zeus statue in bernini s fountain of the four rivers in rome italy

When we play god with dogs and the climate

Accusing people of ‘hubris’ and of “playing god” vis-à-vis solutions to the canine crisis and the climate crisis isn’t just pointless but may betray a preference for a moral position that is no longer gainful. Once “man” has “played god”, every action that follows – however humble or selfless – can be said to be “man playing god”.

Consider the ongoing debate over how we should respond to the proliferation of dogs on our streets. The humans species is regularly accused of being hubristic for its belief that it can decide the fate of other species, that “the dogs were always there”, that “they weren’t a problem until people came along”, and that the crisis was created because the dogs got in the way of humans enjoying their built environment. Detractors also argue that this kind of thinking is no different from that which motivates the majoritarian government in India.

Dogs have been present in human urban spaces for a long time and not all of them present today are descended from pets abandoned by people. But they weren’t always present in this magnitude (15-62 million) nor are they as much of a nuisance as they are today. This is new and in many ways unprecedented.

I am opposed to dog homelessness. I also don’t think mass-euthanasia is a feasible or even morally acceptable solution. The 2001 Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules failed for certain reasons and the new 2023 ABC Rules don’t fix those reasons, so they are going to fail as well. The latter also makes matters worse by adding new points of failure, as The Hindu‘s editorial wrote. It is no coincidence that the 2001 Rules implicitly condoned dog homelessness and the 2023 Rules systematise it.

With this in mind: The dog problem doesn’t have nearly a perfect metaphor in human living and culture. We can’t have a policy that tries to get rid of human homelessness as well by euthanising homeless people who fall sick: this idea is more morally reprehensible than the idea of culling dogs en masse. And to make matters worse, we may also never be able to settle the question of what humaneness means vis-à-vis dogs.

Nonetheless, to attempt to fiddle with the future of these canine communities, to the point of limiting their ability to reproduce, is “man playing god”, we are told. But it seems that once “man” has “played god”, there is almost certainly no way to go back in a way that our actions can no longer be subjected to this accusation. The reason is because of the way these problems compound. Once we enabled dogs to live on our streets without human ownership (by allowing them to forage in the solid waste disposed of by humans for food, for example), we started becoming complicit in whatever shape the problem took in time.

A better metaphor for (or even description of) the dog problem is invasive species: we introduced species X into a new ecosystem, causing that ecosystem to collapse. (X also includes species that have become ‘invasive’ after people interfered with extant ecosystems of which they were part, causing their character in the food web to change.) Now, should we remove X and/or restore the ecosystem or should we let the other ecosystems adapt to this loss?

Deforestation and habitat destruction are causing some animals to tread on agricultural land and destroy crops, prompting farmers to have these animals declared ‘vermin’ so they can be shot and killed without consequence. This problem is obviously of human making. However, and particularly when rehabilitative laws and policies are yet to catch up, either position on the matter – to let the animals destroy crops or to let the farmers scare these animals away – is bound to be morally fraught. To determine what is right in these situations requires us to shed the temptation of idealistic positions and not be dissuaded by accusations of “playing god”.

Of course, this opens the door to even more questionable actions. It would be dangerous to take the uselessness of “playing god” to mean that we can indeed play god to any extent, illustrating, for example, the importance of rehabilitative laws and policies. Without them, more fundamentally without state support, farmers aggrieved by the loss of their crops can’t be allowed to kill boars, nilgai, or elephants when they can instead safely deter these animals. “Playing god” is not a blanket licence to justify human ecological colonisation or extractivism, which then forces us to ask: where do we draw the line? That is, what kind of “playing god” is necessary and what kind is not?

An example of even more questionable actions is available with George Church and his company Colossal, which plans to ‘revive’ the woolly mammoth and let it loose in the Siberian tundra to restore this landscape to some former glory. Colossal is also working on ‘reviving’ the dodo in Mauritius for the same reason. India itself may be doing a similar thing with the African cheetahs in Kuno National Park and Central India’s grasslands. (“May be” because experts aren’t buying this reason, advanced by the government; we don’t know if that is the government’s actual reason; and we know that at least one government, that of Gujarat, has put its own ‘pride’ above the survival of its ailing lions. That we should continue to suspect the justification is borne out by the death already of two of these African cheetahs.)

Humans played a part in driving the woolly mammoths and dodos to extinction. Both have been absent for at least two centuries now. Should we revive these species now, now that their respective ecosystems have evolved on? Or should we privilege the situation today (because today is when we have the skills and technologies to revive species) and respond to things as they are? Similarly, dogs have been around for a long time, and we have done the opposite of extinction with them, supporting their proliferation. Should we limit their population or should we let them ‘evolve’ accordingly? In the meantime, will we make matters worse?

I don’t claim to know the answers to any of these questions. In fact I don’t even know how to begin thinking about them. What I do know is that the moment we began to fiddle with the natural course of things – which itself, I imagine, would be impossible to isolate from everything else as they are today – we permanently foreswore the ability to unfiddle with them as well as permanently tainted our hands. There are fewer and fewer positions that people can hold today vis-à-vis correcting the consequences of human interference with nature that can be simultaneously good and right.

The climate crisis expands this dilemma to an enormous scale. Ours is the only species that can describe the climate crisis. Other species notice changes and respond differently to new normals. Only humans are contemplating the shape of the crisis in 2100 (as far as this human knows). Indeed, while both humans and other species are undertaking climate adaptation, only humans are also working on climate mitigation, essentially rendering mitigatory actions to be examples of “man playing god”. If we have caused ecosystem collapse, wouldn’t any option we exercise next – restoration, revival, adaptation, etc. – also constitute “man playing god”?

This is why ‘hubris’ is becoming a less useful, but still not entirely useless, guiding light by which to find our way through the climate crisis. Sometimes, it is a false barrier that stops us from making decisions that are required to prevent a problem from becoming intractably worse; at others, the mitigation or avoidance of hubristic actions becomes a pathfinding principle that ultimately achieves an outcome that has no real-world value. But at yet others, it stops us from doing something that is outright foolish, like culling dogs, insisting on building airports inside forests, or killing hungry elephants.

All together, where do we draw the line?

This post benefited from feedback from Thomas Manuel.