Earlier this week I spent some time tracking down calf 721. (For fun, let’s just call him “Spunky”). This little Angus-Charolais calf had been looking a little rough and thin, and I have been feeding him a bottle of milk replacer morning and night for the past few days. Unlike his herdmates, whose coats are slick and shiny, his coat is a little dirty and dull. He is still spunky, but he was not thriving like his cohorts. After some extra food, he is looking stronger and a little better.
I have been puzzled as to why this little fellow is not getting his needs met. I wondered if his mother perhaps had a fever, which would make her not milk properly. But that was not the case at all. I eventually found out why “Spunky” was not thriving. His mother had plenty of milk, but three calves were nursing her. Two of them were not her own, and they were bigger than Spunky. When it came to competition, Spunky did not have what it took to get after these bigger fellows. And his mother was not doing her job.
Spunky should have had exclusive rights to his mother’s milk, as that is the custom in the animal kingdom. Calves that try to nurse other mothers typically get kicked away. It might seem cruel, as they may be hungry. But the mothers know what they are doing. If they don’t stop the intruders, their own calves lose out. Eventually, Spunky’s mom also apparently lost the sense that her own calf was special. He is now dependent on us to feed him or on some other cows to allow him a nibble here and there.
This story strikes me as an interesting metaphor that may provide some insights into some of the problems in modern society. Exclusivity is a powerful and necessary force to make things work properly. It may seem harsh not to “share” and to have certain things in common, or it may seem unduly rigid to reject an approach that treats some things - like sex, for example - as deserving on special protection. However, the reality is that cruelty and poor results may come from ignoring the power of exclusivity.
It is quite easy to see a direct application for this story when it comes to property rights, as ownership is a powerful force that directs people to take action. The tragedy of the commons is well-known, where everybody can use property and nobody is responsible.
But there may also be a message in social contexts. It is unpopular to speak about problems like out-of-wedlock births, but this force is contributing to poverty rates in a significant way. Other dimensions of the social fabric are affected as well. Promiscuous or disconnected fathers don’t see their children as special – their own – and they may fail to treat women as special as well when sex becomes a nonexclusive activity. This is not so great for women, either, when the reality of the obligations of childcare set in and there is no one there to help.
There are probably other meanings to ponder here. And of course, there is always the possibility that the government may need to intervene – with milk bottle or something similar in hand.
Human beings are special; I do not share the belief that we are animals and that returning to animal nature is a sufficient answer to anything. Our goal should be to rise above the animal nature to achieve something more - that is what civilization is about. Nevertheless, we can surely learn a few things from the world around us. Perhaps the value of exclusivity is under appreciated.