You know perhaps of various versions of the story of the “two wolves” that live within us. I have heard it various ascribed to Native Americans of the Dakota tribe as well as the Cherokees. Basically, a grandfather, or other such wise person tells his grandson that there are two wolves inside him: a good wolf who is kind and generous and a bad wolf who is mean, spiteful and selfish. These wolves are in a constant battle with each other. The grandson asks which wolf will win and the grandfather replies “whichever one you feed.”
We have probably all seen cartoons in which an angel perches on one shoulder of a cartoon character inspiring them toward good actions and a devil slouching on the other shoulder whispering rationalizations for bad actions. I suspect that variants of this story exist in many cultures. It seems to me that there is more than a speck of truth in it.
I would love to report that I was born without any bad wolves and that I never had such a struggle myself. That, however, would be a lie. To lie about it would be feeding the bad wolf. In fact, I have experienced the bad wolf as well as the good wolf. I also find the that the bad wolf has weakened considerably over my life-time though he is far from completely dead.
At boy scout camp, for example, when I was about 10 or 11, three of us sat around a campfire, getting ready to make some simple biscuits. So far as I can recall, I have always loved being outdoors and especially in forests, wood, fields, mountainsides. I don’t even recall feeling any conflict whatever about this. I suppose both the “good wolf” and the “bad wolf” must love the outdoors. On the other hand, I don’t love everything about the outdoors equally. Trees, flowers, clouds, streams, deer, rabbits — always my friends. Spiders, ticks, mosquitoes and deer flies — not so much. I never understood why on earth a person would pick a tarantula for a pet, for instance. On the other hand, I realize that most spiders are harmless to humans and even helpful because most of them catch things like mosquitoes that are much more harmful. Your chances of getting a lethal spider bite are nearly non-existent. Even at eleven, I could not really say I “hated” spiders although having one fall unexpectedly onto my body caused me to jump and try frantically to brush it off. I didn’t really care if I killed it in the process.
While we waited for the fire to heat up enough to cook our primitive trail biscuits however, one of my companions found a spider on a stick and placed it on the hot pan atop the grill. He shook the stick until the spider fell onto the hot pan. For a moment, the spider sprung into action, jumping and hopping excitedly. When he made it to the edge of the pan, my pack mate pushed him back to the middle with the stick. The spider didn’t last long after that. He collapsed and died.
This simple scene did not last long, but it certainly stirred a tornado of emotions inside me. I thought about objecting but didn’t. I really wanted to see what would happen to a spider subjected to that kind of environment. In other words, I was curious. At the same time, I felt a strange kind of gratitude that the spider was on the hot grill and not me. I had already gotten a rather nasty burn so I knew that burns were horrifically painful. I felt a kinship to the other two guys in this. We were humans after all, and therefore more powerful and clever than a mere spider. I was superior to the spider as were they. We could control the life of the spider more than it could control us. And though I had never actually been bitten by a spider of any kind, let alone been seriously injured, I had been frightened when they dropped on my arm or hair. So, I also felt a kind of vindication; I told myself the creepy spider deserved to die for being so creepy and — well, spidery. Yet, despite all this, I kind of hoped the spider would make it off the hot grill and just learn their lesson (which was what exactly? I guess not to be a spider?) and go on with their life being a more enlightened spider. Anyway, my camp companion prevented any of that from happening by pushing the spider back onto the middle of the grill.
While there had been a whole dark rainbow of emotions in that twisting tornado, I didn’t have any doubt that this was feeding the evil wolf. This was an evil deed and I knew it. When my body is attacked, I am going to defend it. I would defend my life and those of my family by killing any attacker, whether it be an attack from a virus, a bacterium, a spider or an actual wolf. But this spider had not actually attacked anyone. We had gone out of our way to kill it. Not only that, we had killed it in a way that, to all appearances, pained the spider considerably. We hadn’t exactly laughed at the spider’s plight but we had certainly enjoyed it and exclaimed about how he bounced around so vigorously. I did not go home and brag about this incident to my parents or grandparents. Killing unnecessarily, and especially killing another creature in a painful way, is not something anyone in my family would have praised me for.
