A few weeks ago, I wrote about cicadas as they were emerging, flying, singing, mating. Now so many of them are dead that they clog our pathways. Every time I am outside, I see dozens of dying cicadas, trying desperately to right themselves, to fly with damaged wings, or simply to escape the hot pavement beneath them. They’re done for.
Mass death always seems sad to me, even for insects I don’t like, but we are merely observing the nature of the cicada. At every stage of their eventful lives, many cicadas don’t make it. Females make dozens of nests by scratching into tree branches, each with a dozen or more eggs. I have been rustling my youngest trees to protect them from the scratches, and there are many more natural reasons why only a fraction of these eggs eventually hatch. Not all of the hatched nymphs fall into good locations where they can burrow into the ground. Not all those holes lead to live tree roots, from which the nymphs get their nourishment for their long residence underground. Not all of them manage to dig their way to the surface, properly shrug off their shell, harden their bodies and dry their wings, and take off for a few furious weeks of trying to create the next generation. In many cases, it’s not the fittest, but the luckiest.
Cicadas have no defense mechanisms at all, except to fly away. They offer no protection to their eggs, and most adults die before they hatch. Cicadas have evolved a system for creating and preserving life which depends entirely on quantity. That long evolutionary process happened before humans significantly altered the landscape, cutting the trees needed for egg-laying, making burrowing impossible in paved surfaces, and putting harsh chemicals underground. Yet the cicadas survive in unimaginable numbers.
A species which produces large numbers of eggs needs to do that because so few offspring eventually become adults. One of my biological colleagues has had remarkable success in propagating an orchid native only to Hawaii. That plant produces millions of seeds from its lovely flowers. Yet it struggles to preserve its life against the gradual expansion of human environmental change in its island habitat. Enormous quantity does not assure survival to any plant or animal species, as we alter the earth’s surface across the globe.
Mammals produce far fewer offspring, but still many more than will survive to adulthood. A female domestic dog or cat could theoretically produce dozens of cute little babies in a lifetime of breeding. Our social practices, including forcible sterilization and euthanasia of strays, keep those populations in check.
The most complex mammals, the primates, are at the other end of the natural spectrum from orchids or cicadas – apes and humans produce few babies and take extraordinary care of them until adulthood. Because gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees are now threatened in the world, we try to insure that every baby ape survives and thrives.
I wish American society was as determined to take the best care of all our human babies. Whether cities and states are ruled by Democrats or Republicans, self-identified as “pro-life” or not, too much human life is lost across America, in birthing rooms and in the years of childhood.
Among nations, the US ranks #33 in the number of children who survive to age 5, according to data from the UN and the CIA. Every year there are 7.8 child deaths per 1000 live births in the US. In South Korea, the Czech Republic, Norway, and Japan, there are fewer than 5. That difference means 10,000 American children die every year, who could be kept alive with better care.
I am amazed whenever the existence of social programs to keep our most vulnerable babies and children alive is decided by their price tag. I am amazed when people ignore the realities of child mortality in American society, which are common knowledge, and argue against all social programs funded by taxes.
MasterCard promotes itself with a series of inspired ads, comparing pricey things and priceless feelings. In our world of credit card debt spent for those things, why isn’t life itself priceless?
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 14, 2011