Not nothing

The death of a fly is utterly insignificant – or it’s a catastrophe. How much should we worry about what we squash?

by 3000 3,000 words
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Photo by Jon Higgs/Gallery Stock

Photo by Jon Higgs/Gallery Stock

Stephen Cave is an English philosopher and journalist. His latest book is Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation (2012). He lives in Berlin.

This morning a tiny fly was, true to its name and nature, flying about in the vicinity of my desk. It really was very tiny – a fruit fly, I’d guess. At one point it landed in front of me. I brushed it aside and it resumed flitting about in its patternless path. Then it landed again, and again I aimed to brush it aside. But this time, my aim was off. It was probably a matter of only a millimetre or so, but my finger landed, not next to the fly, but on it, and so what was meant to be a brushing motion became instead a squidging motion.

The fly was so small that it didn’t offer the least resistance to the pressure of my finger. Compliantly, it transformed itself into a dark smudge. Not a gory or bloody smudge; not one with the least detail or variation – not to my naked eye, anyway. Just a small, uniform, rather faint mark.

Now, I’m not a biologist, but I know that a fly is an animal, and more specifically, an insect. As such, it has (or had) wings, legs, eyes, antenna and a host of internal organs. Those parts are in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are – or were – the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings. A history of life spread out before me, if only I were able to read it.

At this point, I guess that readers will be dividing into two parties. One party, probably the majority, will be thinking, ‘Get over it, it’s a fly.’ This, it seems to me, is a very reasonable position. Flies die in large numbers all the time – some, indeed, at my hand, whether I intend it or not (and I sometimes do). And in the summer evenings, when I sit on our terrace and watch swifts in their spectacle of swooping and screeching, this beautiful display is, of course, at the same time an orgy of insect death.

The other party of readers, probably the minority, will be horrified at my casual killing of this delicate life-form. They will be appalled at the waste and stupidity of my carelessness. To them, I must be an oaf; at best ignorant, at worst malevolent. And this, it seems to me, is also a very reasonable position. Even though I habitually write – sometimes about complex subjects – it is certain that with one mistimed finger-swipe I destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any I will ever create.

Thus it seems to me quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe. To entertain such contradictions is always uncomfortable, but in this case the dissonance echoes far and wide, bouncing off countless other decisions about what to buy, what to eat – what to kill; highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.

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Which is a problem, because nature is a streamers-and-all, non-stop, cork-popping party of death. For example, I regularly take my children to a large park with a series of ponds, where in spring we look for frogspawn. This gelatinous broth is a mass of life in the making. Each batch contains many hundreds, even thousands of eggs. The next time we visit, the pond will be full of tadpoles, like a page covered in punctuation marks. But the time after that, there will be many fewer; and the next time we will have to look hard for those metamorphosing mini-frogs, as tiny as keychain toys, some still with their tadpole tails. Those we find are the few survivors, whose numbers will be thinned still more before any get as far as restarting the cycle with their own spawn. The Way of the Frog is to get Death so full at the feast that a few can slip past while he slumbers.

This party of death is, of course, at the same time a cork-popping party of life. For all the tadpoles that perish, some still make it to become frogs, and have been doing so for at least 200 million years. Those that don’t are the stuff of life for countless other creatures, from the littlest insect larvae to grand old storks. Indeed, frogs are regarded as a keystone species, which means that the death of their multitudinous offspring, along with the death that they themselves deal out, is crucial to the flourishing of the community of life. In the language of ecology, life and death are obligate symbionts, each wholly dependent on the other.

We too are built on a bedrock of old men’s bones. Our evolution to Homo sapiens is a product of the endless winnowing out of the unfit and the unfortunate. If some australopithecine apeman or woman had stumbled across the elixir of life, it is very unlikely that you or I would exist. It is worth bowing our heads for a moment to all our ancestors whose passing away made our lives possible.

I was drawn to imagine the great finger coming to squish me, my little life flashing before my bulging, compound eyes

But here we are – and many people would like it to stay that way. That tadpoles are fodder for pond-life is as natural as the leaves falling on the water in autumn; that flies get squidged is as ordinary as apples rotting in the orchard. One’s own death, on the other hand, seems most unnatural. It seems rather an error and an outrage; a cosmic crime; a reason to raise one’s fist and rebel against the regime that ordered this slaughter of innocents.

But here we are – guests at the party of life and death. We know we must exit along with the flies and the tadpoles. But we would rather not think about it. And that, perhaps, is the problem with my dead fly. When I squidged it, I summoned the Reaper to my desk. If only briefly, I caught his eye. If I had turned away fast enough, the fly’s death would have remained as insignificant as those of its invisible brothers and sisters caught by the swifts. But I was drawn instead inside its tiny head, drawn to imagine the great finger coming to squish me, my little life flashing before my bulging, compound eyes. Through a lapse in my indifference, I was drawn into the catastrophe, drawn to make its death my death.

Veganism, like the Indian religion Jainism and other movements that preach a very purist strain of non-violence to other beings, seems to me a response to this one side of our contradictory perception of mortality – its catastrophic nature. Such movements take seriously the catastrophe that is every single death of every single sentient creature, whether fly, rat, frog or human. And so they say: not by my hands, not on my watch, not if I can help it. They are anti-death movements, whose followers go to great lengths not to squash flies or mosquitoes, let alone have big fat pigs killed on their behalf.

