Squick

It’s a science fiction day! The topic is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Moon series, consisting of The Moon Maid (1923), The Moon Men (1926), and The Red Hawk (1926). At first glance it’s a retread of the more famous Barsoom (Mars) stories, including a healthy dose of contemporary science and pseudo-science, an eerie and unique alien landscape, and the adventures of a human castaway among roving tribes of semi-human savages and barbaric yet noble humans.

The second and third books break with that model entirely, being set on Earth, but even the first differs from the Barsoom books in a couple of ways. Both the setting and plot are more raw and headlong than Barsoom, dialed down in complexity and given more guttural names. Strangely, though, it’s the most morally provocative of anything else I’ve read by Burroughs. It almost reads like a Wells novel.

It so happens, too, that one of the most confrontational issues raised in The Moon Maid is also one of the powerful subjects of The Island of Doctor Moreau, the book which provides the backbone for this whole blog, and I figured it makes for a good topic here.

I’ll start with the savage tribes of the Moon’s interior, the Va-ga people, who are rarely accurately depicted in illustration. The 1970s Ace book cover at the head of this post, which set the standard for all to follow, does capture the description of their features perfectly, but they’re not centaurs, they’re literal quadrupeds who can stand and use their front limbs and hands when they want. This one, from a Dutch edition in 1946, is one of the very few which depicts them as written.

vaga2They’re survival cannibals, as all other meat on the Moon is poisonous to them, and although they can eat the available plants, they cannot subsist solely on them. When they raid another tribe or encampment, wounded individuals are immediately killed by other combatants regardless of side then and there during the fight, and the more dead accrue in a battle, the more resources become available for the victors. The combat is conducted exclusively by males upon males, and no prisoners are taken ever; the winning side instantly appropriates the losing sides’ females and offspring, who put up no protest and instantly identify with their new community

Therefore warfare isn’t about territory or identity – it’s the way they eat, or rather, the way they gain specific essential nutrients the plants cannot provide. They fight simply because I’d rather eat you than have you eat me. My population ecologist side perks up, because the breeding females live long and reproductively active lives, and thus the practices in question have no negative impact on the generation to generation population size. The only effect is that the age structure of the males is sharply truncated compared to the females, but the part that remains is unaltered. As long as the meat made available through these battles is sufficient to stave off malnutrition for the rest – and decay is slow and much less of a concern on the Moon, so the meat lasts a long time – then the population size doesn’t change, limited only by the reproductive capacity of the females.

[My hobby gamer side is also tweaked, recalling the classic game Chitin which clearly draws on this book as well as Jack Vance’s novel The Dragon Masters, but I can set that aside for now.]

The topic of the whole trilogy is war and the martial spirit, so-called, and presented from several angles. Another difference from the Barsoom books is that what’s going on back on Earth is a major issue and serves as a contrast. The Va-gas offer a stripped-down and possibly by-necessity version of warfare, whereas all the rest is elective, and I suppose that’s what a fully literary analysis would focus on. But what I’d really like to talk about is the cannibalism.

The big cross-species observation is that although plenty of creatures have been observed to eat members of their own species, very few of them do so in the ordinary sense of predation, in that you might as well eat Bob over there as hunt down one of those pesky fast things. That is vanishingly rare to absent. The default would appear to be that this is something you do when you’re totally starving and there just isn’t any alternative. The question is, why isn’t it ordinary behavior? Especially for asocial creatures in which one less dude of your kind out there means less hassle for you, what’s the big deal?

Ooh, interesting human-exceptionalism point: cannibalism-avoidance is yet another one of those behaviors we’re supposed to have invented exclusively through our allegedly unique social and “aware” mental qualities, despite it being observed across the majority, near-universal range of nonhuman animals. Please put aside any image you may have of confused, incestuous, cannibalistic “beasts” wandering around in the grip of uncontrollable urges which we by contrast master through reason or whatever.

