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Michael Daniel

“Nonmoral Nature” by Stephen Jay Gould


In “Nonmoral Nature”, Stephen Jay Gould explains that nature has no ethical or

moral lessons for us. He describes a group of wasps called ichneumon that lay their larva

inside of a caterpillar, spider or other insect. When their larva hatches they eat the animal

that they were laid inside of from the inside out in such a way that they keep their host

alive for as long as possible. Theologians found that the existence of ichneumon caused

problems for their theory that god is benevolent. If God was benevolent then why would

he create such pain by creating creatures such as ichneumon? Theologians were never

able to answer this directly, however some of them tried to say that the animals who host

ichneumon larvae do not truly feel pain, and some tried to solve the problem by focusing

on the love of the mother ichneumon for her offspring rather than focusing on the pain of

the host creature.

Gould states, “The ichneumonoidea are a group of wasps…”. That statement is

false because the word, “group,” is misused. According to wikipedia, ichneumonoidea is

a superfamily, not a group. Further, ichneumon is a part of the parasitica group. It is no

surprise that Gould wrote in such a manner, since later on in the text he writes, “In using

inappropriate anthropocentric language for this romp through the natural history of

ichneumons, I have tried to emphasize just why these wasps became a preeminent

challenge to natural theology.” I see how his use of inappropriate language helped to

convey the message in other parts of the text, but I fail to see how his misuse of the word

‘group’ did anything but create confusion in this particular case.

I think that Gould is incorrect when he says that nature has nothing to teach us

about ethics. The ichneumonoidea do what they have to do to survive. If brought to a

human level I would say that humans should do what they have to do to survive. I

believe that any action you take is ethical if it saves your life or the life of your child.

That includes murder and torture. I am not advocating Darwinism by saying that, since

Darwinism is a law that will take its course regardless of what we do as individuals.

The reason why it is ethical to torture another animal in defense of your own life

can be found in the function of ethics itself. Ethics exist in order to help us to work

together. Working together ensures our survival. Therefore, ethics exists only because of

our need to survive. If a situation arises where ethics gets in the way of our ability to

survive then ethics needs to be thrown out because ethics is subservient to survival.

This philosophy is practiced all the time. Even people who argue against this

theory will practice it. For example, a priest or ethicist will tell us that all life is sacred

but my doctor says that I need to eat from all of the major food groups or else I will die

from starvation. Except for some small exceptions like table salt, all food comes from

dead things. Vegetarians don’t eat meat but vegetables have just as much a claim on life

as a cow does. This means that either all life is not sacred or it means that it ethical to

destroy sacred things. defines sacred as, “Hence, not to be profaned or

violated; inviolable.”. By definition then it is impossible to destroy something that is

sacred because it is impossible to destroy something that is inviolable. Therefore, life is

not sacred when survival is in question.