Charlie Jacoby talks to his father, Martin Jacoby about Martin’s life as a natural historian, his views on how natural history and species work, the history of humankind, and why shooting butterflies is a good idea. He puts forward his ideas about DNA, why we hunt, and why hunting is an essential part of humanity.

Dad’s reading list

What is Life? by Addie Pross

Biophilia by EO Wilson

The Otter by James Williams

Charlie’s dad is a specialist in unusual hunting. He has taken Charlie on outings to shoot butterflies, catch prawns and ferret mice with bumblebees. Here are the films:

Here he lays down the central argument against banning shooting:

Shooting – good or bad?

If the survival of shooting in any form depends on whether the majority of people like or hate it, it won’t. It won’t survive because far more people feel that it is ‘bad’. What does ‘bad’ mean? Bad for whom or what?

Let’s think about fox shooting. “Fox shooting is bad for foxes.” That sounds like a meaningful proposition worth looking at. Firstly, what is a fox? We recognise a fox as a fox, though we may not recognise individuals. ‘Foxiness’ is clearly passed on from generation to generation. The information that directs a fertilised egg to develop into a fox and not a badger is carried by its parents. This encourages us to think of an individual fox in one of two ways: Fox 1 dies having had cubs, Fox 2 dies having not had them. The genetic information that makes a fox a fox is carried on to the next generation by Fox 1 but not by Fox 2. Fox 1 had the behaviour necessary to find food and shelter and to avoid lights at night and rifles. Fox 2 didn’t. Evolution positively selected Fox 1 as an individual better fitted to its environment than Fox 2.

If an individual fox is fitted to its environment, why does it bother to have cubs? There are three main, technical, reasons:

1) the genetic information that directs how a fertilised egg will develop into a recognisable fox is stored as a digital code in chemicals collectively called ‘DNA’. DNA is a huge and delicate molecule that makes mistakes in time. We human beings experience loss of hair, teeth and muscle, stiffness, wrinkles and other signs of old age. Our genetic information has become disorganised and needs to be checked. Larger animals do this by comparing their individual information with that of another in a business called sex.

2) selection doesn’t work if all individuals are identical, therefore the mechanism of sex allows variation.

3) non-selective accidents will kill a few individuals, and selection cannot discriminate unless there are more than one to choose between. Therefore offspring always outnumber their parents.

These facts force us to think of an individual living thing is the vehicle by which genetic information travels through time. It is a stage in a process that also includes conception and death.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are adjectives and cannot exist by themselves – they must refer to something. Since the individual fox is the main entity on which selection acts, hunting is good for the stream of information that constitutes foxes generally, though it may be bad for individual foxes. The philosophical problem is created, as it is in so many other cases of confusion, by human obsession with the individual. And the reasons for that are another, longer story.

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