Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The problem of Whoville

Depending on when you grew up and whether you have kids, you might have missed the Dr. Seuss clasic Horton hears a Who. That's the one about the elephant who hears a cry of help from a speck of dust floating by, and discovers (through his remarkably sensitive hearing) that there's a whole community of tiny people called "Whos" who live on that speck.

Horton vows to protect them and tries his best, in the face of social disapprobation instigated by a bossy kangaroo and her joey. He climbs over mountains and searches through a whole field of clover to rescue them, only to be captured and caged. The one clover with the Whos is about to be dropped into hot oil when finally the little creatures scream loud enough that the kangaroo can hear them herself.

Suddenly everyone is all grins and friendship, and the kangaroo and her joey declare their intention to protect the Whos through all sorts of weather. They even adopt Horton's oft-repeated mantra, "A person's a person, no matter how small."

Now, I think I get Dr. Seuss's message (which apparently makes me better at reading comprehension than Ted Cruz). And I fully support the sentiment behind it: As humans, we're entitled to certain rights—period.

And yet ... At the end of the book, the kangaroos are holding the precious clover, and keeping an umbrella over it. Um, if they're spending all their time looking out for the Whos, how are they going to gather their own food?

What's more, we have to ask, Does every speck of dust floating through the air play host to an entire world of microscopic people with lives just like ours? Horton happened to hear these Whos as they hovered near him—do we have an affirmative duty to seek out all the rest of these potential victims and save them?

And if we find them (or if they find us, as the Whos found Horton), how many pairs of kangaroos are we going to immobilize taking care of all these little Whos? And then who's going to feed all those kangaroos who can't fend for themselves because they're so busy taking care of the Whos?

Stepping back, how on earth did the Whos even come to be? How did evolution produce something so thoroughly dependent on the kindness of strangers?

Nature is full of tiny creatures who live at the mercy of every puff of air or drop of rain, but they're typically "r-strategists" rather than "K-strategists"—which means that instead of producing small numbers of offspring and putting lots of effort into seeing many of them survive to adulthood, they churn out huge numbers to overcome the inevitable early death of 99% of their "children."

But these Whos are another story. Being so thoroughly unable to fend for themselves, they should resign themselves to massive mortality and rely on prodigious fecundity to ensure the survival of their kind. Instead, they Shanghai a bunch of good-hearted jungle creatures into taking care of them.

And once you phrase it like that, these little blighters come off looking less like pitiable, deserving creatures and more like—parasites!

I should clarify that I am not an advocate of social Darwinism. I strongly support the social insurance state on the grounds of both human decency and economic efficiency (the state is actually a pretty good structure for providing both pensions and health insurance).

Ironically, you can even make a case that a society with a reasonable system of social insurance has greater Darwinian "fitness" then one that makes a great show of rugged individualism, where people are supposed to fend for themselves.

So why does it seem that I have it in for the Whos? I think it's because they're not really participating in a social insurance scheme. The way those things work is, you pay in when you're healthy, take out when you're sick; pay in when you're young, take out when you're old and retired.

Sure, there are instances where an individual takes out for much of his or her life, due to bad health or disability. But we don't begrudge them their benefits because "there but for the grace of God ..." With a different role of the dice, they could have been healthy and productive, and any of us could have been in their hobbled shoes. Ultimately, we're all in this together, and in the spirit of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, until we come into this world, none of us knows our lot.

The Whos just don't fit the bill. There's no state of the world in which they pull their weight. In ecological terms their existence is simply incomprehensible.

So while I like the social message that Dr. Seuss is conveying, it's a shame he had to wrap it in such a misrepresentation of basic ecological principles.

Next up: The Lorax!

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