A Few Reflections on Life
After Stepping on an Ant
Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Since I was in my late teens, I have accepted the general principle of “reverence for life” as presented by Spinoza, Goethe, and Albert Schweitzer. Spinoza had a beautiful vision, but he didn’t present it in a manner which was easy to grasp; he wrote it as a system of geometry–Proposition, Proof; Proposition, Proof, etc. Perhaps the most eloquent paraphrase of this series of remarkable insights is to be found in Einstein’s formulation. After public lectures, the most frequent question which students asked him was: Do you believe in God? His rendering of Spinoza’s view is splendid and one which most closely approximates my own conception of such matters. I include it here both for its own character and because it provides a glimpse into my perspectives on ants and other matters.
When confronted with that question, he always answered:
- I believe in the God of Spinoza.
Baruch de Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy, along with Descartes.
(Spinoza) : God would say:
What I want you to do is go out into the world and enjoy your life. I want you to sing, have fun and enjoy everything I've made for you.
Stop going into those dark, cold temples that you built yourself and saying they are my house. My house is in the mountains, in the woods, rivers, lakes, beaches. That's where I live and there I express my love for you.
Stop blaming me for your miserable life; I never told you there was anything wrong with you or that you were a sinner, or that your sexuality was a bad thing. Sex is a gift I have given you and with which you can express your love, your ecstasy, your joy. So don't blame me for everything they made you believe.
Stop reading alleged sacred scriptures that have nothing to do with me. If you can't read me in a sunrise, in a landscape, in the look of your friends, in your son's eyes... ? you will find me in no book!
Stop asking me "will you tell me how to do my job?" Stop being so scared of me. I do not judge you or criticize you, nor get angry, or bothered. I am pure love.
Stop asking for forgiveness, there's nothing to forgive. If I made you... I filled you with passions, limitations, pleasures, feelings, needs, inconsistencies... free will. How can I blame you if you respond to something I put in you? How can I punish you for being the way you are, if I'm the one who made you? Do you think I could create a place to burn all my children who behave badly for the rest of eternity? What kind of god would do that?
Respect your peers and don't do what you don't want for yourself. All I ask is that you pay attention in your life, that alertness is your guide.
My beloved, this life is not a test, not a step on the way, not a rehearsal, nor a prelude to paradise. This life is the only thing here and now and it is all you need.
I have set you absolutely free, no prizes or punishments, no sins or virtues, no one carries a marker, no one keeps a record.
You are absolutely free to create in your life. Heaven or hell.
I can't tell you if there's anything after this life but I can give you a tip. Live as if there is not. As if this is your only chance to enjoy, to love, to exist.
So, if there's nothing after, then you will have enjoyed the opportunity I gave you. And if there is, rest assured that I won't ask if you behaved right or wrong, I'll ask. Did you like it? Did you have fun? What did you enjoy the most? What did you learn?...
Stop believing in me; believing is assuming, guessing, imagining. I don't want you to believe in me, I want you to believe in you. I want you to feel me in you when you kiss your beloved, when you tuck in your little girl, when you caress your dog, when you bathe in the sea.
Stop praising me, what kind of egomaniac God do you think I am?
I'm bored being praised. I'm tired of being thanked. Feeling grateful? Prove it by taking care of yourself, your health, your relationships, the world. Express your joy! That's the way to praise me.
Stop complicating things and repeating as a parakeet what you've been taught about me.
What do you need more miracles for? So many explanations?
The only thing for sure is that you are here, that you are alive, that this world is full of wonders.
Whenever I read this statement, I feel tears welling up in my eyes at the beauty and elegance of this vision.
This is a liberating, but highly demanding view. It does not say that you should go out and become a libertine and indulge yourself in wild excesses. Two sentences from the above are: “Respect your peers and don't do what you don't want for yourself. All I ask is that you pay attention in your life, that alertness is your guide.” Simply stated, but far-reaching in scope. Spinoza takes away all of our attempts to excuses ourselves for our abuse of ourselves and others. Yes, we can indulge, but we must then also accept the responsibility for our actions. Here he is also advocating that we try to learn about who and what we are; to cultivate a curiosity about our own life and existence in general, to understand so far as we can the wonders of Nature and other beings which share our existence. These concerns led me to Goethe’s and Schweitzer’s formulations of a doctrine of “reverence of life”.