Of course, considerations of when killing is “necessary” versus “unnecessary” could be the topic of an entire book. <grin> That book might conclude that killing is never really necessary; it’s only convenient. As for pain, I have largely been trained as a scientist and in that training, we were always told to employ parsimony and avoid “anthropomorphism” — that is, to hold to the simplest explanation and not to assume that mammals and birds (let alone spiders) have consciousness and feelings like humans do.
For example, many years later in college biology class, we dissected a surprisingly large live crayfish and this mantra was repeated. So, for example, we were reassured that the crayfish would feel no actual pain because its nervous system was too primitive. First on the agenda: badly injure one of its arms by crush-crunching it with pliers. The crayfish hesitated a few moments and then reached over with one of his major claws, clamped on to his injured arm and yanked it hard. This caused the arm to snap off at one of the joints. The crayfish could then re-grow its arm from that point. The jerking of its own arm was termed as a “reflex.” This “reflex” serve the crayfish well in the wild because the crayfish will grow back a complete arm. This particular crayfish, however, never had that opportunity because the next little trick on the agenda was to remove its beating heart.
So, I cut out the heart and put it in a separate little dish that had some small dosage of adrenaline in it. Immediately, the teeny heart started beating faster. Meanwhile, the heartless crayfish continued to totter about its cramped living quarters. Perhaps it was searching for its missing heart.
I accepted the explanations given as to why the crayfish felt no pain. (And, by the way, while I did feel some curiosity as I did all this, I did not have any of those earlier feelings of the crayfish “deserving this” or of my being “superior to it.”) The Teaching Assistant explained, that after all, the crayfish’s nervous system was “primitive” compared with a human’s. We have these enormous brains, you know. It also made a lot of sense to me to take the most “parsimonious” explanation. I believed that then and I believe it now. However, my assumptions about what constitutes “parsimonious” have evolved quite a bit.
You know, I’ve always been something of a pain to my parents, teachers, and probably many others. Starting that tradition early, my mother was in labor for 72 hours before I was born. As best I can recall (which is not at all) I must have been reluctant to enter some new environment head first. By the way, in movies people are always diving head first into ponds, rivers, lakes and so on without the slightest knowledge of how deep the water is or what is in that body of water (such as a submerged log, for instance). So, generally, it is a much better idea, if you have to enter such a body of water, to enter feet first. You might twist your ankle or even break your leg, but you are unlikely to spend the rest of your life paralyzed from the neck down. So, the strategy of “feet first” is a good one.
Except it isn’t a good strategy at all, while you are being born. Anyway, in the various gymnastics I performed to get into the right position, no doubt, with plenty of encouragement and prodding of the doctor, I managed to get a hernia. I was born with a hernia and operated on at about six months and the hernia was fixed. I later discovered, to my great surprise, that this operation had almost certainly been performed with no anesthesia whatsoever. Why? Because a baby’s nervous system was thought too primitive to feel pain. Sure, babies cried and writhed, but those actions were just reflexes, according to accepted medical doctrine at the time.
Of course, if you’ve ever been in close contact with a baby, your own opinion, like mine, is likely that this is utter non-sense! Of course, babies feel pain. You may also be surprised to learn that about that time, the medical profession also believed that babies could not see until they were about six months old. Professor Robert Fantz conducted some of the initial research on this question while I was studying psychology at Case-Western Reserve. Though I wasn’t personally involved in the experiments, I was personally involved in the idea because I had a newborn daughter at home. The work of Fantz was cool and showed that infants preferred human faces and a moderate level of complexity. Infant research is amazing in its own right. Researchers use gaze direction, heart rate deceleration and other clever measures to find out what babies perceive. But how on earth could doctors have ever believed that babies couldn’t really see until they were six months old? As a new father, I found that completely preposterous. My daughter could most certainly see from day one.
My brother is eleven years younger than I am. When he was an infant, I used to carry him around and show him various things in the house and later, in the yard. Of course, he could see from day one. But how could the medical profession have thought otherwise, even before Fantz’s work at Case-Western?
The next year, I moved on to grad school in Ann Arbor and delved more deeply into infant development and perception. That is when I discovered that those bastards had almost undoubtedly operated on me without giving me any pain killers or anesthetic. No, I kid, of course. No hard feelings. They were no doubt just doing what they thought best. For them.