This horror at the death of other creatures is intimately bound up with horror at the prospect of one’s own demise. Flies come and go in countless masses, mostly beyond my sight and care. But when something happens that causes me to empathise, to become the fly, then its death becomes terrible. As the poet William Blake realised when he, too, carelessly squashed an insect:
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

Some clever research from the field of social psychology has demonstrated a close association in our minds between animals, animal products, bodilyness generally and our own mortality. The upshot is that these things give off a whiff of the Reaper that colours our response to them. The studies are part of a body of work known as ‘terror management theory’, which holds that our world views largely function to help us manage the terror of death. That means all world views: in the case of religions such as Christianity with their promise of eternal life, the link is very obvious, but secular belief systems have their death-defence-mechanisms too, often closely paralleling the religious ones. For example, just as Christians believe they will be resurrected by God, those who subscribe to cryonics – being frozen upon death – believe they will be resurrected by scientists.

Veganism and, to a slightly lesser extent, vegetarianism both follow this pattern, as modern secular parallels of Jainism. Their response to the terror of mortality is to attempt to create a zone of non-death, a zone from which the Reaper has been entirely banished, visiting neither flies, nor rats, nor us. In Jainism, the death-denial element is explicit: your ultimate reward for keeping your hands unbloodied is to become godlike. In veganism, it is only implicit, but nonetheless the religious or ritualistic elements are present: such as in the actions of a friend of mine who, when deciding to become vegan, threw out the half-finished pack of butter in her fridge. What animals were helped by this act, what suffering allayed? None, of course. But it at least banished death from her toast.

I said that seeing each death as a catastrophe seems a perfectly reasonable response, and veganism and Jainism are its logical extensions. They attempt to resolve the paradox by denying the other side, which says that the death of a creature is at the same time insignificant, natural and inevitable. However, as reasonable as it is to take the catastrophe of death seriously, to ignore the other side of the paradox altogether leads us only into fantasy.

It is the fantasy of a day when (in the words of the Old Testament) ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat’. It imagines a world in which the catastrophe of mortality has triumphed over its insignificance. ‘Then,’ as St Paul wrote, ‘shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory”’, and we all might live happily ever after, flies and all.

Just because nature is a cork-popping party of death does not mean that death is right or good

But it is a fantasy. We cannot do away with death without doing away with life. In the Natural History Museum in my adopted home of Berlin, there is a glass cabinet in which a lion looks into the eyes of a zebra. They are just a few feet away from each other, with no barrier between them, but this lion will nonetheless never claw at this zebra’s flanks, nor break its neck nor tear out its bowels. They seem instead quite comfortable in each others’ presence, like old acquaintances, reminiscing perhaps about the warm savannah sun. The threat of imminent, violent death has been banished. And that, of course, is because they are filled with cold metal and wood shavings, instead of the hot blood that made them once alive and mortal enemies.

No, we cannot do away with death without doing away with life. And this applies equally to the animals in our charge. The vegan friend who threw away the butter also once said to me that she did not want animals to die because of her. But of course, before they die for her (or you or me), they live. Whether they live well is a very important, but nonetheless separate, question. Caring and campaigning about animal welfare is noble and worthwhile. But abolishing such animals altogether is saying: because I am horrified that they must die, I will not let them live.

It is a well-known fallacy to extrapolate from what is to what ought to be. Just because nature is a cork-popping party of death does not mean that death is right or good. Just because all flies die, this does not mean that my fly deserved what it got when I squidged it. But on the other hand, nature does set limits to what is possible, and perhaps even thinkable. Nature will not tolerate an end to these cycles; it will not tolerate life without death.

There is an equal and opposite alternative to veganism’s insistence on the momentousness of each death, and its ensuing death-denial. We can instead assert death’s insignificance. Whereas in the first approach, each life acquires infinite value such that we dare not let it end, in the second approach, we strip each life of its value so that its end is a matter only of indifference. This approach, of course, is nihilism.

Perhaps death’s relentless reaping should make us question the existence of higher meaning. But who thought there was such a thing anyway?

There is a long tradition of seeing in the omnipresence of death the negation of all meaning, hope and value. It was what the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson meant when in 1849 he described Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. He laments that she is ‘so careless of the single life’, then, on considering fossils, how she is so careless of whole species. She cries: ‘I care for nothing, all shall go’, and Tennyson concludes: ‘O life as futile, then, as frail!’

But just as the first attempt to escape the paradox becomes an attempt to deny the undeniable, so does this one. The fact of death does not destroy meaning: indeed, as we pass through the heat of life we cannot help but produce meaning, like a popcorn machine produces popcorn. This is what living things do: they imbue the world with significance and value; for an organism there is always better or worse, relevant or irrelevant; there is always something to do. This is what differentiates us from the rock that is indifferent to being pummelled to sand by the sea.

Perhaps, as Tennyson believed, death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning – one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles. And not me – yet I’m not therefore tempted to despair, at least not while a good dinner is waiting.

Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway: as we saw, the alternative is the most desperate and convoluted of denials.