However, I also operated in terms of some exceptions, namely, that insects, mice, and other things that should be out in the wild (or at least in the backyard) should stay there and not come in the house. (I would, of course, make exceptions for those creatures which I had captured and preserved for study in my lab or those live micro-beasties which I maintained in culture dishes.) In return, I respected creatures out in their habitats and let them go about their lives undisturbed. However, my “reverence for life” does have limits and exceptions. (After all, everyone knows that rules are useless and dogmatic unless they have exceptions.) So, mosquitos are anathema and I feel no guilt in bringing about their demise. The same is true of yellow-jacket wasps or ground bees that build nests on or near our house. As it happens, I am highly allergic to their stings and if stung have to seek immediate medical treatment. Also, if any venomous critters such as rattlesnakes or black widow spiders show up in my vicinity, they get dispatched. Fortunately, at our altitude, neither of these latter inhabit our area. We live in a high plateau at 7,200 feet sitting in a bowl of mountains which go up to 12,000 feet.
Schweitzer and Roman Vishniac pushed this doctrine of “reverence” to an extreme from my point of view, but I respect them and their views nonetheless. It’s simply that I cannot adopt them in practice myself. Let me amplify.
Schweitzer was an Alsatian who lived from 1875 to 1965. He was a theologian, philosopher, musician, and physician. In 1952, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” which was concretely demonstrated through his extraordinary achievements at the hospital in Lambarene, Equatorial Africa which he founded and ran for many demanding years of social and political turmoil. The conditions were initially appalling and he and his wife, a surgical anesthesiologist, were often pushed to the breaking point. Schweitzer was an accomplished organist and from time to time would return to Europe to give concerts to raise money for his work in Africa.
His view of life was such that he, at times, even expressed concern about killing bacteria, but realized that if a human was to be treated and saved, there was a practical hierarchy which had to be recognized. If a poisonous snake bit a native, he would try, if possible, to both save the native and release the snake unharmed. For better or worse, I could not go to such extremes.
Roman Vishniac was, a Russian-American thinker and photographer who spent a great deal of his time with photomicrography. He is known for a famous photographic portrait of Einstein. Vishniac was Jewish and wrote extensively about the plight of the Jews in Europe and recorded some of the conditions and events photographically. With regard to his biological photography, Vishniac associated much of his work with religion, though not specifically Judaism. "Nature, God, or whatever you want to call the creator of the Universe comes through the microscope clearly and strongly," he once asserted. Vishniac also practiced a rigorous form of reverence for life. He would collect water samples, take them to his lab, photograph the micro-organisms and then return them to the pond where they were collected. Interestingly, both Schweitzer and Vishniac were strongly religious; Schweitzer had studied and written on Pauline Christianlty and it’s mystical aspects and Vishniac was a Zionist and yet they found in Spinoza a view which was compatible with their own and went beyond the bounds of any traditional theology.
So, back to the beasts of Laramie and environs. Occasionally, a larger beast wanders into town, an elk, a moose, a bear, antelope, a mountain lion, or a bobcat and local authorities deal with those when necessary. That does, however, leave foxes, skunks, raccoons and even an occasional porcupine. These can be a nuisance, but are rarely a threat and aren’t much encountered unless people are foolish enough to leave out waste that these animals can forage in for something edible.
So, what does all this have to do with stepping on an ant? Nothing, but it does provide a context which makes me feel a bit less guilty. I was in the bathroom and noticed this extremely tiny ant crawling along a floor tile. I watched it for a bit and debated with myself whether to squish it or not. In the end, I did using the tip of my cane. It was quick and I reasoned that its tiny size may have been a result of having just hatched and maybe it would have grown and found other ant friends and bred and then we might have had an infestation. A rather self-serving explanation, I realize. However, the matter was not over; I began to think about the enormous complexity of such a tiny being–its delicate nervous system, its extraordinary digestive system. A single ant can have up to 250,000 brain cells. So, 40,000 have the number of brain cells of a human being (unless that human being is involved in politics). They don’t have ears, but they “hear” by picking up vibrations through sensors in the pads of their feet, their knees, antennae, and the hairs on their bodies. Almost all species are colonial, at least in some stage of their lives, and the colony sizes can vary from a few dozen to over 300 million. Ants can lift from 10 to 50 times their own weight. If we had a parallel case in humans, a 200 pound man could lift 10,000 pounds which would radically alter the character of the construction business. So, as you can see, ants are extraordinary creatures which should not be taken for granted. Nonetheless, I am not worried about some Great Ant God coming down to punish me or subject me to some Kafkian metamorphosis. I must further confess, however, that the very next week, in that same bathroom, I dispatched a small spider and a dermestid beetle. I don’t want to give you the impression that we live in a vermin-infested house; it’s just as the weather gets cold, these tiny creatures come through little niches seeking warmth.