Therein lies the problem. I now think the most parsimonious explanation is that every living thing feels pain. While the precise quality of the pain may differ among crayfish, spiders, and humans, I see no reason whatever to believe that our human pain is more excruciating because we have bigger brains. In fact, it seems equally plausible, that because of our much bigger brains, our experience is more removed from actual pain than is that of a crayfish. I believe that people define away consciousness and pain for others because it is more convenient for them in making decisions and living with themselves without guilt.
Saying that the crayfish’s nervous system is more primitive doesn’t really cut it either. That firstly implies a doctrine disavowed by most scientists that the “point” of evolution is to make humans and that other branches are necessarily more “primitive” if they have been here longer. For instance, horseshoe crabs have been around for 500 million years, basically unchanged so far as we can tell. Humans have been around for a much shorter time. Of course, if you measure how advanced a species is by how quickly it can destroy things for its own convenience (not just survival) then, yes, humans win hands down. Congrats to all.
Humans have several kinds of sensory nerve fibers on the periphery. We have, for example, A fibers. These are myelinated, and this allows nerve conduction to go much faster than impulses travel in their slower cousins, the C fibers. So, when a human touches the proverbial hot stove, the A fibers go right into a quick feedback loop to get you to jerk your hand away. A noticeable time lag and you actually feel the pain. The C fibers take longer. It is thought that one way acupuncture might work is to stimulate A fibers to that they inhibit the C fibers.
It turns out that these C fibers have been around a long time and they are the types of fibers in our friend the crayfish. In over-simple terms, “advanced species” have fast and slow fibers while “primitive species” only have the slow pain fibers. Well, if that’s true, and particularly in consideration that the fast fibers may actually serve to dull pain under certain conditions, how on earth does it make any sense to say the crayfish cannot feel pain because its nervous system is too primitive? No. It makes more sense to say that the crayfish cannot help but feel pain. It is the only signal coming in.
It seems the same thing applies developmentally within an individual. Indeed, if you look at the behavior of babies without any preconceptions to the contrary, I think a normal reading of the reality would conclude that babies are feeling way more completely and overwhelmingly than are adults. It seems to me much more likely that babies feel pain more intensely than do adults.
One could argue that, despite the pain of the crayfish, it’s worth it because the doctors being trained (most of the class was pre-med) will certainly end up saving way more pain among their human brothers and sisters than they will cause this crayfish. I think that’s probably valid. But it does require thinking about a conscious tradeoff among species which is a weird kind of decision that we’ve never had to consciously make before in our history.
Our ancestors may or may not have measured the pain of their prey against their own hunger. Now, however, we literally have to ask ourselves whether it is worth saving one human life through economic growth if it means obliterating an entire species of whales? Of fish? Of plankton? How about saving one human a trip to the grocery every week? Is it worth killing off a species for that? How about twelve? How about 1000?
I feel a little out of joint now with much of society because I’ve been feeding the wolf that says to me: “Those living things all have lives and those lives are just as precious to them as yours is to you. Keep that in mind. Oh, and by the way, you bet they feel pain just as you do. Don’t tell yourself some bullshit that they don’t feel pain because they are too primitive. We all feel pain: wolf, rabbit, fish, bird.” Meanwhile, I feel as though many parts of our society, because of the nature of our economy, has been listening to a different wolf.
That wolf says, “Humans are special. They deserve special treatment. And just as the human species is the just ruler of every other species which is only put here for your pleasure, so too, there are some humans who are above and superior to others. And those humans deserve special things. And those humans who are above deserve special favors, sexual and otherwise. And those “up there” humans, who are more evolved, deserve to inconvenience you if it serves their pleasure. But don’t worry about feeling spat upon and made to feel small. There’s a whole lot of things inferior to you and you can take your hate out on them! Kick the dog! Stomp on the ant! Trash the environment! You’re human! You can do whatever you want to destroy earth. It’s your earth after all.”
