignored" and experiences a sharp descent through madness to a realisation of Humankind's true position in the natural world.

Three quotes summerise, quite nicely, the point:

1) While human beings use the word (nature) to indicate a loose bundle of properties of which they are in favour, and characterize the abhorent as 'unnatural', they in fact invoke a power which is profoundly indifferent to them.

2) (re: Edmund and Edgar) Both are aware that the realm of nature is profoundly indifferent to the fate of any single species, let alone any individual.

3) The goddess Nature is an amoral pagan personification, her laws harsh and ineluctable. Disabused human nature, on the other hand, is our best resource,our best corrective for the cruelty and inequality of the human condition.

Where does this leave us - human beings?

Well, there is a suggestion that our assumptions about the preservation of species and the environment - our arrogant convictions of our own importance (as guardians of the planet) are as futile as Lear's - in reality we do nothing of significance. We might think what we do is 'destroy' or 'preserve' "Nature" - but we simply play with individual species and give inflated value to individuals which are in reality of no signifficance.

The classification of Whale hunting as immoral is an example of an 'abhorent' practice many people fall into the trap of judging as against Nature. Too many are unwilling to contemplate the realities of life in the sea - although they occassionaly get glimpses, as in the David Attenborough (bbbs) Natural History series: Remember the Killer Whale pod hunting and killing the Whale calf? It was painful to watch, and difficult to accept. The time frame was hours - and the only reason for hunting and killing was to eat a small part of the animal. Can we define such an action as either unnatural of immoral? Or what of the Killer Whales hunting seals for sport?

And David Attenborough (bbbs) himself admits that the full horrors (and impact) of chimps hunting, ripping apart, and eating another monkey were left on the cuttingroom floor - the television audience wouldn't like to see the truth. Yet it is many of the same people who will condemn hunting Whales as unnatural and immoral: Their eyes and minds remain closed to Nature's indifference.

Few would argue that the extinction of the aids virus, or smallpox,or bird flu would be immoral on the grounds of decreasing the variety of life forms on the earth. We give money in order to promote the extinction of these life forms, and criticise our governments when they don't do enough to remove them from the face of the earth.

But, to Nature, what is the difference between Smallpox and Blue Whales?

And what if no species ever became extinct? The romantics I am sure would love the dinosaurs to be still roaming (in suitable reserves) - but what would have happened to the mammals if the dinosaurs hadn't become extinct?

Surely it is time to disabuse ourselves of our true position in Nature - and accept that there is no importance with regard to "Nature" in anything we do?