Growing up, I loved animals, watched television programs about nature (Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins was a favourite), and visited more than a few zoos with my family. I thought of becoming a farmer or zookeeper when I grew up. I still enjoy watching documentaries about wildlife and taking my own family to the zoo. Animals are a source of endless fascination to me.
When I hear avid pro-lifers claim that it is unnatural for parents to kill their young or that human beings are the only species to do so, I turn to the animal kingdom and find a plethora of examples in which parents kill their own offspring. Zoologists give the behaviour many different names, such as brood reduction or filial cannibalism, but they all have the same result: a parent causes the death of his or her offspring. And it is more widespread than one might think.
A great deal of research on this subject has been conducted on different fish species, as the behaviour is common under the sea. For example, the male beaugregory damselfish, will eat whole clutches of his eggs when oxygen is low, to insure the survival of the rest. This behaviour is by no means confined to fish. Filial cannibalism – or to use less technical language, eating one’s offspring – is seen in the black vole, house finch and wolf spider.
Even animals which were once considered to be social and communal have been shown to kill their young. In the early 1900s, the langur monkeys of India were seen as just that: sociable, communal and almost human-like. But over the decades of observation, the researchers would note that the occasional newborn monkey would vanish. This was observed more and more, and eventually it was discovered that the monkeys were being killed when a rival male defeated their fathers. The researchers assumed that it was the new male killing the infant monkeys, and in some cases that was what happened. However, as often as not, it was the monkey’s own mother killing the infants, to insure that she would be able to mate with the new dominate male. It is now believed that more infants are killed in this way than make it to adulthood.
There are dozens of theories about why animals commit infanticide. One is that parents sometimes intentionally produce weaker offspring so they will be easier to dispatch should ecological conditions worsen. This is manifested in many ways, such when burring beetles eliminate their larva when food runs short.
Another theory is that animals eat their young to unsure their own survival, and thereby increase the amount of offspring they can have in the future.
A common theory is that decreasing the number of young helps to increase the rest of the brood’s chances, as seen in the beaugregory damselfish. A more recent theory is that in certain species it is possible that filial cannibalism increases the rate at which eggs develop, allowing for mothers to be more fertile later in life.
Across all these theories, it is the runts of the litter that are killed by their parents. To use Herbert Spencer’s description of Darwinism, it’s survival of the fittest.
It is easy to draw parallels between these theories explaining filial cannibalism and brood reduction and the justifications for abortion, such already having too many children and claiming that if another were born, they would all have a diminished quality of life. Or having a baby before a certain age will ruin the rest of the woman’s life, and therefore the unborn child’s life is forfeited. Or the baby will be born disabled, and it will be best for all involved if the child were never born. Or the species is better off by reducing excess population. The parallels between biologists’ explanation for the parental killing of offspring in the wild and justifications offered for abortion are uncanny. And bogus.
Humans are animals, but we are above all other creatures. We have superior brains and a soul. Humans are supposed to rise above such natural urges. These explanations work for animals because they do not have reason or a conscience. Humans are a higher breed. It is in the name of our sub-species, Homo sapiens sapiens which means we think, but we also think about what we think. Our mental capacities far exceed any other known animal. Yet we treat our young worse than the King Cobra, which has it written into its genetic code to go out and hunt, rather than to eat its young. Surely we must be better than a venomous snake?