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Monday, 20 July 2009

The Lucky 10 Snails - Did I Defy Darwin?

Last night at about midnight I was walking back home from the cinema. The weather during the day had been pretty grim and wet, and it was drizzling as I was walking. It turned out to be quite an unusual journey.

Following on from hearing Stephen Fry extol the merits of audiobooks, I decided to buy some of my own; so on my walk, I was listening to the excellent Christopher Hitchens reading his book, 'God is not Great.' The topic of this post came about because of a moment in my journey in which Hitchens was regaling the tale of his nanny teaching him about Nature and Faith, telling him to praise God for the beauty of nature. Hitchens, even aged 9, refuted this as nonsense. This was all in my head as I rounded the corner onto a path which was skirted by grass on one side, and soil at the other. Nature, God and Darwin were all in my mind as I began to walk this path.

For the entirety of this path, snails were crossing from the soil on the left to the grass on the right - each snail thus crossing my walkway. I was first struck by the mish-mash of events - the rain through the day, the drizzle now, the time of day, Hitchen's childhood - all focused on this odd moment of movement for the snails.

Taken in by the mood of being the only human about, I took extra caution not to stand on any of the snails. My walk slowed down, such was the multitude of snails. This got me thinking. Is it wrong or is it right for me to kill the snails?

Darwinian 'Survival of the Fittest' theories dictate that evolution happens almost dialectically - two species or beings facing off, entering a conflict of sorts (who is the most well adapted) and the winner surviving to the detriment of the loser. In the conflict between myself and the snails, I am obviously more likely to win. My choice is not kill or be killed however, but kill or don't kill.

The interesting point though, is that no other animal would have this thought process that I had - the reason I did not kill them was out of a strange respect for their existence. My choice was not kill or don't kill, but think or don't think. It was my thinking that stopped me from killing them, instead taking a meandering slalom route. The unthinking route would have been to arrive home as planned taking the straight route, ignorant of snails - whether I do or do not stand on a snail is inconsequential to me.

But by avoiding the snails, am I asserting the evolutionary superiority of the human race, or am I defying evolution by consciously attempting not to kill these lesser beings? Consider it this way - if I kept my head held high and walked the path without looking at the snails, I would likely have killed about 10. If I had intentionally set out to stamp on them, I could have killed hundreds. Instead, I consciously did not kill any at all - zero.

What of the lucky 10 snails that got away last night? As their evolutionary superior, is it expected that I should have, albeit unintentionally, ended their lives? Is it 'natural' of me to question this? Humans are still animals and are still inexorably locked into the competition with other species; we're just very good at it now.

In acting against probability, did I act against nature? Did I defy Darwin?

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