Archive | August, 2013

Swordtail fish and the Neutrality of Death

13 Aug

I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept that Nature knows  neither good or bad. But instead, those are concepts creating by humans, and largely for humans. It seemed to me that a gazelle, eating in the brush, minding its own business moments before suddenly running for its life from a pack of lions was bad. Worse would be the gazelle still half alive as the lions are ripping its guts out. That whole scenario seemed bad to me (it didn’t seem good, that’s for sure. And it didn’t even seem neutral). Partly because I love a good underdog story and that one doesn’t have that feel good moment. But also because the whole act seems ruthless. Come on, lions, don’t you know you’re being ruthless? 

But they don’t. And this morning, while asleep, a thought stirred me awake: swordtail fish. My example concerns itself with the small freshwater swordtail fish. I’m choosing swordtail fish because they are one of the few species of freshwater fish that doesn’t lay eggs. Instead, the mother carries around a belly full of babies that are born live and swimming. So we have momma swordtail fish who doesn’t have a care in the world, and gives birth. Now we have our little swimming baby swordtail fish, and we’re watching them and saying things like, “Aw. So small. So cute,” when suddenly here comes momma swordtail and eats her little baby right up. You stand there shocked for a second, and then you think, “That bitch just ate her baby.” What’s worse? She continues to eat her babies as she gives birth. Why the hell not? It’s easy food, and you wonder how such a stupid species can survive (answer: aquariums!). But now more to the point of the example: the mother has no concept of bad here. In fact, it’s doubtful she even knows they’re her own babies. But even if she did? She doesn’t care. She can’t care. She knows not the word nor the action. Her care stops the minute the baby is born and even before that she is largely only eating and surviving for her own desires (which is as it should be, because without her desire the babies wouldn’t have a chance of being born in the first place). The momma swordtail fish has made me see that theory that Nature knows neither good nor bad.

Now I want to switch to the babies. Humans don’t eat their young. Of course we have larger brains capable of understanding the usefulness of care. But this is because it’s an evolutionary advantage for us. Not because it’s good–in our narrowly defined contemporary view. (Trust me, we’d be eating our babies if it meant our survival as a species–though we can all agree that lucky it doesn’t–and no species, that I know of anyway, ever consciously eats its own young.) Human babies take nine months of care and our species typically has one baby in that length of time. It would be to our disadvantage to eat our young–even if you only account from an evolutionary standpoint. But female swordtails? They have many babies–often upwards of even nine or ten–and can have birth every month. So the mom eats a few? No big loss because that species has adapted to having the majority of the young being eaten by larger fish. That’s why they have so many. And it doesn’t stop at swordtail fish, so don’t think they’re the stupid species in the fish world. All fish have many babies, and if not live birth, then hundreds of eggs. Why hundreds? Because half will probably be eaten while still in the egg. How’s that for a life? You’re just minding your business, growing in your own little egg before you start being eaten alive by stomach acid (full disclosure: I have no idea if fish have stomach acid). I was also being facetious with that example, got to lighten the mood somehow.

Anyway, all this would be unremarkable without the explicit tie-in to the concept of death. I’ve been struggling with that concept for the past few months. It feels extremely selfish to me. Death, that is. I know that logically it is a necessity. But that doesn’t mean it feels good (there’s that word again) to lose someone close to you. But death really is neither good or bad. Death just is. It surrounds us and every other animal and plant in the world. Death is the natural state of things–just ask any baby swordfish who might have ten seconds of life before being gone. The earth, the world, is neither at a gain or loss when that baby swordtail fish dies, because the pattern of life and death will continue. Those baby swordtail fish, or goldfish, or salmon, or angelfish, are just part of a natural pattern. 


Humans and that pattern:

I think the most comforting words on the subject of death come from Robert Pirsig’s introduction of the 10th Anniversary edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We spend four hundred pages reading about Bob and his son Chris on a cross-country motorcycle trip only to find out that some twenty years later Chris is murdered outside of a monastery in San Francisco (this is revealed in the introduction). Well, what shit, I thought. How is the world just? It’s not. But perhaps we see things too selfishly as a species? Robert said that his son is still with us–just no longer in the body of Chris (which is how we identified with him). But he still manifests himself in memories–more than can be said of baby swordtail fish. But more comforting than fleeting memories is that Chris is still with us, because he’s part of a that pattern. I think that word does this whole issue justice. Life is a pattern of birth and death. Some of us go way too soon for other’s likings. But we all go. And we’re all born. That pattern continues and that should be our comfort. Chris is one patch in a quilted blanket that is forever growing–that patch will always be there, and that patch is neither different or bad from any other patch that will be added. My patch will be there, along with yours.

I suppose the way I wrote this blog isn’t very comforting. And I know that none of this is groundbreaking, and probably all things you’ve heard before. But I think knowing that pattern exists has helped me, and the only way that pattern works to its full effect is knowing that death just is–as far as nature is concerned; it’s a part of life. So it built a pattern to account for the losses–not even because the pattern is inherently good, but because it’s necessary. Though I would like to think that Nature, in all her supreme knowledge, knows a good thing when it sees it. I’ll get into that in the next blog.


[P.S. I woke up early to write this after not a lot of sleep. I may notice it makes absolutely no sense and amend or delete at will.]