Tuesday, January 5, 2010

. . .It’s what separates us from the animals

Opposable thumbs. That was supposed to be a good one, except other apes, raccoons and even some cats have opposable thumbs.

We’re bipedal, that’ll do it; except penguins, meerkats, those dang raccoons and any other number of animals, including chimps and bonobos climb up on their haunches as well, when they want to see something at a distance.

I once heard that missionary sex, indicating eye contact and love separated us, but again many animals do this too.

Some cynics argue that deceit separates us from the animals. But even birds feign wounds to distract predators from little chics, cats pretend indifference when they are paying attention, and apes play up indignities for political gain.

Then the idealists come in. It is altruism, our ability to care that separates us. but that doesn't cut it either. Leaving the philosophy of what altruism really is aside, many animals will take in strays, of their own species or others. Dolphins rescue humans, who eat them for gods sake!

It goes around and around. The size of our brains, our organization, our arts. So many folk, for one reason or another trying to differentiate us from “the animals”. I have to ask why? Why is it so important to see ourselves as separate? Does it justify domination? Stewardship? Freedom to exploit? Is there something deeply frightening about the idea that we may be all closely related?

Some of the people who are distressed by human activity say it is our capacity for cruelty that separates us. I say they have never owned a cat. Or they bring up our capacity to inflict violence on our own kind. Again, these folk never owned hamsters who had scrabbled up against the hard limits of their environment. All carnivores are violent, comes with the territory. All carnivores will eat each other when resources and habitat become tight. Yes that includes hamsters and humans.

So what is this desperate need to differentiate ourselves from the other creatures of the world, with whom we share so much DNA as well as behavioral habits? The reason it is so easy to make animal metaphors is that we are little different. Army ants. Plague of locusts, king of the lions, the treachery of jackals, the persistence of salmon. The songs of whales. Loyal dogs. Promiscuous bonobos. Sycophantic hyenas.

I often think the desperate passionate need to differentiate ourselves is the same bid for survival as any other creature feels. Let loose some bacteria in a petrie dish filled with sugar solution, and the little buggers multiply like mad until all the food is gone, then they die off. Humans do think about things more than other creatures seem to, so we need to justify things to ourselves so we don’t get ulcers. One of the things we need to justify to ourselves is consuming everything in sight to the detriment of other less successful species. We are locusts, but we have to find ways to reflect on our locust activities.

I saw an animated movie a couple of years back, involving forest animals who marvelled at how the humans ate everything and had found ways to ensure an endless supply of everything being directed at their mouths. That was the way animals understood everything we do—ensuring more food. It was meant to be humorous, with just a morsel of truth in it, but as a student of environment it was kind of horrific and blatant.

We’re like all the animals, only more efficient. We breed like rabbits, we survive like cockroaches, we transform in ways beavers, spiders, birds and termites could never imagine and we use everything. When we come across something that looks useless, some clever human comes along and finds a way to consume it.

And we are like those bacteria in the petrie dish. Only earth is our petrie dish. Despite a hundred years of exciting science fiction we are not on the cusp of launching our voracious appetites out among the stars. We have this one planet to eat. And despite all our engineers, scientists, philosophers and seers, we can’t help but follow our animal instincts and say “super-size me”; no matter what limits we are capable of seeing.

3D movie technology seems to separate us from the animals, maybe SUV’s do too. But basically, we seem quite the same as all our cousins of the animal world. Undoubtedly we could learn a few things from the many thousands of species that have been doing their thang longer than us, but we probably won’t. Why? Because we are animals and we are doing what comes natural to us.

So maybe that makes us a kind of locust. Denuding the land, depopulating the habitat; hell, even changing the climate in ways that won’t actually benefit us in the long run.

But like a rutting deer that says “be damned with traffic in the road, I'm gettin' me some”, so too do we careen drunkenly into the future, eating and breeding to the fullest possible extent, and like every other animal in its habitat, we will drunkenly enjoy that party until we hit the limits and then we will continue to fit into ecological reality as we die off. Some species stay a long while on earth, some enjoy success through grand changes. Some do not. Again, it is the elegant system of evolution.

In the very short-sighted sense of time I have, things seem dramatic, tragic even, but if I were a geologist or biologist and was able to step back and understand the way things occur over time—the rise and fall of mountains or ecological niches or climates, maybe nothing would look amiss.

Humans have achieved great things planetary wide including transforming global climate, but no one will care since we have been the only species so far that thinks about such things. There won’t be a later historian to document our meteoric rise and fall. Everyone else is just busy frolicking and doing the birds and bees. That special place we occupy, in our minds, will come and go, a tiny blip on history’s radar—that brief strange bald species that wore the skins of other animals to stay warm, all the while feeling superior. The strange scavenger predators that so briefly were so good at eating everything. We will have left our mark, left the planet different, and cost a good many other more civilized species their demise. But in the end, the weird and unlikely process known as life will continue tickety-boo without us.

I'd bring up the lemming metaphor, except it is a myth. Lemmings do not follow each other off of cliffs the way humans do. It’s one of the things that separates them from us.