Once when on holiday as a child, I remember my father wielding some insecticide spray against a column of ants invading our rented chalet. Thinking this looked like a fun thing to do, I took the spray-can outside to the ant’s nest and went on the offensive. To my surprise, my father came out and told me to stop. I had no business killing them all like that, he said. I was confused: my dad was a sausage-eating, fly-swotting man, who had grown up on a farm, and had himself just moments before brandished the same spray-can. But I was also relieved. I was glad that he thought it wrong; I was glad that he thought the death of an ant not only insignificant, but at the very same time a catastrophe.

from the viewpoint of the gods, the deaths of us and the flies are equal in their insignificance

He did not explain exactly why he thought my ant-hunting was wrong. He did not try to rationalise the apparent contradiction in his own actions with a grand theory. Though if he had been pushed, he might have said: we cannot stop Death from going about his business; and we oughtn’t pretend that sparing the ants (or the flies or the butter) will keep him from our door; but we need not rush to be his foot soldiers either.

Those hoping that I would resolve this paradox might now be getting a little anxious, as we are reaching the penultimate paragraph with no solution in sight. But it should be clear by now that I do not believe there is a solution. I believe that the death of the fly was both insignificant and a kind of catastrophe. And I believe that about the deaths of frogs and pigs too, and about my own death, and yours.

This, as Shakespeare knew, is the source of tragedy: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,’ said the much-suffering Gloucester in King Lear. The boys are wanton because the death of any creature, even a fly, is a catastrophe; but at the very same time, from the viewpoint of the gods, the deaths of us and the flies are equal in their insignificance.

Philosophers academic and amateur – which is to say, pretty much all of us – prefer to think that paradoxes must have solutions, that they are somehow just the wrong way of looking at things, or a muddle of grammar and syntax. But not this one. It is, as far as I can see, part of the nature of things. To take both sides seriously and to seek some way to live with them is part of what it is to be human; part of what it means to be a guest at the party of life and death.

Read more essays on death and ethics

Comments

  • mijnheer

    A pretty essay, but somewhat lacking in nuance: for the author, every death is a catastrophe or insignificant or both. This is too tidy and is unhelpful in terms of understanding how we ought to live. The idea that vegans wish to banish or deny death is simplistic. Indeed, I strongly suspect that, typically, vegans are more willing than others to confront death. They refuse to refuse to see the wanton suffering and death we humans inflict on other sentient beings; they will not keep it out of sight and out of mind in abattoirs, nor wrap it in cellophane to disguise it. They demand that we humans recognize and take responsibility for the harm we do, and try to lessen that harm, even though it is impossible to reduce it to zero.

    What makes the author think that flies and other insects are sentient? How far down the ladder of organic complexity sentience extends is not clear. It is being sentient and, beyond mere sentience, having a life that matters to one, that is the key to understanding to what extent deaths are tragic. The death of a fly is surely not any kind of catastrophe and is at most only a small harm.

    The most clear-headed sentence in this essay is that one that says "we cannot stop Death from going about his business ... but we need not rush to be his foot soldiers either." And so we need not feel trapped by paradox; we can recognize the tragic aspect of life and strive to lessen the harm we do to others who have lives that matter to them.

    • Becca Kallem

      So well stated, thank you.

      • mijnheer

        Thank you for your kind words, Becca. (However, in at least one regard I did not state things so well: I messed up my use of "nor". I should have said "or" instead of "nor", or alternatively followed "nor" with "will they".)

        In another comment you say you "respect small-scale farmers who raise and then kill animals in a relatively humane way." But what killing, other than euthanasia for those whose suffering is beyond hope of relief, is "humane"? For some of those who opt out of consuming animals, what is at least as objectionable as the suffering imposed is the idea that other sentient beings are ultimately merely objects to be used and obliterated -- i.e., treated not with respect but simply as means. As for those farmers you speak of, we can respect them for doing what they believe is right without necessarily agreeing that they are actually treating their animals with respect when they deprive them of their lives.

    • michaelaparks

      I'd love for someone to explain the sentience argument. I hear it often, but it seems like it needs a lot of unpacking. Do we really have such a grasp on what sentience means, in the context of animal intelligence, and how different organisms experience sentience? Flies do perceive things. They feel things. How do we know that what they feel or perceive is of so much less worth than what a cow feels or perceives.

      And why does only sentience make a death tragic? If a fly isn't "sentient", it's still a marvel of complexity and nature. It's still life. Isn't that still tragic?

      To me, drawing the line between a fly and a cow seems as wrong as drawing the line between humans and animals. It seems like a convenient, but arbitrary distinction.

    • babby660

      what makes you think the fly's life/death doesn't matter to the fly? Have you ever psycho-analized an insect of any persuasion?

      • mijnheer

        I tried psychoanalyzing one, but it wouldn't stay still on the couch.

        • babby660

          That's too bad; some folks just don't seem to WANT to get better, do they?

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com/ The Sanity Inspector

    When I kill an insect, I sometimes wonder how many millions of years back we might have shared a common ancestor. Eternities ago, a clutch of eggs hatched. One new born creature wriggled this way, and another that way, to found gradually diverging lineages. And now here we, the descendants, have met in these morbid circumstances.

    • http://go.ga/ Go DotGa

      Quite a sad event when you put it that way! +1

  • Ydre

    In this perpetual dance between life and death, we humans begin to become the exception. We're like some weeds that have grown excessively large and intertwined among this perfectly tuned mechanism. We have already produced a distortion: we as a species did not evolve because we choose to keep among us the sick, weak, stupid or crazy ones. We have multiplied beyond measure and we turned into an army of viruses to our host the planet Earth. We intervened in this perfect dance of death and life as a 3 year old child playing with a screwdriver through the integrated circuits of a computer without knowing what harm occurs. There is no one above us, no God, that would not allow this, so we make out. Congratulations to the author! Well, I really enjoyed the article.