Well, one of the notions kicking around in discussing this is that it’s simply hygiene – a member of your own species, and particularly one who is close enough to you to catch, is harboring a much more well-matched array of parasites like yours than any other species could have, and they would love a nice session of host transfer. Avoiding one’s conspecifics as prey goes into the big parasite-avoidance basket that’s part of any species’ toolkit, at a level of behavior best understood as developmental parameters.

That’s a good idea and provides a pretty solid foothold in the discussion, because, like incest, the “cost” is statistical rather than singular and utterly deterministic – hence it is observed, both as individual deviations and under conditions when the ordinary alternative isn’t available. Other proposed causes make most sense when considered specifications of that one. It also leads to neat studies of species with very, very focused forms of cannibalism (devouring litters e.g.) because usually there’s a dodge around the parasite problem mixed into them. I’m also pleased to note that one of the long-standing staples for “ordinary” cannibalism is getting re-interpreted as survival cannibalism after all.

What about judgments upon survival cannibalism? This may afford Exhibit A in the topic of human cognitive dissonance. To the concerned individuals, it’s easy enough: you’re starving. The whole parasite-avoidance thing is a vague, distant statistical risk compared with imminent demise. The problem arises when you get home and everyone else has to have opinions about it. Legal or illegal? Right or wrong? Is there some “right way” to do it? Toss it to an Ethics 101 class and you’ve got your final exam discussion done right there, although I hope you’re not expecting an answer to emerge.

The famous cases are almost too famous to list; U.S. people will probably chime in with the Donner party, U.K. people might talk about the famous 1880s raft-castaway instances including the Mignonette which yielded a famous murder trial, and everyone knows about the Uruguayan aircraft that crashed in the Andes in the early 1980s. The thing is, uh … well, there are more cases. More than a few, including some from Jamestown in 1609-1610 which I don’t suppose get mentioned at any Thanksgiving table although logically they might be. It’s not an exotic behavior given the requisite conditions, it’s, um … sort of what we do. Like what we see among other creatures in those conditions. Just as habitual cannibalism is “not done,” survival cannibalism thoroughly is.

You may notice I’m not providing images for this part of the discussion. You’re welcome.

For merely one relatively popularized/scholarly discussion, one could start with How does evolution explain survival cannibalism? First, I’d say, the whole word “explain” is all off the beam, as the actual behavior is hardly mysterious; and I must raise a pained objection to the word “natural” in the phrasing of the URL. I’m also not convinced by Petrinovich’s wholly psychological explanation, considering the parasite avoidance issue, but as long as we’re getting to the psychology as part of the behavior (rather than its ineffable origin), then I’m interested, which is why I’m including the link. The activity is clearly social in that several people apparently always agree to it rather than each person just doin’ it or not on an ad lib basis. But I’m not talking about the person who gets eaten – and during the siege of Leningrad in 1940-1941, we are talking about roving bands seeking children to kill and eat, and a regiment whose job was to stop them. The cooperative, “let’s do this” component of the activity strikes me as a solid research topic, as does the very common social acceptance of the survivors as long as murder wasn’t involved, a distinction that strikes me as dodgy.

Back to the Va-gas, and for those of you familiar with Barsoom, more differences stand out a bit. For example, the barbaric and also not-very-human Green Men of Barsoom have an understandable honor code and at least some of whom do not relish their sadistic cultural practices, whereas the Va-gas are unremittingly vicious and ruthless. Ga-va-go, the chief of the relevant tribe in the story, is quite bright and perceptive, but he (perhaps rightly) sees that there simply is no other way for him and his people to live. Even the character analogous to John Carter’s friend Sola is given no empathic features or plot role. The idea that the hero can perhaps unite the savages and provide a better way of life for them is simply off the table, both conceptually and practically.

They also eat the native humans, or U-gas, when they can catch them. These humans are similar to the Red Barsoomians in being physically gorgeous, highly cultured, and fierce in a warrior’s-honor way, but ever so slightly decadent, and no longer expert with their own super-science. The humans typically stay in their walled cities or use flying devices to avoid contact with the Va-ga tribes, but they get caught enough for the latter to look forward to such moments and to have opinions about which city of origin produces the best-tasting human flesh.

