Ecologist Dr. Elaine Smith was studying the animal life in the forested area of a popular African zoo, with the goal of making sure its ecosystem was as balanced as possible. This forest was home to a small mammal called a Ghazi whose population displayed a strange behavior. Every week, in what appeared to be a completely random event, a group of Ghazi would violently attack a group of their own, causing serious damage and often killing them. This was leading to a 10% reduction in the population of the Ghazi annually, which was moving this small mammal toward extinction and threatening the balance of the ecosystem.
The attacks showed no noticeable correlation to the availability of food or mates. (Both are in abundant supply in the forested area where they live.) Curious, Smith set up a dozen video cameras to watch the small mammal in its natural habitat and see if she could figure out what was causing this behavior. After observing literally hundreds of hours of footage she was able to detect some very interesting patterns that may shed some light on this phenomenon.
First of all, she noticed that prior to each of the attacks there was a sort of ritualistic, dance-like movement instigated by the group of Ghazi who later became the attackers. They would stand up on their back legs, rub their two front paws together, nibble on one of their paws, and then rub their paws together again. She noticed there were times when the entire pack of Ghazi would copy this same behavior.
“These specific movements are not unusual behavior for this species, so they didn’t stand out as strange at first.” Dr. Smith explained. “It’s when these movements are repeated in this specific order, and when they are copied in rapid succession by the animals of the pack, that a pattern began to emerge.”
Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the eventual victim was a member of the pack who was either not participating or was doing the steps in the wrong order. The animals around it would nudge it with their noses, or bump into it with their shoulders. If the offending animal didn’t comply, it was attacked. Dr. Smith explains, “This was a sort of social ritual that was being enforced, often to the point of death.”
The second thing Dr. Smith noticed was that in every case, the Ghazi who attacked shared some distinguishing characteristics. They were males, 2 to 3 years in age. (The average lifespan for a Ghazi is 8 years). They also had a distinct coloring. The fur of a Ghazi is typically a gradient, from reddish-brown at the head to a dark chestnut brown color on its hindquarters. The animals prone to attack did not have this gradient; their fur maintained the lighter reddish-brown color across their entire bodies.
In order to guarantee the safety and continued growth of the Ghazi population, a plan was established based on Dr. Smith’s findings. A section of the forest roughly one square kilometer in size was fenced in. Over the course of 12 months, the Ghazi were carefully separated and relocated based on age, gender, and markings. At the end of the year, nearly all the male Ghazi under 4 years old with reddish-brown fur were living inside the fenced area of the forest, with the remaining population running free outside that area.
The results were remarkable. In the 12 months before this change was enacted 984 Ghazi had been killed in these attacks, accounting for just over 10% of their total population. In the 12 months following Dr. Smith’s plan to identify and remove the offenders from the general population, zero Ghazi were killed. The socially-motivated attacks disappeared.
“I’m happy to report that the Ghazi population is now growing, healthy and safe.” Reports Dr. Smith.
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This fictitious story was written as a way to allegorically examine the philosophical and moral implications of profiling groups of people. If we strip away race and religion, what does it look like to keep a community safe? Our mythical Dr. Smith found a correlation between behaviors that were harmful to the population and certain specific characteristics. Was she wrong to single out certain animals based on their gender, age, and physical characteristics? Logical inference based on empirical data suggested that removing the offending animals from the general population would reduce the number of deaths they were inflicting.
Are we, as human beings, allowed to do the same thing in order to keep our population safe? Can we look at acts of terrorism or criminality in our country, identify common characteristics among the offenders, and take steps to reduce the chances these attacks will happen again?
My allegorical tale is very simplified, of course. For example, we were told that 3-year-old males with red-brown fur perpetrated all the attacks. But we weren’t told if all 3-year-old males with red-brown fur were guilty of committing attacks. In real life, as it relates to human beings, it obviously matters if innocent people are punished simply for sharing certain characteristics with guilty people.
It’s reasonable and wise to use logic and empirical data as part of our decision-making toolset when determining a strategy for public safety. And, further, its unwise and even dangerous to allow those tools to be compromised on the altar of political correctness.
Incidentally, it occurs to me that this is sort of the converse of Dr. Suess’ story about the Star-belly Sneetches.