    • d0x360

      Tell us more Agent Smith.

  • Robert M

    I feel like I tend to reject scientific awe the more I see it, since practically anything can be awesome just by the difference of scale between, say, atoms and ourselves, ourselves and the cosmos, or the duration of a life and the duration of a planet. As awesome as these scales are, nature is apathetic to its own process of becoming, and I don't think a displacement of religious feeling onto scientific understandings is warranted or particularly desirable. I also tend to reject this kind of loose projection of the self onto animals that is, in part, used to create the catastrophe presented by the essay, since I think that's more a source of confusion than anything. It certainly can be useful for exploring philosophical questions like it is here, but, if I'm being honest, I kill flies without thinking twice. I'm completely unbothered by it.

    However, I love it when these sorts of philosophical paradoxes are explored, so I really enjoyed this.

    • http://go.ga/ Go DotGa

      I agree. Philosophy is as fascinating as or perhaps even more so than science in my view.

    • TypicalMoron

      I still find awe in science. For example, when you look at energy and atoms, and then move up the size scale and look at molecules, and on, you can see how everything is made up of the same stuff, and functions in similar ways.

      For example, humans on earth act as neurons sending and receiving information, much like the neurons in our brains. Humans also function as hormone secreting cells much like the endocrine system in our bodies, as we continually dig up chemicals and then place them into the environment where they can react with many other chemicals and other people, life forms, etc.

      We are the universe and the universe is us. We aren't separated from it. We aren't apart from it. And even right now the same magnetic field that surrounds the earth is passing through you, me, birds, plants, and inorganic chemicals in the core and the atmosphere.

      Philosophy is an attempt to understand the world around us, and science is the tool that we use to be consistent in measuring and describing the world around us.

  • nystatin

    Learn all you can, and pull all the strings you can, to get in on the radical extension of healthy lifespan likely in the next few decades. See Aubrey de Grey's book Ending Aging. Log on to maxlife.org.Would you rather be one of the last to die early, or one of the first to live long?

    If you get bored by long life, just stop showing up for your quadrennial aging reversals, and in time dear old Mother Nature will solve the problem for you - permanently. Better to develop new interests.

    Vital research is stifled because the FDA does not regard aging as a disease. But many of us who suffer from it do so regard it. Something that first uglifies (at least in this culture), then debilitates, then imiserates, and finally, kills everyone not already dead from other causes, is a disease. l

    • TypicalMoron

      As much as I'd love to live for a hundred years more than I have, Aubrey de Grey isn't a biologist last time I read and watched information about his theories. Not to mention, cells die all the time. He postulates that cells continually retain garbage that harms us, but very few cells in our bodies last for more than a few weeks at a time. I just don't see it.

      What will be the turning point in aging is the effective use of stem cells, especially your own stem cells taken early as a fetus, which retain near-perfect copies of your own DNA.

      Most of the aging research that I've come across discusses the degradation of DNA over time, as more and more mutations and damage occurs to the stem cells that we still have that produce the rest of our cells.

      If we could figure out a way to continually implant our own stem cells with near-perfect copies of DNA back into our bodies, then aging would be much easier to control.

  • stevenharp

    Aeon is relentlessly materialistic. Its essay categories should be titled, "materialist philosophy" and "materialist religious anthropology". This myopic view is becoming increasingly naive.

  • JSintheStates

    I don't worry about the fly, unless it's in my house! I do worry about the End-Justifies-the-Means amorality of spending billions of dollars on war (misrepresented as defense). The United States continues to blow-up, maim, kill, and otherwise terrorize the rest of the world, seemingly carrying on some Christian Jihad against "terrorists", while seemingly supporting terrorists in a given country, and killing them in another!

    There are 20 year olds in the United States who have never known a period of history where the US wasn't engaged in warfare that the US initiated; these young people self-righteously believe, and have been taught to believe that might makes right, and that the US is right period!

    Wholesale killing rationalized to defend and protect and "free" other human beings on this planet is madness! This I do worry about, and have sleepless nights over!

  • Roy Niles

    Perhaps the message here is that you should only kill a fly if you plan to eat it. Or make it into fly flour for baking purposes. Or mix it in chicken broth as a form of soup. Or at least feed the dead flies to something, like maybe to a plant. But then again, if you squash one, don't bacteria clean up the mess by feeding on it?

    • Lazaro Alcazar

      Well thought!

  • http://go.ga/ Go DotGa

    Nature is indeed a killing field, from animals devouring other animals as that is their one true purpose. Let's not forget that energy is never lost -- it is merely transferred. And so to answer the question whether death is an insignificant thing or a catastrophe, it is neither. It is natural's grand design and nothing to fret or worry over, even though we do.

    • Becca Kallem

      I agree... so why not try our best to mitigate suffering while we live and that's about it!

