Friday, December 19, 2014

Essay on the Death of a Beetle

I received an e-mail from a former grad student in my lab, a highly successful one now in a faculty position at another university, teaching parasitology, and this individual asked about this essay, which I'd handed out in one of my classes years ago. It took a while to find it, but here it is. I don't remember the date, but it was at least ten years ago.

Essay on the Death of a Beetle

John Janovy, Jr.

            In his truly magnificent best-seller book, Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas, nationally acclaimed cancer researcher and president [at the time] of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, included a chapter entitled “Death in the Open.”  He begins this chapter with a discussion of road kills: “seen from a car window they appear as fragments, evoking memories of woodchucks, skunks . . . etc.”  His essay addresses death as a natural phenomenon, and ends with a commentary on humanity: “Less than half a century from now, our replacements will have more than doubled the numbers.  It is hard to see how we can continue to keep the secret, with such multitudes doing the dying.”  The secret he is talking about is that of the death of our fellow human beings, a truly “vast mortality” of some 50 million a year.

            Whenever I develop an undergraduate laboratory exercise that involves the death of an animal, even a beetle or an earthworm, and especially one in which students are assigned the task of doing the killing, Thomas’ words come back to me, along with those of E. O. Wilson (On Human Nature) and Paul Fussell (Wartime).  In his chapter on aggression, Wilson talks about the dehumanization of fellow humans as a prelude to violence, especially in times of social conflict.  Fussell is more explicit, using WWII as an example and citing ways in which we dehumanized our enemies, thus desensitizing not only our soldiers, but also our citizens back home.  In my Field Parasitology course at Cedar Point, in which we routinely sacrifice animals in order to discover “who’s infected with whom,” the basic observations necessary to analyze any parasitic relationship, I often end the semester with an extended discussion of Thomas, Wilson, and Fussell, as well as some more modern cases involving massive human destruction (Rwanda, Kosovo, Persian Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, etc.)  There is a simple reason why I often feel that such a discussion is necessary: when you come to know an insect, snail, or “minnow” rather intimately, and build your reputation on the scientific study of their parasites, then it’s not so easy to dehumanize these lowly creatures.  These organisms with which you do your first real research project, show someone you are truly capable of conducting an original scientific investigation, earning your guaranteed-get-in letter of recommendation to med school, suddenly become valuable to you.  They are no longer worthless trash, they are no longer repulsive, they are no longer something you have absolutely no feelings whatsoever for, but instead they become a part of your emotional and intellectual library.  They’ve given their lives, yes, but they’ve also given you analytical powers, power conveyed by experience, and the intellectual sophistication that comes from doing research, that you would never have otherwise been given had you not set about to study their parasites.

            We choose beetles, this week, because we grow them in large numbers, they are not endangered, no permits are required for their use, and they are not like us (furry, warm, with large eyes).  For most of you, this week’s lab will be the first, and perhaps the only, original experience you will have with the distribution of infectious agents in a population until your graduate from medical school, get into practice, and deal with a flu or head lice epidemic.  If this prediction turns out to be true, then I hope you remember your lessons well.  And if, as a “health care professional,” you find yourself caught up in a military adventure, then you will find yourself wishing you had studied the biology of infectious organisms over and over again and been somewhat less enamored of reproductive physiology, cancer, and cardiovascular function.

            This discussion leads, of course, to my rather smart-aleck comments about dead birds at the bases of city buildings, and perhaps my unwise advice to simply pick up a stunned bird and kill it.  Those comments were intended to accomplish one thing and one thing only: to vastly increase your sensitivity to death at the population levels, and put into some kind of rational perspective our use of beetles this week in lab.  Actually, I was a little shocked at the class’s reaction to those comments; I did not expect laughter.  By way of comparison to the migratory bird situation, about 32,000 Americans die each year of gunshot wounds.  Another 42,000 die in automobile accidents.  From a biologist’s perspective, especially a biologist who studies small organisms, the clearing of tropical forests at the rate of 50-100 acres a minute for the past 20 years results in the deaths of uncountable, but truly beautiful and wondrous, organisms.  Fourteen thousand deer were struck by automobiles in Iowa last year, at a cost of about $3000 per incident ($42 million a year in damage).  A friend of mine who regularly rode a bicycle along a country highway and counted road kills, then extrapolated that sample to the national level, estimated that at any one moment there would be 75 million birds lying dead on America’s highways.  I read a report (unconfirmed) that house cats in Great Britain kill and estimated 60 million song birds a year.  [Note added in retyping in 2009: The UNL population of feral cats is out of control as a result of university policy to let it stay that way in order to keep the rabbit and rodent populations in control.]  The Kearney Arch has cost one human life, and not too many years ago the Omaha World-Herald reported that the increase in speed limits from 55 MPH to 65 MPH on I-80 resulted in approximately one additional human death a month.  The speed limit is now 75 MPH.  A visit to a packing plant makes your hamburger and bacon look quite different than from before the visit.  And, of course, I have not addressed the issue of quality of life for those still living who, for various reasons, do not have access to the humanizing influences of quality education, a safe place to sleep at night, adequate health care, and meaningful employment.  Into this latter category fall millions of Americans and billions of other human beings around the world.

            I’m not condemning anyone for contributing to the above figures; I am, however, simply reminding us that just by living our normal, 21st Century, human lives, we contribute to the death of vast numbers of organisms and generally ignore the deaths of vast numbers of human beings, all except, that is, the ones closest to us.  Thus it does not bother me very much to use beetles to provide young people, many of whom will become physicians, with their first scientific experience with infectious organisms [we all have non-scientific experiences with infectious organisms].

            On a more personal level, I do appreciate the fact that an intimate encounter with death, as when you cut the head off a meal worm, or separate a beetle’s head from its body, can produce an emotional reaction.  In this particular case, you have chosen to terminate a life in order to study something that most people find repulsive (a parasite), even though that “repulsive” organism is living the most common way of life on Earth.  I only ask that you remember this week’s lab when your kid comes home from day care with lice or pinworms and you wonder how to cure the infection (it’s not terribly difficult, at least in the case of pinworms.)

            Finally, as a philosophical aside, as part of your overall education as a biological sciences major, I strongly recommend a personal examination of your own reasons for reacting as you do to the welfare of other organisms, be they insects or fellow humans.  I’m guessing that the closer an organism is to you personally, or the closer in appearance and demeanor to humans in general, or the younger the organism, then the stronger will be your reaction to its death.  This principle figures prominently in politics and government regulations surrounding the use of animals in research and teaching.  Thus the death of a baby cocker spaniel has an infinitely higher emotional content than the death of a mosquito or cockroach, at least to the average person.  And if you contribute to that death, then the puppy’s will probably linger in your mind for a lifetime, whereas the mosquito and cockroach will be forgotten as soon as you get over the pleasure, and probably smug satisfaction, of having killed them.

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