Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Jellyfish of Micronesia

There is an amazing spectacle that occurs in the islands of Micronesia, northeast of Australia and northwest of the Marshall and Soloman Islands. There are lakes in these islands which are cut off from the ocean, except for small fissures in the rocks in the base of the islands that lead to fresh saltwater. Jellyfish were trapped in these lakes and over the years they have adapted to their environments. They survive in symbiosis with algae, which inhabit their bodies and produce food for them through photosynthesis. Additionally, because they no longer have to compete for food or survive predatory species, they have lost the ability to sting. They are the stingless jellyfish.

Jellyfish are not known for their brainpower, specifically because they have no brain whatsoever. Instead, they have a ganglion of nerve cells that help them to coordinate pulsations and to detect when prey have blundered into their tentacles and that’s about it.

The jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake migrate from one side to the other with the movement of the sun to maximize the amount of time their algae co-inhabitants have to photosynthesize in the sunlight. That’s pretty smart, in my own humble opinion, when they have no brain. They are in their own niche, their own place in their habitat (we are currently studying ecology in class) and have value as a unique and inspirational species. One can swim amongst them in awe of their beauty and grace. (A school of jellyfish is known as a smack).

Now because they have their place and because they are organisms with intrinsic value, what does that say about all living things? Shall we destroy these jellyfish by whatever means we choose because of the fact that they have no brain? (I know, I know, I made a joke about dynamiting jellyfish in my article “Look at the Little Jellyfish;” read on for what I am getting at.) No? Leave the jellyfish alone? Oh, well it would be wrong then, for us to blow all these jellyfish to kingdom come in bits of writhing little pieces, like a mad Al Qaeda ecologist, but its ok for us to kill a human when their brain no longer functions properly, because of their “quality of life.” I am alluding to the case of Terry Schaivo.

There was a movie that came out about 15 years ago that starred Robin Williams called “Awakenings.” In it, a number of people who had brain damage due to encephalitis (infection of the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain) were hospitalized at a 24 hour in patient clinic where Williams worked as a doctor. These patients were vegetables. They were responsive to very little. Williams decides (without authorization) to treat these patients with a mega dose of a new drug after initial tests failed. What occurred was remarkable. The patients started waking up from their vegetative state! After “falling asleep” for decades, these patients were laughing, talking, singing and enjoying life again. Regrettably, soon after this occurred the patients began building a tolerance to this drug, and began to fall asleep again, going back into their vegetative state. I shall never forget one scene between Robert DeNiro and Williams. Deniro tells Williams, touchingly, that when he was asleep, he was aware. He was there. He simply did not have the ability to respond.

Here is the deal: when the state starts making decisions for others on their behalf, terminating their existence because of their “quality of life,” a line is drawn. The problem with this is that THE LINE HAS A TENDENCY TO MOVE.
Your brain no longer functions properly. What quality of life is that?
You are over 80 years old. What quality of life is that?
You can no longer function in society. What quality of life is that?
You are an unwanted infant. What quality of life is that?
You are no longer productive. What quality of life is that?
You have the wrong genetic profile. What quality of life is that?

All life has value, and there is a greater line that has been drawn. Shall we embrace truth, or in the “enlightenment” of our philosophy, snuff out the lives of our fellow humans?

In doing so, we destroy ourselves.

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