      • http://go.ga/ Go DotGa

        You know what they say: no good deed goes unpunished! ;)

    • Pawn666

      Nature is truly cruel and gruesome, which is one of the many reasons that I reject the idea of a divine creator. Snakes crawl into mouse holes and devour baby mice. Barracuda rip the legs off of octopus. Hawks shred pigeons alive.
      The problem that I personally is that I can't help but feel badly for the victim animal, even though its death is sustaining another animal. It's a burden to think this way because it takes me out of the normal food chain cycle of life. I should not be bothered by the suffering or pain of animals, but I am. When I look into a dogs eyes I feel like there is something there that most likely isn't. I feel the same way about a pig, goat, or even a bee to some extent.

      • babby660

        The reason I became a vegetarian is that I thought one day when I was walking my beloved doggie, that I would not like to see him become someone's dinner. I stopped eating meat, but, of course, he didn't

      • ApathyNihilism

        "Nature is truly cruel and gruesome, which is one of the many reasons that I reject the idea of a divine creator. "

        There are other alternatives to consider, other than mere rejection of a creator, such as:
        - the creator is a sadistic jerk
        - the creator is imperfect and makes mistakes
        - the creator got drunk one day and had a really bad idea: "Time to create the world!"
        etc.

    • ApathyNihilism

      Nature has a design?

  • Becca Kallem

    I concur with mijnheer that the author's conception of veganism/vegetarianism is too simplistic. Many vegans are quite cognizant death, and also aware of the QUALITY of the life (and death) farmed animals experience in agribusiness. For me, the problem is just as much the treatment of the living animals as the killing. Other vegans and vegetarians are primarily concerned with the environmental impact of large-scale meat production. I respect, say, small-scale farmers who raise animals in a relatively humane way (and then eat their meat). They really must address that relationship and killing. Contrast that with the sort of casual and death-ignoring attitude of people who consume meat without any real knowledge of the animal's prior living conditions and way of death.

    • SheWhoIs

      What about hunting wild animals for food, like in hunter-gatherer societies? The animals lived free and then were killed.

  • Justin Holland

    Thank you for the great article. Incredibly thought provoking.

  • Louis B Knockel

    Good thinking, good writing. Stay alive, Mr. Cave!

  • d0x360

    I'm all for killing the fly but let's get to what's really important here. It couldn't have been a fruit fly! They are way too nimble to allow you to squash it with a finger.

    Kidding aside, thanks for the interesting article

  • d0x360

    Not a bad point of view but who decides what is sentient? How do we determine such a thing? Does a fly have a sense of self? Does a fly understand life and death?

    That being said I'm against the killing of animals except for food. I'm certainly against killing for sport or thrill.

    • Chris Haynes

      You, there person about to commit the act, have to decide on sentience. No religious authority or philosopher can do that for you.

      Your judgements and actions are your responsibility.

      Mahayana Buddhists would generally recognise any life form which is capable of locomotion and shows signs of adaptive behaviour as sentient. They all partake of a common 'Buddha-nature' (even if they don't know it).

      "Sense of self" as a test is a not a good idea; Buddhist meditators can discover for themselves that there is no 'self', so would not appreciate this as a test for sentience!

  • Kizmiaz

    I don't always kill flies, but when I do, they are dead. Stay free of flies, my friend.

    • babby660

      my mom used to swat a fly with a sense of purpose & say, "what's dead stays dead!

  • LoggerheadShrike

    Death is, for me, salvation from eternity. How world-weary one would become after a couple of centuries. Imagine knowing that was only the beginning and billions of years of boredom lay ahead. What Hell!

    It's a chance for other creatures to exist, for new life. For the life that we are, to transform and become something else. It's almost magic to think our essences will intertwine with others in the soil, the plants, the animals, becoming part of the land itself. Death is life's constant second chance, continual do-over.

    Life is, above all, ever-changing and in motion all the time. An absence of death would make life static, like becoming a moving statue.

  • iveeri335

    Good story. Seems from the heart and thats cool. I am an creationist and appreciate there was no attack on religion, etc. Think it was well written for a touchy subject and my favorite line was "No, we cannot do away with death without doing away with life".
    This line made me really sit back and think about what we do as humans. The problem with humans, in my opinion, is that we over indulge in everything we do. We feel like we are kings and everything is at our disposal from all of our beautiful planets' resources. She will bite back one day...

    • Pawn666

      I'm a bit late replying but I would be interested in your view on animal suffering from a creationist standpoint. I have been told by certain religious people that sufferering is some sort of punishment to humans because of the adam and eve event. Then there is the story of Job....but why must an animal suffer. Why would animals be created to suffer if they have no soul and no way to be saved? I am seriously interested in a thoughtful response.

      • iveeri335

        I only recall it saying humans (not animals) would suffer and have hardships because of Adam and Eve. This really depends on your view; does quickly killing an animal to eat qualify as suffering? If so, than religious or not, the majority would be considered as animal abusers in your opinion. If we go down the road of evolution, we have been killing animals to eat ever since we could chuck a spear. The bible says God put animals on Earth for us to eat. To get to the point, how we got here does not matter. What matters is that humans respect the Earth and have morals and or values to not abuse animals. Common sense. I eat meat and love it, I would never be ok with anyone making an animal suffer no more than I would be ok if it was a child.

        • Pawn666

          I'm more interested in what you think god's reasoning is to allow non-humans to suffer. For example, why to animals each each other alive? If god decided on what animals to create, why not make a planet of lambs instead a planet with mosquitoes, snakes, sharks, crocodiles, etc? If gods plan was to make humans suffer for their disobedience in the garden, then why also make a planet where animals eat each other (and suffer) when they clearly feel pain and stress?

