Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Morality of Nature and Niche Theory

This post was going to be titled “Not For the Faint of Heart” but I didn’t actually capture the image that was going to headline it. I was out for a walk yesterday looking for things to shoot (Bang! Bang!) when I cam across a dead bird full of green flies. I watched them seethe for a bit, brought my camera up, lowered it, watched a bit longer, walked away and then walked back. I had decided I wanted to shoot it but as I came back I disturbed the flies and they alighted.

Why didn’t I just shoot them? They were animals. And as I first came upon them they were undisturbed. I really could have had a fantastic image of them. But I kept thinking about reactions to an image I have of a dead bird. It’s not particularly beautiful and was unfortunately killed by my pet cat and not from something (more) natural. But most people hate it. So I decided not to capture another dead bird.

But as I was walking away the first time I thought about how similar this scene was to every other scene of organisms gathering resources, organisms getting energy from their environment. I resolved to capture that just as I would a honey bee landing on a flower. As I walked away the second time, having failed to get my image, I thought more about how we impose our own morality on nature, how we anthropomorphize even a pile of flies. There was no right or wrong in that dead bird. It was just a pack of organic compounds waiting to be reacquired by the ecosystem. The flies were merely obliging.

Niche theory, in biology, states that when there are resources, when energy is bound up somewhere in the ecosystem, eventually an organism should come along in evolutionary history to take advantage of that source of energy. We see this in the small changes of cichlid fishes’ pharyngeal jaws (jaws within jaws, see this x-ray of a moray eel), we see it in the rise of pollinating insects (once flowers appeared so did creatures that took advantage of them) and we see it in flies and other animals like burying beetles that use the cadavers of vertebrates as energy sources.

Probably something in us roots for the vertebrate and is sickened to see it crawling with arthropods (I've mentioned our innate nauseated response to creepy crawlies probably being an adaptive response to finding them in spoiled food). But there’s certainly nothing “moral” about the process. It’s just another niche to be exploited by another intrepid organism.

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