The Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Medea Hypothesis

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When this Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) feeds upon a Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica), it helps to limit the beetle’s population, which benefits the surviving beetles and the plants they feed upon. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Many people might describe Mother Nature as vicious, as paleontologist/author Peter Ward does in his book, The Medea Hypothesis. Rather than seeing the natural world as a nurturing mother to all life, Ward views it as murderous. He suggests that Mother Nature is akin to Medea—a mother in Greek mythology who killed all of her children.

The author argues that organisms upon our planet do not exist to perpetuate life, but rather, to ultimately destroy it. And he fears that unless humans “step in and save things,” we too will be killed off by life processes that serve to be self-destructive.  But the true danger to the human race doesn’t come from nature; it comes from people thinking they know best how to run the natural world.

Take, for example, folks who want to “help” only certain parts of nature. Butterfly enthusiasts commonly sequester caterpillars from their yards to protect them from predators, such as wasps that feed upon butterfly larvae. And gardeners believe they must protect their plants from all harm and employ pesticides to do so.

None of these folks realizes that helping to create an overabundance of their preferred critters by limiting predation, and saving particular plants by poisoning their environment, are actions that are highly detrimental to the proper functioning of the natural world. Government officials, such as health and agriculture departments and wildlife agencies, add to this problem by dispensing erroneous information that encourages citizens to perceive parts of nature as useless.

We’ve reached this point because people are so removed from the natural world that they don’t really understand it, though they often think they do—as is the case with Professor Ward.

He starts the book by talking about “life’s lethal activities,” the main one being that each species maximizes its own chances for survival at the expense of other species.  Although Dr. Ward recognizes that human beings are the only creatures who impact the environment with their actions and are able to recognize the consequences, he nonetheless denounces critters for behaving in ways that simply help to ensure the perpetuation of their kind.

For example, he pokes fun at environmentalists by suggesting that they would be just as happy as he to rid the world entirely of mosquitoes that bite humans. His insular view doesn’t take into account that mosquitoes don’t have a choice in the matter.

A female mosquito requires the protein found in blood for her fertilized eggs to develop within her body. Therefore she is forced to find a mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, or fish, depending upon her species, to obtain the nourishing meal she is adapted to feeding upon.

If scientists (and everyone else) would look at the world objectively, they’d realize that the mosquito isn’t trying to be the “pest’ people tend to call her. She’s just attempting to make sure that her species continues to exist. When you understand that fact, it should be easier to be more forgiving towards the mosquito trying to share your blood.

Does her behavior cause problems for people? Sure, to varying degrees.

Mosquito bites itch, which is unpleasant, and mosquitoes do sometimes carry deadly disease organisms, such as those that cause West Nile Virus and malaria (the result of infection with one of five kinds of protozoans [single-celled organisms] that reproduce in the liver).

Does this threat to ourselves indicate that we should wipe out every mosquito on the planet? Absolutely not, unless you think it’s fine to impact all of the organisms that include mosquitoes in their diets, such as tadpoles, dragonfly and damselfly larvae and adults, fish, bats, birds, turtles, and spiders.

And this represents the nugget of knowledge you need in order to live in agreement with nature: All species fulfill roles that help to make the planet habitable, not only for themselves, but also for each other.

Viewing the natural world solely from the viewpoint of mankind, however, Professor Ward perceives as murder the required killing of individual organisms, even though these so-called murders are absolutely necessary for life as a whole to persist upon the planet. And, in the natural world, those lives are not at all wasted.

When an animal is killed by a predator, the predator gets a necessary meal for itself.  The leftovers are fed upon by many more organisms until the animal’s body disappears from sight.

Its cellular makeup is ultimately destined to be returned to the soil from which life springs, courtesy of plants that can harness the Sun’s energy and the nutrients provided by dead animals. These plants make food for plant-eating animals that form the foundation of the food chain.

But according to Peter Ward’s theory, the biosphere (zone of life on Earth) has a death wish! However, his theory could not be more wrong. Even the microbes that seem to terrify this man are extremely important to maintain the proper functioning of the environment for life to continue to flourish.

In the natural world, a system of checks and balances keeps organisms limited to a level that does not harm the environment as a whole. Predation is the main controlling factor of all organisms except humans.

For humans then, and for other species when predators have for some reason become too limited, the only control for overpopulation is disease. This statement is also true for the plant kingdom.

Thus in the natural world, a serious outbreak of disease implies an overpopulation problem. It’s the reason factory farming does not work without the use of antibiotics and why people overly crowded into refugee camps or cities end up ill.

Professor Ward is not alone in believing that humans “are not ordinary citizens” of planet Earth, but that fact does not mean that we are separated from nature and thus not subject to the laws governing the natural world.

This scientist sees us as Darwinian organisms that have “won” the war between species, and thus paints mankind as superior to other creatures.

Indeed, he posits that “We are the only hope to keep Earth life alive.” He’d be correct if he meant that we should obey natural laws rather trying to rewrite them.

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