Sunday, September 26, 2004

In Defense of Placental Mammals

I was digging through my old papers when I came across this essay that I wrote during the early Eocene. Times have changed considerably, since then, and I sure that most of my readers will find the topic to be a bit quaint. Never the less, I think that the points I made are still relevant even though the situation has become rather inverted from those days.

It was only a few million years ago that mammalkind lived under a menacing shadow. Every day we lived in fear of great plodding feet and the treat of rending claws and massive, snapping teeth. For a full one hundred and sixty million years we lived with the curse of the dinosaurs. It is no wonder that we lamented our fate and wondered what we had done to deserve our lot in life. One day, deliverance came in the form of a fire from the sky. I remember that we thought that it was the end of the world. It was the end of their world, but it was the beginning of ours. Although the days and years following the Miracle were harsh and many of us were to die – the dinosaurs did not go to their graves alone – the world was finally open to us. The meek had, indeed, come to inherit the Earth.

This era that we now live it should be a mammalian Utopia. We have spread across the land and have made our first forays into the water. Some even dream that we may one day challenge the avians for the sky – and why not, they took it over from the pterodactyls. It seems as though the world should be wide enough to accommodate every mammal that lives and, yet, some already have come to the conclusion that the world is too small to allow for that.

You've seen the slogans, I'm sure: "PLACENTAS ARE FOR PERVERTS ", "DOOM TO WOMBS" and, of course, "LIVE BIRTH IS A DEAD END".

During that dark, dinosaurian era, I can assure you that no one cared whether her neighbors had pouches, laid eggs, or even whether they gave birth to live young. Those terrible lizards literally loomed over every other concern we might have. With a common enemy, we had a common cause. Now that the treat has been banished, it would seem that fraternity has termed to enmity. There are calls to segregate the Placentals and even to extinguish them outright. Excepting only a few Monotreme radicals (who pretty much hate anyone that doesn't involve egg-laying), these calls have been coming exclusively from the Marsupial camp. Although I won't discount the presence of moderate voices among the Marsupials, I am sad to say that it is a popular stance.

What is the source of all this hostility, though? A certain amount of it, no doubt, is due to the "yuck" factor. I'll be the first to admit that I can't watch a Placental give birth without feeling nauseated. It is, without doubt, a slimy, messy, stomach-turning affair. Is this then a good enough reason to say that we should round up all the Placentals and put them on their own continent? Surely not!

Many Marsupial advocates have gone so far as to say that growing a child inside of one's own body and then expelling it like some sort of bizarre form of excrement is actually perverted and contrary to nature. Before they should be so quick to appeal to nature I would remind them that the majority of egg-laying animals (including their Monotreme cousins) might look askance at the Marsupial's own methodology. Indeed, I suspect that creatures who lay tidy, sanitary eggs may have to stifle their own sense of revulsion at the sight of half-developed Marsupial embryos crawling out of the birth canal and over to their mother's pouches. They may, indeed, wonder what is so extraordinarily different about pouches and wombs when compared to eggs. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder and so, too, is disgust.

A more sophisticated objection comes from those who say that the Placental lifestyle is actually dangerous. They have the statistics to back it up. Placental mammals have a distressing tendency to die in birth. Passing a highly developed child through a comparatively narrow opening is a risky prospect. Even when the birth, itself, goes as well as it possibly can, the mother and child are put in a state of intense vulnerability to predators and the dangers of an often unpredictable environment. Dr. A. Walaby has been a particularly vocal advocate of this stance. He insists that placental mammals must be saved from themselves. And how does he propose to do so? His answer is simplicity itself: he wants the Placentals to stop breeding altogether. Yes, he actually believes that extinction is preferable to the risks of placental birth.

I would ask Dr. Walaby what innovation has ever been advanced without an associated risk. Does he not recall the dire warnings that his ancestors received when mammals gave up scales for hair, or when we chose to excrete milk from our bodies rather than scavenging food for our offspring? Does he not, in fact, recall what the other fish said when our ancestors first dared to crawl on the land? Indeed, we may well ponder the state of mind of a fish that would even consider trying to breathe air through its own swim bladder! And, yet, if they had not taken that bold risk, where would we be now?

I am not saying that placentalism is the wave of the future. I am well aware that most such experiments come to sad conclusions. I, myself, remember those heady days of the early Cambrian when body plans were being adopted with all the fervor of high fashionability. So many promising phyla came to naught and I had to attend their funerals – alas, Hallucigenia, you died too young! Never the less, without innovation there can be no progress. Without risk, there can be no innovation. Would the good doctor have been happier if we had eschewed change from the beginning? The bacteria of the world may well agree but I treasure the complexities of the world and honor the efforts of those risked everything to create it, including those who died off in the attempt. I would not dishonor their courage by meekly embracing a path of timid safety.

This is a new world. The long age of the Dinosaurs is at an end. As we walk upon their graves shall we look out on this new era and embrace our future by embracing each other or shall we dig up those old bones and resurrect their tyranny anew? I think the choice is clear. Placentals have odd ways that may shock and even disgust us, and they may well be an evolutionary dead end when all has been said and done but they are mammals, too, and we would do better to honor our past and to honor ourselves by standing together, as mammals, for all mammalkind.

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