I have never been and never could be as rigorous as Schweitzer or Vishniac. I know that I have been responsible for the death of millions of Paramecia and other micro-organisms. Just breathing, we massacre enormous numbers of bacteria. Just being alive, we are in constant battle with pathogens and our bodies fight them off in large numbers daily. This, however, is the consequence of automatic survival mechanisms, although technically, of course, the intake of antibiotics adds another factor to the equation. The real issue is rational decisions which we make regarding our use and treatment of other organisms.
Long ago, I came up with a general rule that has served me fairly well; I have largely limited my investigations to invertebrates where the issue of inflicting pain seems less problematic. A colleague of mine at the university, years ago, wrote scientific articles and popular magazine articles arguing that fish did not, and could not, feel pain. He based this on neurophysiological and anatomical studies. I think that the fact that he was an avid fisherman might have had something to do with his convictions. More recent studies have strongly suggested that fish can indeed experience pain. The main problem for me has always been this issue of needlessly inflicting pain. (Most politicians don’t count, since they are invertebrates.) There is no question when we observe mammals that they experience pain and my own view is that anything that is sophisticated enough structurally to have a skeleton with a nerve cord is going to be able to experience pain.
However, even with the invertebrates, there can be uncertainty.
This is especially evident in the cephalopods which manifest extraordinarily complex behavior that seems to indicate a high level of a specialized kind of intelligence. I have had preserved specimens of squid, octopi, fish, mice, frogs, and garter snakes. Most of my preserved specimens were purchased, but I suppose I could still be regarded as an accomplice to their demise. That has never kept me awake at night, being the hardened, ruthless madman that I am. There are some creatures that occur in such numbers that they become pests and one might even regard oneself as providing a positive service by dispatching quantities of them for study. Naturally, there is always another side; in some instances, undesirable population explosions are a consequence of our encroachment on the environment which has had before a stable balance with predation providing a mechanism for desirable continuity. However, we need to take into account that Mother Nature is a harsh mistress and sometimes mass extinctions occur naturally. A significant number of the organisms which we label as pests have become so as a consequence of our meddling. Consider the introduction of rabbits into Australia which are now a major nuisance or the transportation of organisms from one part of the world to another where they are not native species. There is a tunicate of the genus Styela which has invaded coastal areas in the U.S. and has become a significant liability. Specimens of such organisms could be available in significant numbers for research and classroom instruction and collecting them in quantity could help benefit the environment. Unfortunately, the collection of some of these “pests” can be very difficult as is the case with the “Crown of Thorns” starfish which is destroying large sections of coral reef.
Here is a link to one of my articles in Micscape and toward the end, you will find an image and a brief discussion concerning this remarkable, but destructive starfish.
There is also the issue of culling herds for the health of the overall populations (a view not popular when applied to human beings). It is sometimes disturbing to read of elephants, wolves, bison, elk, deer, badgers, etc. Some have argued that in the end such selection can result in weakening the genetic foundation of herds. Often such issues pit rationality against emotion and this is not an easy dilemma to resolve. Others have argued that it is a kind of utilitarianism applied to Nature. In any case, this is not problem a that will disappear and we should, in my view, have two fundamental concerns: 1) preserving as much genetic diversity as possible and 2) taking action in such ways as to minimize any pain and suffering to other organisms.
The issues I’ve been mentioning are especially important when we, as amateur naturalists, are investigating, studying, and probing the secrets of organisms. My rule to largely restrict my researches to invertebrates works well for me, but would not work for many others who are interested in studying such issues as skeletal development and a myriad of other topics. In the end, every individual needs to set his or her own guidelines and accept responsibility for them. An occasional second thought accompanied by a twinge of guilt is not a weakness, but an indicator of a proper concern for the well-being of both individual organisms and the balance of nature as a whole.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the March 2021 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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