  • headhopper

    I was delighted to come across this article; rarely does one come across essays about issues that really matter. In comparison to the topics discussed above, the various political and social stories that dominate the news are so petty and insignificant.

    I have just one point to contribute, which is that in my view the author failed to differentiate between death and suffering. I doubt that vegans are concerned, consciously or subconsciously, with death, which most non-religious people accept to be inevitable. The great enemy is not death but suffering. The killing of the fly was insignificant because, squished in an instant, it did not suffer. I myself would be quite content to be squished in a fraction of a second, not even aware of the fact that I am being squished and that my existence is about to be terminated.

    Yet it is a catastrophe when, for instance, cows are trucked to the slaughterhouse - the suffering here includes not just physical suffering, but also the indignity forced upon the individuals when their bodies and free will are commandeered. I doubt it is possible to take a life for one's own benefit without bestowing some degree of suffering on the victim.

    In the end, though, the paradox remains; without almost infinite suffering there is no life, and life - or more specifically the myriad complexity of life - is the direct product of suffering. There are a number of thought systems that seek to celebrate life by also celebrating, or at least acknowledging, the suffering that makes it possible.

  • David Malek

    Plants are a form of life too. What makes vegans think that the death of a worm, with no brain and self consciousness,
    is more significant than steam cooking of a bunch of broccoli?

    • Pawn666

      Every human, regardless of their diet draws a line somewhere. Most draw a line at cannibalism. Some meat eaters would kill everything they eat without guilt. Others would never hunt, eat veal, or boil a lobster. Everyone makes their own decision what they are comfortable with. Some vegans eat only raw food while others eat junk food.

      Someone following a vegan diet for non-health reasons generally gives any obvious living creature the benefit of a doubt as to whether it suffers.It's easy just to draw the line at plants since they do not squirm away when caught. They gray area is an oyster which roots itself in the mud in an almost plant-like way. It's still easier to avoid it just in case.

  • mijnheer

    The Chinese philosopher Mencius said that by nature humans cannot bear to see the suffering of others. Darwin said, in effect, that we are hard-wired by evolution to feel sympathy for others and that sympathy and mutual aid is to be found in many social animals. Here's a fascinating talk on the subject by primatologist Frans de Waal:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

    The question is, Which beings count as "others" whom we ought to include within our circle of moral concern? And why do most people shut their eyes to the suffering of non-humans? De Waal coined the term "anthropodenial" to designate the refusal to see the extent to which many (other) animals are similar to ourselves.

    • Pawn666

      Interesting link, thanks.

  • Larry Parks

    So why can't they drink the milk and eat the cheese? Cows don't have to die for that. If it's grass fed then it's not too bad for you and the cow is probably happy to be alive.

    • Gareth

      "So why can't they drink the milk and eat the cheese? Cows don't have to die for that."

      But they do, in huge numbers. You do realise that a cow's milk is meant for the calf and not a human?

      • Larry Parks

        Oh, totally, but I didn't see any need to throw the butter away. I figure as long as the cows have a big field to eat normal cow food and roam at least it's happy and can be used for hamburger later and so it won't be a waste. But of course that doesn't happen to most cows, I'm just saying ideally, we could just demand better conditions.

        • babby660

          it certainly is thought-provoking. I once must have bought fruit with fruit-fly eggs on them. Those eggs hatched & became extremely pestilential flies, which I persued relentlessly with a fly swatter until they were all dead -- and I call myself a vegetarian! Life is full of such inconsistencies.

      • babby660

        and the calf is fed milk-substitute until it is slaughtered for veal. In addition, its calf-hood is spent in a tiny shed, apart from the cow.

  • lennyharris

    A flies death is not a catastrophe. It is insignificant. Today's farming and ranching and the possessing of food is not morally the best we could do but would you let people starve? Would you sterilize the masses. An old person dying after a well lived life is not tragic. A young person dying is bad. I think if you are a vegan and not pushy you are great. I do think eating meat is natural but I do wish I could just eat veggies. I do not think I am going to heck for eating a burger but a salad would be better. If killing mosquitoes is bad I will be burning in hell forever.

  • Al_de_Baran

    Minor point:

    "to become the fly, then its death becomes terrible. As the poet William
    Blake realised when he, too, carelessly squashed an insect:"

    In Blake's day, butterflies were sometimes referred to as "flies", and Blake is likely using the word in this sense (as the illustration accompanying the poem also suggests), and not the common housefly or its congeners..

  • Michael Smith

    There is evidence that those who work in slaughter houses are more likely to be convicted of violent crimes, especially domestic violence. In other words the act of killing and butchery has a negative impact on people and increases their propensity for violence. This is hardly surprising. As Aristotle said moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts, and of course vice versa.

    • babby660

      don't know how much evidence there is -- do you have study statistics in mind, perhaps? But, it makes sense to me. Working in a slaughterhouse must be as brutalizing for the workers as well as for the victims.

  • SheWhoIs

    Then, of course, not killing any mosquitoes can, and no doubt will, bring about the deaths of humans, including children, due to malaria and yellow fever. And allowing rats and fleas to proliferate and run free can cause diseases as well. Black death anyone? One often gets the sense that radical vegans and the PETA types love animals but deep down hate human beings. In other words, in their paradigm some animals are more equal than others.