A few months ago, I found a rather large grand-daddy longlegs in the house. I did consider simply crushing it in a paper towel. Instead I used a paper plate and a cup to take him outside and deposit him intact onto our pathetic brown-leafed gardenia bush. Guess what? That gardenia bush now has wonderful looking leaves. No curling. No browning. Coincidence? Perhaps. What do you think?
I’m pretty sure the following is not coincidence. For a time, I rented a house in Woburn Massachusetts. It had a basement with windows at the top. At one point those windows all became covered with spider webs. I took down all the spider webs. Yay for me. Mission accomplished. The next day, our basement was infested with wasps. It can’t always be “follow the butterflies,” you know. So which wolf will you be feeding? Only you know.
Genevieve Cerf said:
Excellent thoughtful piece, John. I had never associated cruelty to animals with an inherent fear or feeling of lack of control. As I grow older I see that need to control as one of the worse traits of our bad wolves! Never understood it properly when I entered the workplace either! Would love to talk more about that!
Brendan Swords said:
I too escort arachnids out the door. I don’t, however, get all post hoc ergo propter hoc if good or bad things ensue. I recently moved to an historically rural community which is rapidly becoming suburbanized. The community Facebook page is patronized by both the old guard and the recent, often resented, immigrants from places outside the rural south. The opinions on wildlife are as different as the opinions on gun control. An Ohioan (the local catch-all for anyone not born here) will post a picture of a wild boar seen on their lawn. Other Ohioans will marvel at it, The locals say “he looks cold, I’ll invite him in to warm up – at about 375 degrees for three hours.” A posted photo of a snake asking if it is poisonous will get the local response “it’s a snake – kill it.” On the other hand, an Ohioan posting a candid shot of an alligator who found its way onto her screened porch is admonished to open the door and let him go back to where was going before your door was stupidly left open.
It seems that the characters of ones’ wolves are somewhat predetermined. I’m fairly sure the snake killer doesn’t see himself as feeding his bad wolf, yet an Ohioan would most certainly be doing so if he broke out his three iron to dispatch the snake. Conversely, the incoming suburbanite’s bad wolf goes hungry despite the fact that he just leveled an acre of land and permanently displaced an entire biome that was living there for centuries. I guess, to mix proverbs, like the scorpion and the turtle, when it comes to which wolf the rural or suburbanite are feeding, well, it’s just their nature.
Thanks for the comments. (love the post-hoc propter hoc!) I do realize that, as animals, we have to use plants or other animals for fuel. We can’t use photosynthesis directly. 😉 Attitudes vary a lot and partly depend on experience and your context. If you have to feed your family and it seems the only possible way to do it is to hunt, then I suppose you will. If you treat your prey with respect and gratitude, I don’t think that is necessarily feeding the “bad wolf.” However, if you go out of your way to kill other beings just because you have the power to do so…that’s another matter. I do think there may be a correlation between treating all snakes or all spiders the same and treating all “black people” or all “Muslims” the same.
I suspect in the case of the grand-daddy long legs it may be more than coincidence though. We’ve had issues with the Gardenias since we planted them 3 years ago. It started to look better almost immediately after I placed him there and within a week, it looks (and continues to look) the best I’ve ever seen it. Spiders do eat a lot of pests and I see no sign of these little while bugs that were on the leaves. I agree it still could be coincidence.
Constantine Gavrilidis said:
Interesting! I suppose that the two wolves exist as long as we all agree on what is good and what is not. My good wolf may probably suggest that I do things that will make your bad wolf go red in the face. If good and evil actions are relative things, then the two wolves are actually one wolf cub taking you for a ride. Nothing wrong with this and it gives one the excuse to blame the “bad wolf” if things go wrong. Frankly, the two wolves are just about good for Tom and Jerry cartoons. I suppose that the old Cherokee Indian implied more or less the same but it made allowance for a moral angle no matter what this is. We all live and learn by interacting with our environments but the channel that supports this interaction is distorting the information because of hidden baggage that we all carry on our back. The question is, to I see myself as a member of a community and I exist by aligning myself with the goals and desires of that community or I maintain my individualism and I define my own goals.
I like your way of looking at the world. I think I will soon blog about the perspectives of “free will” and “determinism” in how they play out in this arena. Anyway, thanks so much for taking the time to read it and respond! — John
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