Just as happens to Carter in the Barsoom books, Julian is taken prisoner by a Va-ga tribe, who then happen upon and take prisoner a native human princess, Nah-ee-lah. She is not eaten because the Va-ga chief knows she’s high-ranked and seeks to trade her for lots more people to eat, and she and Julian become friends. From her, he learns that the humans eat the Va-gas right back. This is apparently not obligatory as Julian can subsist solely on the vegetation (which he has done so far, not liking the idea of eating Va-ga), the moon-humans are explicitly the same species as Earth humans, and the relevant dialogue never invokes that particular justification.

His discovery prompts an unusually long and nuanced dialogue for this novel, much more detailed than any other conversation in the story, and as it turns out, of no plot relevance whatsoever.

… we found a particularly delicious fruit growing in abundance. I gathered some and offered it to her, but she refused, thanking me, saying that she had just eaten.

“Do they bring the fruit to you,” I asked, “or do you have to come and gather it yourself?”

“What fruit I get I gather,” she replied, “but they bring me flesh. It is of that which I have just eaten, and so I do not care for fruit now.”

“Flesh!” I exclaimed. “What kind of flesh?”

“The flesh of Va-gas, of course,” she replied. “What other sort of flesh might an U-ga eat?”

I fear that I ill-concealed my surprise and disgust at the thought that the beautiful Nah-ee-lah ate of the flesh of the Va-gas.

“You, too, eat of the flesh of these creatures?” I demanded.

“Why not?” she asked. “You eat flesh, do you not, in your own country. You have told me that you raise beasts solely for their flesh.”

“Yes,” I replied, “that is true, but we eat only the flesh of the lower orders; we do not eat the flesh of humans.”

“You mean that you do not eat the flesh of your own species,” she said.

‘Yes,” I replied, “that is what I mean.”

“Neither do I,” she said. “The Va-gas are not of the same species as the U-ga. They are a lower order, just as are the creatures whose flesh you eat in your own country. You have told me of beef, and of mutton, and of pork, which you have described as creatures who run about on four legs, like the Va-gas. What is the difference, then, between the eating of the flesh of pork or beef or mutton, and the eating of Va-gas, who are low creatures also?”

“But they have human faces!” I cried, “and a spoken language.”

“You had better learn to eat them,” she said, “otherwise you will eat no flesh in Va-nah [the Moon].”

The more I thought about it the more reason I saw in her point of view. She was right. She was no more transgressing any natural law in eating the flesh of the Va-gas than do we, eating the flesh of cattle. To her the Va-gas were less than cattle. They were dangerous and hated enemies. The more I analyzed the thing, the more it seemed to me that we humans of the earth were surely more transgressing a natural law by devouring our domestic animals, many of which we learned to love, than were the U-ga of Va-nah in devouring the flesh of their four-footed foes, the Va-gas. Upon our earthly farms we raise calves and sheep and little pigs, and oftentimes we become greatly attached to individuals and they to us. We gain their confidence and they have implied trust in us, and yet, when they are of the right age, we slay and devour them. Presently it did not seem either wrong or unnatural that Nah-ee-lah should eat the flesh of the Va-gas, but as for myself, I could never do it, nor ever did.

I’m sure you noted the odd emphasis on “four-footed” in the debate, and also that Julian is up-front in his reflections that non-verbal animals do experience and conduct emotional, individual relationships with others. That these reflections do not win him over to the U-ga point of view is also evident, even when he pronounces that view neither wrong nor unnatural.

That’s not all. Later Julian encounters an U-ga city, of the Kalkar tribe or nation, then makes his way to Laythe, Nah-ee-lah’s home. Just as a little tossed-off comment, not a plot moment or dialogue as above or anything, the reader finds … wait for it …

As in the Kalkar city, there were Va-gas fattening for food in little groups upon various terraces. They were sleek and fat and appeared contented, and I learned later that they were perfectly satisfied with their lot, having no more conception of the purpose for which they were bred or the fate that awaited them than have the beef cattle of Earth.