  • SheWhoIs

    Then there is the matter of ants and bees who have a hive mentality and could be considered similar to cells in a brain. In other words, they perhaps are not sentient "individuals."

  • DonPhil

    The article nowhere mentions either predators or parasites. This reduces its cogency for people who live where mosquitoes or snakes are abundant.

  • mijnheer
  • hypnosifl

    Another perspective is that death is not inherently bad, but suffering is. So factory farming is much worse than farms where animals live comfortable lives and are dispatched quickly, but even the latter is bad if the animals are social creatures that may be saddened by the loss of a mate or companion (in this case, raising a group of animals together and then slaughtering them all on the same day would be the most humane version of meat-eating). By the same token, the death of a person is mainly bad because of the ripples of long-term grief it creates in everyone who cared about that person, no harm has really been done to the person who died.

  • Fred Eaker

    Inevitable death is not the cause of concern for vegatarians/vegans. It is the unnecessary suffering of animals that concerns us.

    • ApathyNihilism

      I would say both are my concern.

  • AnnaPurnita

    Two things:

    1) Nonexistence = zero suffering and is therefore better than existing for any reason at all no matter how minimal the suffering. For more see the New Yorker article The Case Against Kids http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/09/the-case-against-kids

    2) You are confusing the two types of meaning. A nihilist creates his own meaning (as in, a reason to get up in the morning and feel good today) whereas he does not create in his head existential meaning (as in, god's purpose).

    So, I can get up tomorrow and feel good about myself for the simple reason that I am not causing suffering. No magical thinking. No paradox.

  • Gabe Eisenstein

    To worry about the death of another creature is to value that creature's existence. I think we need to recognize that values grow out of immediate experience and are then subject to intellectual refinement--that the idea of universal ethics, for example, can only grow out of the soil of family and community; from love of one's own, the sphere of "people like us" expands toward an ideal universal limit. It would be foolish to look only at the extremes of pure selfishness (as in an infant) and pure universalism (as of the ideal sage), when reality lies mostly in between. And the same goes for non-human animals: the clear and undeniable value of animals like us (starting with higher primates) can only be equated with the value of a fly at the level of pure abstraction. Such abstraction misses the real obligations we have toward higher mammals--to dogs in particular, in view of their long co-evolution with us; to the intelligent animals like horses who labor for us; to complex big-brain animals like elephants and whales; and to the sensitive creatures like pigs and cows that we eat. A thousand years of ethical development might conceivably get us to a point where we've adequately adjusted our relationships with these mammals. Then we could start worrying about birds and fish. But worrying about flies, now, when the mammals are still victims of monstrous human cruelty? Not me.

  • The Wet One

    "The fact of death does not destroy meaning: indeed, as we pass through
    the heat of life we cannot help but produce meaning, like a popcorn
    machine produces popcorn. This is what living things do: they imbue the world with significance
    and value; for an organism there is always better or worse, relevant or
    irrelevant; there is always something to do."

    I wonder if that should say humans imbue the world with significance and value rather than living things? It's not entirely clear to me how all the extinct living things that once were imbue the world with significance and value. I'm not even sure that significance and value will go on existing after humans go extinct. If so, how? Will the cockroaches and jellyfish appreciate it? In what manner? How do they do so now?

    This:

    "This is what differentiates us from the rock that is indifferent to being pummelled to sand by the sea."

    Is an inadequate response to my doubts.

  • The Wet One

    And yet, you live, so you must eat plants and thus are killing something. Strange that. But as it goes, plants just don't matter in our moral schema. I don't quite know why since they're just as live as us. We just can't hear them scream.

    • TypicalMoron

      I think it's a degree of intent.

      Walking in the grass is going to kill some type of insect. It's going to happen, but it isn't necessarily intentional. In fact, most people who take a walk in the grass aren't even consciously or subconsciously aware that they likely killed something along the way.

      Cooking food kills bacteria, and yet cooking food is done to keep the eater healthy and alive, and to gain more nutrients from the food. Yet again, the process wasn't taken to cause the death of life intentionally, as much as to prevent the death of your own life.

      I hate killing anything, even bugs, intentionally. That said, I'd have no problem defending myself with lethal force, if necessary, against another human.

      Just like with human laws and crime, intent is very important when discussing reverence for life and abhorrence of killing life.

      • The Wet One

        Like I said, "Plants don't matter." Intentionally or not, they are irrelevant in our moral schema, yet they are lifeforms.

        So it goes.

  • ApathyNihilism

    "Nature will not tolerate an end to these cycles; it will not tolerate life without death."

    So to hell with Nature then!

    Human society, culture, and science should be a project to improve upon and perhaps eventually replace Nature. Why not the possibility of a future without death?

  • Eric Greene

    There is a fallacy among non-vegans that one's veganism is based on a fear of death. This is an odd stereotype, one I've heard from time to time in the 31 years of being vegan. In this essay, we are asked to consider the death of an insect, but not really of ourselves. Do we want to die? If we are healthy and not in pain - then no. But although I accept the brevity of individual life for humans and nonhumans, I can also appreciate that the fruit fly's will to live may be as great as my own. I don't kill humans because i'm scared of death. Neither do I spare an animal from death out of some generalized terror of death, I spare an animal from a death at my hands, or from one organized by human society. And I founded the Green Pet-Burial Society to make death a more readily, emotionally acceptable phenomenon.

