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Word Smith: Cull

The verb “to cull” means to select or gather.[1]

Example: “If you decide to make a literary anthology, you must cull the best possible stories and then arrange them in a pleasing manner.”

When you use cull as a verb, the things you gather can be the good or bad ones from a group. In your garden, you can cull both the good vegetables for dinner, as well as the rotten ones for the compost pile. In fact, often no judgment of quality is made, as when you cull information from the Internet for your next research project. The sorting through will come later.

However, if you use the word as a noun, a cull is a selection of things you intend to reject, often in reference to a group of animals. For example, suppose there were an outbreak of a disease such as foot-and-mouth disease on a farm. In that case the governmental authorities can order the farmer to perform a cull of farm pigs. Removing the unwanted and diseased ones and killing them, for the good of the remaining population and other farmers, whose litters could become infected.

Culling is intended to protect the larger universe of animals and plants. It is destructive, AND it is deemed critical to the survival of other animals or plants of the same species. So culling gets to the idea of greater good. “I will kill this ONE because it is better for EVERY OTHER in the population if the one is not around.”

An interesting debate is whether to cull the sea lions who feast on endangered salmon, while they try to pass through fish ladders on the Columbia River. Are the sea lions at fault? Aren’t the dams the problem? Yet, the dams provide Oregon with enough hydroelectric energy to fuel 40.5% of its electricity demand. The next greatest contribution comes from coal (31.9%). Can we simply tear down the dams? The debate is full of trade offs: do we want to save the native species of salmon? would we prefer more coal used for our energy until we get renewables up and going? do we want to shoot (cull) some sea lions to save the dwindling salmon populations?

The recent measles outbreaks in the US have the feeling of a cull. The cull however is against a small group who have chosen not to get a shot for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) that has been mandated for all students entering the school system. Children are catching this once nearly-eradicated disease in record numbers. Why? Because their parents fear that the vaccine is leading to great health risks to their children down the road. The statistics are key here. If we vaccinate 90-95% of the population, that level is high enough protect the rest of us from the disease. It is called herd immunity. The likelihood of an epidemic falls dramatically and the disease is considered eradicated. If we fail to reach that 90-95% threshold, the population of the globe is at great risk of an epidemic. Before last year (2018) here have been fewer than 500 deaths per year of measles in the US. The number mushroomed to 110,000 globally, which started by a few key international travelers, who were not vaccinated. Will we vaccinate everyone for the greater good of the rest of society? Or will a small minority, exerting their own rights, challenge the health of the rest of the people on the planet?



[1] https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/cull