The famous British-Indian geneticist J.B.S. Haldane is often quoted to have said he was quite willing to die for two siblings and 8 cousins, a statement, which is of course based on genetic relatedness, later expounded mathematically by William D. Hamilton in his studies on kin selection. Altruism and putting oneself in danger to protect or save other individuals, usually closely related ones, is not confined to humans but actually widespread in animals.
The blackbird announcing the prowling cat (which may not even have seen the caller by then) endangers itself in order to warn other birds in its territory. The moor-hen that lures a fox away from its nest site pretending it has a broken wing may fall victim to the predator, but its action might have saved her five or six chicks. And the agitated honey bee that stings and consequently loses its life – all these are examples of animal altruisms.
But would such actions allow us to call them suicides? Even the dog that refuses to eat, because its master isn’t there or the cage bird, which seemingly has lost interest in life since its partner’s death: don’t they qualify as suicidal behaviours? Perhaps not, for when cornered by a predator and faced with death, both would instinctively fight to survive rather than accepting death. Occasionally we read about mass suicides of sheep, whales, the Scandinavian lemming and even insects like moths seeking death by flying into a fire. However, animals that jump off cliffs in desperation or migratory animals taking the plunge and swimming out to sea hoping to reach the opposite shore, hardly have a notion of death. Even mass strandings of whales aren’t based on a wish to die, but are likely misguided attempts by whales to help those in difficulties, and then get stranded themselves. And moths flying into the fire certainly don’t contemplate the consequences of their action.
There is not the slightest indication that any animal would know the consequence of ending its life, in contrast to us humans. In a project that I led and which was published in 2015, we focused on suicides of blind citizens in Finland. The aim was to find out whether age and gender differences between seeing and blind victims existed and how the methods to end their lives differed. I had become interested in this question after watching a TV-program in which surprisingly many blind people appeared happy and some who had become blind as adults even stated that after the initial periods of acceptance and adjustment their lives now felt better than before and that, for example, they were now more aware of their surroundings. However, what our research revealed was that in both blind and seeing victims the well known spring suicide peak occurred and men chose to end their lives significantly more often than women. But overall blind subjects were at greater risk and this was most obvious in blind men of working age. We believe that after an education, not too different from that, which seeing males receive, blind men become depressed by not being able to compete with seeing applicants for a job, by experiencing more severe isolation and loneliness and by being paid less than seeing colleagues once they do have a job.
Members of the human species may be the only ones that can consciously decide to end their lives when problems they face overburden them to an extent that they cannot tolerate them any longer and death then seems a way out. We are left with the thought-provoking, almost philosophical conclusion that perhaps suicidal behaviour is the most uniquely human behaviour of all.
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
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