Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thy shalt

When I turned on the lights in the kitchen this morning, I found the countertop covered with ants. Tiny black ants, as small as grains of salt. To me they looked like black dots. I began smushing them with my thumb. Then I took a wet paper towel and began mass murder.

But not without misgivings.

I've examined those black dots under a magnifier. Six legs. Antennae. Eyes. Bristles. Each black dot a tiny marvel of biological sophistication. I've read E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler's magnificent compendium The Ants, cataloging every details of the biology and behaviors of these tiny creatures. Crushing a single black dot with my thumb destroys vastly more complexity than smashing a Rolex watch with a hammer or hurling a Faberge egg against the wall.

Although we can see glimmers of moral behavior in some of the "higher" animals -- apes, dolphins, etc. -- humans are presumably the only creatures that have moral scruples about smushing ants. For most of the animal kingdom -- for most living beings -- it's dog eat dog, nature red in tooth and claw. The anteater has no compunctions about hoovering up ants with its snout.

Whence out moral sense?

The Golden Rule seems so universal among humans that it would appear to be innate -- that is, a product of natural selection. Which is to say, the religious naturalist need make no reference to "higher powers" to feel a moral imperative in her life. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a tablet that said "Do not smush ants." Jesus never mentioned ants in the Sermon on the Mount. Whatever misgivings I felt in the kitchen this morning had their origin in my naturalist's sense of the unity of creation, of the "rightness" of what is. And the more I have learned about the creation -- the biology and habits of ants, for example -- the more my moral sense has been sharpened.

The electron microscope image above of an ant's eye more effectively stimulates my sense of ethical responsibility -- to all of creation -- than any supposed instruction from on high.

(The image above is reproduced from the web site of the Berkeley Research Company.)