Monday 5 June 2017

Why Aristotle Would Have Voted for the Green Party

As if the world didn’t have enough problems already, Donald Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement which, for all its limitations, represented a multilateral human acknowledgement that greenhouse gas emissions were wrecking our planet. Time for a look at the history of awareness of the damage humans can do to the rest of the natural world, an awareness already developed in the Father of Zoology, Aristotle.

When he is describing shell-fish, we discover that in the lagoon on Lesbos the red scallop has actually been rendered extinct. It has been destroyed partly by droughts but also ‘partly by the dredging-machine used in their capture’. This is probably the earliest reference to overfishing in world  literature. Aristotle also cites the destruction which can be cause by human interference, motivated by financial greed, with naturally occurring animal populations. A Carpathian tried to make money out of hare breeding, and introduced the first pair onto his island. Carpathos was soon over-run with hares, which devastated its crops, vegetable beds and plant ecology.

Aristotle is aware of the destructive potential of farming, as a form of interference in natural processes. He even suggests that kitchen vegetables flourish better if left to the elements than if they are irrigated artificially. He certainly condemns some human practices in the farming of animals as contrary to nature and pernicious. 

Some animal breeders tried to make the young males of certain species breed with their own mothers. This mother-son inbreeding was attempted either because the owners could not afford to hire a stud or because the animals they possessed were regarded as particularly fine specimens with specific attributes they wanted to perpetuate. This practice is not unknown amongst breeders of pedigree dogs today, although it is rightly regarded as genetically risky and abusive; line breeding, where animals mate with distant cousins, is infinitely preferable.  Aristotle is certain that animals do not naturally want to mate  with their mothers, and has collected examples of animal resistance to enforced ‘Oedipalism’: ‘The male camel declines intercourse with its mother; if his keeper tries compulsion, he evinces disinclination.' On one occasion, when intercourse was being declined by the young male, the keeper covered the mother and put the young male to her. But after the intercourse the young male camel bit his keeper to death. In another example, he reports that a young stallion forced to impregnate his own mother committed suicide by hurling himself of a cliff.

Methods of raising and feeding horses worry Aristotle. Horses should be allowed to roam freely at pasture, since then they remain free of disease apart from an affliction of the hoof which is in any case self-rectifying. But stables are breeding-grounds for malnutrition and all forms of infection: ‘stall-reared horses are subject to very numerous forms of disease: one which attacks the hind-legs’ (Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy?)  

Aristotle can have known nothing about species resonance. Yet he tells us of an instance in 395 BCE. All the ravens disappeared from southern Greece when a battle much further north resulted in a particularly high death toll. Ravens are opportunistic carrion birds. Aristotle calmly infers from this, that even across vast distances, ‘it would appear that these birds have some means of intercommunicating with one another’. It’s a pity Trump doesn’t have a similar means of inter-human communication.

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