Friday, June 15, 2007

Was the Chicken Alive?

I've read a number of time about Mike the Chicken. I remember his story from when I was a child. He is something of a legend, really. He even has his own statue.

Mike the Chicken-- rooster really-- lived on a farm in Fruita, Colorado in the 1940s. There was nothing special about Mike during his early years. I wonder if he even had a name. One day, though, Mike had his head chopped off. This, also, is none too unusual for a chicken, but Mike did not go quietly into that long goodnight. Mike walked around for another 18 months.

He couldn't see. He couldn't eat or drink unassisted. I imagine he still had a sense of touch, but I wonder to what extent. He certainly couldn't think. He'd lost that ability to an ax. All Mike had was a brain stem, and thus retained a tolerable set of basic reflexes. He couldn't have possessed any higher-- to the extent that such can be applied to a chicken-- cognitive capacity, however. That capacity, apparently, had been put into a jar.

Mike's fans talk about Mike's "impressive will to live" and gush that "he was a big fat chicken who didn't know he didn't have a head". They also note that "he seemed as happy as any other chicken."

I think these fans miss something rather important: Mike didn't have a brain, at least not much of one. Mike had no will. He had no capability for 'will'. He clucked around on autopilot like a robot vacuum cleaner or lawn mower. Of course Mike didn't know he didn't have a head. He had no way to know anything, really. Nor could he be 'happy', however he seemed. He didn't have the capability.

A few animal rights activists apparently felt sorry for Mike and thought that Mike's owner should have gone ahead and finished the job. I have to respond the same way. Mike had ability to think about his odd circumstance. True, his brain stem would have given him the ability to feel pain though not to consider the meaning of it. But by all accounts, Mike didn't behave, didn't react, as if he were in pain.

My question is, "Was this chicken alive?"

Mike the Headless Chicken

I ask not because I'm mad about chickens. I ask not because I'm just mad. I ask because thinking about this chicken illustrates something about life, something about the way we think about life. What it illustrates is that life is a calculation. What we think of as 'alive' vs. what we think of as 'not-alive' is a kind of value judgment.

Those of us prone to friendship with small furry critters get a glimpse of the same idea every time someone says "its jest a dowg" or "it ain't like its no human".

We tend to think of life and death as being clearly delineated, and most of the time it is. Most of the time the right answer is wagging its tail or asking for pizza or walking on your keyboard while you try to type. Out on the edges, though, I'm not sure it is so clear. Out on the edges, 'life' gets a little fuzzy. Like ubiquitous space and time, what seems obvious in the middle turns out to be questionable on the ends.

We, as a society, have two primary 'edges' to worry about. One of those edges involves birth. The other edge involves death. We are all collections of atoms-- 'meat bags' to steal a line from Men in Black. At some point we decide that a collection of atoms is 'alive' and later on we decide that that same collection of atoms is 'dead'. Some people might insist that we are not just collections of atoms and attribute the difference between life and death to the presence of a 'soul' or of a 'spirit' or of something similar, but I don't think that changes the question fundamentally. It changes how the question is asked, certainly, but I don't think it changes the essence of the query.

Now, realizing that our edges are at birth and death, two things ought to immediately come to mind-- abortion and assisted suicide/euthanasia. Those are the issues the chicken finally brings us to.

If you conclude, as I have, that the chicken wasn't alive in any meaningful way, then you've also got to accept that a fetus which lacks the bulk of its cognitive capabilities is also not alive. Likewise a body in a hospital bed, breathing but otherwise dead to the world, is in fact dead.

I can see a couple of objects to this line of thought. One of those, the most powerful one, is that there are a great many things in the world that have much less cognitive capacity than a beheaded chicken and yet we still consider them to be alive. Trees and bacteria are good examples. It is a fair point. I think the answer is in recognizing that those are different forms of life than are we. We share a lot with them, certainly, but we differ a lot as well. In other words, to answer the question about us we have to ask about us. We have to ask "What is human?" We have to ask what does it mean for an animal to be alive, for a human to be alive. Mike's case, I think, is close enough to our case to deserve careful consideration.

Cross-posted at Hell's