Thursday, May 10, 2012

Here There Be Monsters: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XI

If you don't think there are horrors among us, check this out:

 The parasite, Leucochloridium paradoxum, takes over not only the physiognomy of the snail, but its behavior, leaving the snail vulnerable to predators in order for the parasite to continue its reproductive cycle. The first time I heard about this, I was terrified. Not quite as disquieting as the previously mentioned parasitic wasps - the eggs are hatched inside a caterpillar and, when they hatch, devour it from the inside out; I once watched two burst out of a large, green caterpillar on a tomato plant in our garden in Virginia, not the most pleasant experience - but certainly disquieting. Evolving together, the flatworm had developed the ability to strip the snail of its usual behavioral patterns in order to further its reproductive ends. There is just something unnerving at the thought of a creature taking over another in this way.

It was watching some documentary on parasites when it all started to come together for me. There are monsters in this world, and they are not unearthly horrors or supernatural beings. They, like us, are creatures who have evolved strategies to survive and thrive at the expense of other creatures. This is a nice description of some more things that could make anyone uneasy.

They aren't the only monsters on the planet.
The Moors murders were carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between July 1963 and October 1965, in and around what is now Greater Manchester, England. The victims were five children aged between 10 and 17—Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans—at least four of whom were sexually assaulted. The murders are so named because two of the victims were discovered in graves dug on Saddleworth Moor, with a third grave also being discovered there in 1987, over 20 years after Brady and Hindley's trial in 1966. The body of a fourth victim, Keith Bennett, is also suspected to be buried there, but despite repeated searches it remains undiscovered.
Brady and Hindley recorded one of their victims, a sixteen year old girl, begging for her life, screaming in horror at the things they did to her.  They would sit and listen to the tape as sexual foreplay.

Then, there are the monsters that gather in packs.
In the light of long-established and heavily "gendered" strategies of intercommunal conflict in the Balkans, it was hardly surprising that the gender-selective massacre of non-combatant males would emerge as the dominant and most severe atrocity inflicted on the civilian population in the modern Balkans wars. Regardless of their often-atrocious maltreatment of other population groups (including the destruction of entire cities and the mass rape of women), Serb forces -- and to a lesser extent Croats and Muslims -- concentrated their attention systematically on "battle-age" men. As the Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic described the Serb strategy in 1996, "Wherever they [the Serbs] captured people, they either detained or killed all the males from 18 to 55 [years old].
While the line from parasites to psychopaths to genocide might seem nonexistent, it was in fact the parasites that convinced me the link exists. After reading Mayr, I went back and read both The Origin of Species and The Voyage Of The Beagle. Then, I perused various of Gould's articles from Natural History. This late education in the surprising and marvelous details of the contemporary theory of evolution not only tamped by enthusiasm for some broader, comprehensive "philosophy of science". It also demonstrated that, by and large, all the odd phenomena for which we continually assigned some odd, metaphysical source - whether it was comets bringing disaster; illness brought on by an invasion of creatures; the destruction of whole populations for political reasons - were little more than instances of events for which mundane explanations existed.

It is a commonplace of discussions in the history of ideas that the emergence of the mechanical understanding of the universe, then the theory of evolution by natural selection "disenchanted the world." No longer a domain where causes for events included unseen spiritual forces, the world and the larger universe all became little more than puzzles to solve, questions that would yield answers without an appeal to invisible beings or moral forces that had been, up until then, reified in everything from the plague to the famous Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Not only was the world a place open to human understanding; the ability to understand the world through the various tools human beings had developed had removed the sense of wonder and awe from the phenomena under investigation. No longer beautiful points of light in the night sky that form pictures as we gaze upward, the telescope revealed thousands, tens of thousands, more such lights, which were discrete objects an unknown distance from us, similar in kind to the sun we human beings see each day. Nothing marvelous about that, right?

Rather than the punishment, just or not, for sins known or unknown from the hand of God, diseases and other natural disasters were removed from the arena of moral casuistry and set down, firmly and fully, within the world as events to be studied, phenomena to be understood and, as Bacon pointed out, if understood they could be controlled. We no longer live in a world filled with agents of evil who manipulate objects, animals, people, or even nations to pursue whatever nefarious purposes they might desire. It's just stuff. It's animals, even creepy animals, living their lives as they've evolved over the millennia; we no longer need to wonder if, say, an earthquake struck a city, killing even those nominally faithful when the roofs of their churches collapsed upon them (a point in the discussions over the theodicy of the Lisbon earthquake) that might be some kind of judgment upon the dead. It's just the plates that make up the earth's crust, jerking loose after getting stuck together. The jolts are pretty horrific. They are not, however, a judgment from God.

Ours is a world no longer filled with monsters, at least in some transcendent sense.

The one joker in this deck of disenchantment, it has always seemed to me, is the infinite capacity human beings possess to visit massive violence on other human beings. While we may be able to remove all sorts of natural occurrences, from disease to the occasional disaster, from the realm of moral judgment and metaphysical causation, surely the existence both of individuals and groups willing not only to cause massive pain and suffering but to take pleasure in it leaves room for transcendent evil. A realm exists, it seems, in which our moral judgments, emotional responses, and the facts of the matter justify not only some kind of juridical determination of moral viciousness, but the implication that the source lies outside the normal range of human action. While horrifying, parasites are nothing more than critters doing what critters do, living out their lives. Whether the individual or paired psychopath killing for sport or sexual release or simple joy, or a political organization that uses mass death and terror as a tool of policy, how is it possible to understand these events without an appeal to external, metaphysical evil?

Part of the problem with this question is confusing our obvious and justifiable revulsion at the persons responsible for these events, and our refusal to place such monstrous events within the realm of human possibility, which results in the insistence that no human being would act these ways without an impetus from outside. Except, of course, the acts these individuals perform are intelligible within wholly natural categories of understanding. Disgust at the acts is certainly understandable; excluding those who perform such deeds from the human race, calling them "monsters", creating an unbridgeable gap between them and the rest of us in order to insulate ourselves from the corollary that flows from the insistence that these acts are both intelligible and fully human. If these are people just like us - although, perhaps in the case of the psychopathic or sociopathic murderer missing something key in their emotional make-up - then what separates us from them? Are we capable of such terrifying acts against our fellow human beings? Sad to say, frightening even, the answer is yes.

While there is nothing wrong with pronouncing some kind of moral judgment upon the individuals and groups involved in such deeds, we must be cautious not to separate them from the realms of possible human action, agents not of psychological dysfunction or political calculation but rather of forces from some agent of outside evil. The category error here is clear: the line connecting the parasitic worms, serial killers, and politically motivated mass death is just this: they are "natural" occurrences, wholly intelligible within categories and frames of reference that need no external, metaphysical source for our innate revulsion.

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