Vermin inherit the Earth

by Michael Nenonen <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >, 2005.02.20

Vermin of every description have been hunted with the intent of stamping them out. But they always survive, and in the 

process, offer us important lessons about how we can, too.

Photo by Danny Chapman

One morning not long ago I saw rats rooting beneath a garbage bin in my neighbourhood. My immediate response was to scowl and stiffen. After all, these were the ambassadors of sewers and cemeteries, reminders that death and disease hold ultimate dominion even in the land of lotus-eaters. God, I thought, isn’t it enough that our world’s burning down? Do we have to watch vermin swarming at the edge of the blaze?

It was with such thoughts in mind that I came upon a scientific article about our earliest mammalian ancestor. Eomaia, who lived around 125 million years ago, and was a furry, four-legged creature about ten centimetres long, not counting its tail. It turns out that five million generations ago we looked a whole lot like rats ourselves.

Eomaia’s descendants survived the fires that consumed the dinosaurs’ empire. Over the course of aeons, mammals filled many of the ecological niches these titans had abandoned. They were like arks, carrying precious genetic potentials from one world into the next.

Could the vermin of our age be the inheritors of the age to come? Is it too much to imagine that in the distant future the descendants of today’s vermin might fill the ecological niches once inhabited by whales and bears, wolves and apes? I happen to like whales and bears, wolves and apes, and I’m worried that they’ll become extinct within a century or two. The idea that vermin may someday evolve into similar creatures is comforting. In the long run, vermin may well be the servants of life, not death.

So, maybe it’s time to reconsider our attitude towards vermin. In doing so, we’d also have to reconsider how we treat each other.

Human beings have a long history of labelling marginalised groups “vermin” and trying to exterminate them either through outright murder or by pressuring them to abandon their cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles. Very often, the people tagged with this label have proven to be the bearers of ethical potentials desperately needed by the larger society. During Rome’s decline, Christianity was slandered as a subversive, baby-eating cult. The Christians, in turn, re-organised, humanised, and rejuvenated Roman civilisation. Medieval Europeans vilified Muslims, but it was the contributions of the Islamic world that fuelled the Renaissance. For centuries, Europeans treated Jews like an unwelcome infestation, but the Jews gave the West its most sophisticated ethical philosophies and its most stalwart defenders of human rights. There are a lot of examples of this principle, if we care to look for them.

Everything and everyone has something valuable to offer the whole, provided we’re willing to abandon the narrow-minded pursuit of our immediate self-interest in favour of curiosity, consideration, and compassion. By remembering this, we’ll be less likely to embark upon disastrous projects of extermination, and we’ll have a much better chance of finding ethical and ecological balance.

If we’re really interested in achieving this balance, we have to first ask, “who’s being treated like vermin these days?” It’s not hard to figure this out. Everyone who’s not Judeo-Christian and male, healthy and heterosexual, and well-off and white is treated like vermin to some degree. Arabs, and especially Palestinians, are often described in terms nearly identical to those the Nazis used to describe Jews, with predictable results. Menachem Begin, for example, referred to the Palestinians as “beasts walking on two legs” and “cockroaches.” Gays and bisexuals have often been referred to as carriers of physical, psychological, and social disease, a form of slander that encourages all manner of prejudice and violence towards them. People who use social assistance are commonly condemned as “parasites,” as are those who for whatever reason run afoul of the law. These are the people to befriend because, odds are, they have something we all need, whether we know it or not.

I’m not suggesting that such people are “better” than any other, or that those who aren’t considered vermin are “worse,” but rather that human diversity, like ecological diversity, is in everyone’s interest. The less we try to impose a single ideal upon the world, regardless of whether that ideal is economic or ethnic, social or sexual, political or philosophical, the better off we’ll all be. The more we share power and resources with one another, the stronger, safer, and happier our world will become.

Having said this, here’s a word of warning: most attempts to exterminate vermin have the exact opposite effect. Vermin have a habit of adapting to the grossest abuses, and of becoming stronger and more vicious in the process. Every exterminator, on the other hand, will eventually weaken. Unless we’re friends to vermin when we’re mighty, we can’t reasonably expect them to be our friends when we’re vulnerable-when it’s time for us to take their place. By choosing extermination, we choose despair.

I’d be lying if I said I loved the sight of rats, but I’m not as offended by them as I used to be, and my lingering contempt says far more about me than it does about them. Like all things, the animals and people we foolishly refer to as “vermin” have dignity and a place in the world. They have contributions to make and lessons to teach, lessons we’ll all eventually have to learn, one way or another.