The U-gas of Laythe have induced this mental state in their Va-gas herds by a process of careful selection, covering a period of ages, during which time they have conscientiously selected for breeding purposes the most stupid and unimaginative members of their herds.

Ew! Ewww!

I’m pretty sure that these domestic Va-gas have not lost their cognitive or verbal abilities, partly because he doesn’t say they have, and mainly going by the prior conversation with Nah-ee-lah, who never mentions any such thing. I’m forced to conclude that the U-gas … just … aren’t telling them.

Unlike the big ethics crisis and discussion from the earlier part of the book, Julian simply moves on with his own concerns and nothing more is said on the matter. For my part, I sat there for a bit with my jaw sagging open. Verbal, human-style cognitive food animals, kept happy, fat, and ignorant?

But work with me here. I think this is some pretty good social science fiction going on.

One wrinkle is the difference between predation as an ethics issue vs. survival cannibalism – or lack of difference, if you turf ethics to “necessity.” Put some pressure on that and it swiftly shifts to that much more enticing fallacy, naturalism. If a cat eats solely meat because it “has to,” which I suppose we might call survival predation, then one doesn’t see much daylight between that and the castaway eyeing his failing friend, which is fine … until one criticizes eating meat electively because it’s cruel (causes pain), in that predation is not noted for its gentleness. And where does this put nonhuman functional omnivores who preferentially seek meat, like most canines? Are we then to turf it to “instinct,” as in, “gee they don’t have to, but I guess they can’t help it?”

I’m not interested in debating human vegetarianism/veganism here; that’s not my point. My point is to show how quickly the ethics of eating (i.e., whom) dance from justification to justification without regard to rigorous thought. How does the discussion change when defending one’s personal habits isn’t involved? Therefore my criticism applies to staunch advocacy for meat-eating as well as advocacy against it.

Let’s add the science fiction twist of the food animal being cognitive and verbal in the ways familiar to our own species, plus the clincher of their humanoid features – upping the ante on empathy, just as Julian states. I for one found Ga-va-go to be a rather engaging old rogue and was relieved that he was not killed by events in the story. Yet Nah-ee-lah rightly calls this out too – does one animal deserve not to be eaten over another, because it is more easy to identify with, or, for example, cute?

A scientific giant. More posting about him will arrive.

My boss back at the Field Museum almost thirty years ago was a long-time, old-school curator who’d been trekking into the South American hinterlands on collecting expeditions since the 1930s. Back then, he’d shoot monkeys, save and label the skin and skull, and eat the meat – that’s how you did it. I’ve personally killed and eaten animals too, and sitting here in front of this screen I may say that I dislike the thought of eating primate meat on the flat-and-simple basis of empathy, but then again, I’m not out there in the Brazilian cerrado in the least safe conditions imaginable, determined to bring home evidence of primate diversity, either. You won’t find me saying “I wouldn’t” – that’s an exercise in personal drama and fairy-storytelling.

Nah-ee-lah isn’t saying that empathy with the Va-ga is impossible. Her form of naturalism is to label them as “lower” which bluntly, means less empowered – we, the U-ga, are not wrong to eat the Va-ga, why? Because we can. And in doing so, we can put aside or relax the potential empathy as not relevant regarding the domestic Va-gas. Assign right or wrong to it as you see fit, but as far as the behavior of we real-life humans is concerned regarding our food animals, it seems to me that Nah-ee-lah captures the outlook accurately.

The science fiction context allows for interesting questions about the fiction which are really questions about ourselves. Would the U-gas do this if another meat animal with the mental and physical features of, say, cattle were available? Would they look at their nonviolent Va-ga differently, perhaps as a form of citizen? Or would they have two meat animals now instead of one, with little practical or emotional distinction between them?

Links: Kin recognition and cannibalism in spadefoot toad tadpoles (the classic from 1993) and Frugal cannibals (an example of continuing work and an acknowledgment of the survival context)

Next: Evoliteracy

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5 thoughts on “Squick

  1. Donald Kingsbury’s SF novel Courtship Rite describes a human society with ritual cannibalism of the dead and defeated as a consequence of living on a planet where the native life is mostly toxic, earth plants are few and protein in short supply.