  • Drew

    Great article.

    Someone "debating" Sam Harris once critiqued his moral philosophy -- which gives ethical priority to creatures with greater sentience and wider ranges in conscious experiences -- because it leaves open the (logical) possibility of there being creatures with greater sentience than ourselves who would therefore have ethical priority over us.

    In other words, while I think it is a good advance in moral philosophy to develop this hierarchy, the critique has some value. We like this arrangement because we rest comfortably at the apex -- where we sacrifice animals for our own enjoyment and where no other being can claim us as playthings.

    At first, it seems foolish (indeed -- the arrival of supersophisticated alien life-forms seems like the only candidate for such beings), but it does strike me as a powerful thought experiment. Wouldn't we protest this hierarchy following our demotion? Wouldn't we be frustrated to learn that our protestations were incomprehensible to our new oppressors?

    This strikes me as a powerful argument, and I've had to wonder how I could be more compassionate than keeping my veganism, especially when my girlfriend shrieks and begs me to squash a spider.

    Finally, this poem from e.e. cummings has always stuck with me:

    Me up at does

    out of the floor
    quietly Stare

    a poisoned mouse

    still who alive

    is asking What
    have i done that

    You wouldn’t have

    • Glen McMillian

      Lots of other living things claim us maybe not as playthings but as their prey.They range from the occasional great white shark that experiments culinarily with the strange looking fish that swims so poorly to the ebola virus which is debatably not even a living thing.The malarialparasite certainly '' enjoys'' using us as its home.

  • Corvus

    Life feeds on life. Nothing died to get butter to your plate. Plants, on the other hand, are living lifeforms and must die in order to be consumed, is it not hypocritical to deny that we eat living things, plant or animal? Only organisms that photosynthesize do not, as they are the first link in the chain. Perhaps aliens will someday visit a grocery store and be horrified by all the decapitated vegetables.

  • Chris G

    This author isn't at good at reading minds as he thinks he is.

    Veganism may be a symptom of implicit thanatophobia for some, but to say it's a common inspiration for veganism is just silly. Have you spoken to any vegans? They generally fall into two categories: health vegans and ethical vegans. For ethical vegans it isn't about death as much as it is about the *suffering* which consumption of animals creates.

    Here is the best indicator that the author understands neither nihilism nor veganism: he believes they are "opposites"… this is not at all the case. Not only are many nihilists also vegan, I (and others) would argue that the logic that leads to ethical veganism is the very same logic that leads to nihilism. I believe that suffering should be avoided, therefore I am Vegan. I believe that suffering should be avoided, therefore I am nihilist.

    To imply veganism is a manifestation of terror management is to say nothing. ANYTHING could be a manifestation of terror management. But in most cases, if one regards what true ethical vegans propound, and one follows their arguments (notably lacking in panic and avoidance hysteria) one sees that it is the ability to face death, not avoid it, that drives one to both veganism and nihilism.

    And let's not forget -- we don't just kill these animals to eat them… so the argument that they were going to die anyway is an empty one. We CREATE literally billions of animals each year that would NOT OTHERWISE EXIST just to kill and eat them. If one is concerned with suffering, which ethical vegans and many nihilists are, stopping this CREATION of animals, most of whom will live short, painful lives, is of dire importance.

    Lastly, despite the author's determination to blur the lines between veganism and religion, there is nothing in vegan culture like this "lions lying down this lambs" nonsense. Vegans recognize the realities of nature, but they strive to do as little as possible to contribute to it because they CAN.

    This entire article suffers from the very disease it seeks to elucidate -- it is a bitter reaction to the author's failure to manage his own terrors. It is a semi-intentional misunderstanding of philosophies and practices that the author himself cannot find the will or sense to adopt.

  • joshuaism

    But does it alleviate cruelty? Or are the cruelties of man replaced by the cruelties of nature?

  • joshuaism

    So how do you justify the maiming and killing and vivisection of plants?

  • Glen McMillian

    There may be ultimate answers to such questions as the meaning of life but if they do exist they are almost certainly outside our ability to discover and comprehend them.

    Our actual knowledge of the meaning of life stops with the observation that it just IS , that it EXISTS.

    I doubt we will ever know more than that in any objective sense.

    If we must define it in terms of values and goals, then the sole observable goal of life is to persist and reproduce itself.

    BUT nature does not deal in right and wrong or good and bad or in any sort of value system at all- even though we and some of the other '' higher '' animals have thru evolution evolved '' morals'' and '' values '' which contribute to the survival of our respective kinds.

    Asking what the purpose or meaning of life is is very much the same as asking what the purpose or meaning of a rock or a mud puddle might be.

    IT would be great to believe otherwise but after a lifetime's random reading of many sorts of books great and small I have not discovered the meaning of life- if it exists.

  • TypicalMoron

    Death is just the concept of entropy applied to biological molecules.

  • windship

    Even though I have intentionally and by necessity killed much larger creatures in my lifetime with a significant amount of sadness and regret , I think it's important to remain consciously aware of all the tiny lives we kill every day too, because in the big dangerous scheme of things, we are pretty small and temporary creatures ourselves. As Mark Knopfler once pointed out - "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug".