Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Thoughts on Sacrifice Update

In response to my post yesterday, A Thought on Self-Sacrifice, some commenters asked some good questions to which I'll now try to respond. But first I want to address the issue of clarity of meaning. Sacrifice can mean different things to different people so I want to say that my meaning is the traditional biblical one, that a sacrifice cannot result in any benefit to one's self whatsoever.

The reason I tackled this subject is that many times when I have tried to point out that sacrifice is contrary to man's nature and therefore works against his survival when practiced consistently, I have been given the argument that nature is replete with examples of sacrificial behavior; that nature hard wires creatures to sacrifice themselves for their young or the group to which they belong. Since this is the case, humans should accept sacrifice as a valid behavior also.

I disagree. I contend that caring for one's young and those in one's group is not a sacrifice but a form of a self-preserving action; that to defend the survival of one's offspring is a very self-interested and therefore survival enhancing behavior.

I further contend that nature, or if you will, evolution, makes no sacrifices--but does make trade offs. If for example, a species develops a survival strategy of massive reproduction whereby it produces so many offspring that it feeds several species of predators and has plenty left over to propagate itself, then massive reproduction is a survival-enhancing behavior. There is no desire by any member of that species to leap or fly into the mouth of its predators. That would be a sacrifice.

One commenter asked about the apparent altruistic behavior of mammalian parents towards their young and about bees and ants and their queens and nests. I think it is just that, appearance, not what's really happening. In the case of bees, ants and other lower life forms, some are born to be soldiers and others born to be workers and so on. They simply respond to different stimuli. I don't think there is any desire to sacrifice themselves. ( I am deliberately ignoring for now the issue of volition which humans have and all other organisms don't, but will discuss later.)

What may look like a sacrifice to us humans is in fact a behavior that has evolved so as to provide a likelihood of survival for that species. I don't think we should call it a sacrifice at all. I once saw a doc where it was shown how an individual bee gives directions to other bees as to the location of a pollen source. The narrator said that if a bee's sense of direction is off or crippled in some way, the other bees will sting it to death immediately. No second chance, no rehab, no mercy whatsoever. No social safety net, i.e. no trace of altruism.

As for mammals, I'm sure their behavior towards offspring is purely self-interested. Again, I saw a doc in which a group of lions were trying to separate a wildebeest calf from its mother. Each time the lions approached, the mother would charge at the lions and they would back off slightly. I wondered why the lions just didn't gang up on her, after all, there were enough of them and they take down full grown wildebeests regularly. Then I realized that a fear-filled wildebeest running for its life is predictable whereas an angry one is not and is therefore more dangerous. The lions probably sense this. So, acting in theirself interest so to speak, decided to focus on the easier meal, the calf. The lions eventually won and the mother rejoined the herd. Had the mother offered her calf to the lions, that would have been a sacrifice. Had the lions felt sorry for the calf and decided to stay hungry for another day, that would have been a sacrifice. But such behavior is not found in the animal world because self-sacrifice is not wired into the minds of these animals.

When we look at some animal behaviors they can appear to be sacrificial but I don't think they are. I think evolutionary trade-offs would be a more accurate identification.

The last reason I think sacrifice doesn't belong in the animal world is because of the issue of volition. Man has it. Animals don't. The concept sacrifice has become a moral concept for humans but it cannot be for animals because there is no morality in the animal world. There is only survive or fail to do so.

Humans must discover their nature then discover a proper behavior (moral code) then choose to behave that way. Animals have to make no such choices. That's why any equating of animal behavior with human behavior as moral is invalid.

My thoughts on this are admittedly, not complete and the commenters have helped me clarify, somewhat, some of them. So the bottom line in my thinking is that, in the animal world, what looks like sacrificial behavior is actually evolutionary trade-offs and what looks like concern for others is actually a survival-enhancing behavior performed with no sense of sacrificial duty. That should do it for now.
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