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    • Welcome, and my apologies for the delayed reply. I picked that up on a whim some years ago but it vanished unread into the boxes when I packed most of my books away. I’ve been freeing them slowly but steadily, so when I find this one, I’ll read it. As you see it, how does this story work out in simplistic but useful “moral of the story” terms?

      That’s what really frustrates me about The Moon Maid – it simply drops the topic and moves into a very different storyline for the rest of the book, and also for the next two books. The Va-gas are fleetingly mentioned once, I think.

      The two titles which stand out in my mind are Norman Spinrad’s The Men in the Jungle and Anthony Burgess’ The Wanting Seed, both of which are pretty yucky in terms of details. They also both tie voluntary and semi-voluntary cannibalism to war effort, which is interesting because in real life there’s no general tie between the two, and also because the authors’ politics (especially 20th cedntury war) are so different. And if the whole Va-ga content of The Moon Maid means anything, it somehow must be about cannibalism/war.

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  2. From the G+ post, some interesting questions. Brian asked,

    Great post, very well-written and interesting. One question, you say, “as does the very common social acceptance of the survivors as long as murder wasn’t involved, a distinction that strikes me as dodgy.” Why does this strike you as dodgy? It seems clear to me that eating half-frozen bodies stacked near a plane crash is not a crime, while hunting and killing my fellow survivors is murder.

    I replied,

    It’s dodgy in terms of the presumed “necessity” of staying alive. If my fellow survivors happen not to be conveniently dead, and I’m just as hungry as if they were, then the very “necessity” that justifies breaking taboo #1 seems to have the same weight to throw against taboo #2.. However, that all gets into levels of right and wrong which frankly I find boring. What I had in mind when writing that sentence was the way that the people rendering judgment upon the events, none of whom were there, are not actually doing any such thing. They’re forming a narrative which makes them feel good, and the choice is between “tragic testament to the indomitable human spirit” and “horrible Jeffrey Dahmers now loose among us.” The definition of murder (which presupposes a society and access to food) becomes play-dough to be shaped to whichever narrative seems best to those with the power to establish it.

    He answered,

    Understood, thank you for the clarification on your thought process. Tasty, long-pig food for thought!

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  3. The reference to “natural law” struck me as interesting for two reasons. First, the invasion of North American by Europeans was justified in a big way by pointing to natural law and then summarily labeling Native Americans lesser humans (i.e., “savages” and just part of the landscape). Heck, they went so far to repeatedly and off-handedly call the landscape “empty” because those humans don’t count as much more than bison. It comes as no surprise that so many cannibal stories cropped up, some aprophal — but then again, some not. Cannibalism itself is justification to call certain humans lesser — which then means it’s okay to kill them in droves. Weird logic. But there are entire legal treatises written centuries ago about natural law and when it’s okay to kill people. Major hand-wringing.

    Second, Burroughs’ politics on Native Americans isn’t exactly sensitive in the Mars books. I wonder how much he considered the issue. This is just a fleeting thought. No really content here.

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    • In working on The Edge of Evolution, I quickly realized how fraught the cannibalism issue is throughout academia, so decided to give references for the current major viewpoints and move on. It’s inextricable from the larger battle over whether 19th century European policy was “civilizing the cannibals” vs. “shattering/enslaving.people and calling them cannibals.”

      The frustrating thing is that uncommon but nevertheless consistent behaviors like survival cannibalism and very limited ritual cannibalism (real or symbolic) get lumped into “savage cannibals” even though everyone does those things. Meaning, the camp which says or implies that “they’re savage uncivilized cannibals who should be thanking the Portuguese, Brits, and Americans on bended knee” are dishonestly using these edge-case or sharply-delimited activities as evidence, and that forces the other camp to deny that any such thing ever happens, which is absurd, and I throw up my hands at that point.

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