Getting away from it all
Perhaps you, as I, find yourself thinking about all the frightening aspects of life today such as climate disasters, Putin’s war in the Ukraine, Alex Jones’ ability (and others’) to get rich by selling hate, the astonishing number of people who foster lies about all sorts of things and the equally astonishing number of those who believe them. Perhaps you find it difficult to think well of humanity: we are disappointed in ourselves. We thought we would have grown up by now and become responsible, loving, and effective humans, as was always our “destiny”.
Perhaps we can find comfort in the many new studies about animal behaviour: we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the top of the evolutionary heap, creatures with unique thinking ability, knowledge of the past and ability to project into the future, possessors of imagination, and communicators. Ours has been a special responsibility to care for the earth, or to fail at that, and we have tried to hold ourselves to very high and unique standards. But we are not so special.
There are some animals from which we are not so dissimilar. If, as illustrated in these works*, a variety of animals can mourn, love, develop cultures, group themselves separately from others, develop rituals for friendship and group preservation and life together, and develop cultural norms, i.e.., as Safina (in book cited below) puts it, “have lives,” then surely, humans do not uniquely possess these qualities. Maybe we can learn from other creatures. Maybe we can retain the same high expectations of ourselves without feeling unique, so burdened, and so alone.
Our times are relative
We do not recognize all that we have in common with other creatures, because we don’t necessarily live at the same speed as they, i.e, we do less during a specific period of time than they, and we experience less time than they.
In recent years, scientists’ ability to view creatures in their wild habitats has increased dramatically. They can not only view them but to monitor them with instruments which can measure their abilities. We’ve known that many perceive the world in more colours than we because they can see more of the light spectrum. We have known about bats’ and dolphins’ and whales’ echolocation ability. We have used slow motion recordings to examine the wing movements of insects and birds, movements which are a blur to human vision. And we have known of life cycles which are much shorter and longer than ours. But we have been learning that much more is done during those cycles than we have perceived. For example, we can see a species of birds (sorry, this remembered from collective reading, during which I didn’t take specific notes), jumping from one position on a branch to another position. It is only with videography at extreme speeds, viewed slowly, that we have discerned that part of the mating dance includes complete somersaults which we do not see with our eyes in our own time speed. The females, we presume, do see this action and take it into account in judging the fitness of the competing males. These birds live at a different speed than we do.
Another’ dive-bombs while posing his body at the bottom of his dive, so that the female can see the entire colour spectrum (including ultraviolet) of his feathers. The male must correctly calculate the angle of view which the female has, position his body so she can see his full magnificence, and do it while diving at a colossal speed. We can’t see this without instruments, but the female can see it.
Some animals may be aware of more dimensions of time than we. When you are walking your dog and must stoop to let him or her smell around, and you wonder why it takes so long, you probably assume that the smelling identified only who has left a note recently, and that animal’s gender and species. But the dog can discern also how long ago the deposit was left, the health of the animal, and then can search further for earlier deposits of different animals. While you wait, wondering what is taking so long, your dog may be going back through time to discern the history of many creatures’ deposits in that place, along with some information about each specifically. You are exclusively in the here and now; your dog is in the here and in the past. Life must be pretty profound and interesting when you can know so much about multiple presences over a stretch of time. The dog can, of course, also follow the scent, if you let it, away from that spot, and discern a history of travel. No wonder there is such reluctance to answer the pull of the leash – your dog is getting much, much more experience of life than you are. Your dog lives more deeply in time than you. It leaves you wondering whether your dog views you as something of a simpleton: poor human he just doesn’t know much about life around him because his perceptions are so limited. Or, if dogs don’t realize our limitations, Damn human, so impatient, no respect for history, so very thoughtless and rude in jerking me away from this fascinating find.
If ever there were something to reconsider, it is our place among other creatures.
More has been learned. Some birds can imitate the calls of other species of birds, and of predatory animals as well. Some birds intimidate a female into paralysis with the faked sounds of predatory animals, and then have their way with her. So when I sit outside and use my Cornell University “Merlin Bird ID” to identify which bird I hear, both the app and I may be deceived.
Octopi, so very different from us in structure and in location of thought and neuronal processes, are perhaps the most outstanding example of the challenge before us: to accept how very different some creatures are from us and yet be intelligent, thoughtful, creative, playful, vengeful, curious, devious, and able to learn from, and to teach. others.
As we learn more about how other creatures communicate, socialize, build family, love, mourn, plan ahead, navigate, find prey, form communities, and use senses of taste, sight, hearing, touching, tasting, and feeling the environment, and the speed of time within which they live, we will be ever more driven to reconsider our place and our relationships. I am reminded of the place of Animals (note the capital) in the fiction piece Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, who assume even professorial responsibilities at university, and who are persecuted.
Perhaps we see even politics among other creatures. There is an account of a bonobo (I think) who had been bested by the alpha male. He became a supporter of the alpha male in conflicts with others, standing behind him during arguments and gesticulating in imitation of the alpha (“having his back” as it were), and shamelessly serving him in other ways. His reward was access to the alpha’s females.
The value of not being at the top, but still being responsible for ourselves to others
If we can change our self-identification from being the most important creatures, we may change from training porpoises to plant mines on enemy ships, to actually talking with other creatures Artificial intelligence is helping us talk to animals (yes, really) | WIRED UK, engaging with them to live cooperatively on planet Earth.
Will people be able to understand ourselves as creatures who must learn to fit in, or will we, typically, look for mastery and dominion as we (except, perhaps, indigenous peoples) so often have in the past. We and other creatures have some values in common, especially those relating to procreation, family, community, and in some cases, love and grief. Can we seek these values in common without moral judgements about whether some are better or worse? Can we accept that other creatures are intelligent in their own spheres (dogs are very good at being dogs, but perhaps not as good at imitating humans, although they seem to understand us better that we, them). Perhaps we will discover that there are so many diverse kinds of life which make their way through intelligently, or equally well instinctively, that we will use law and government to hold ourselves in check, but not organize our relationships with everyone else through treaties and institutions. Maybe we can just get along.
Our place in evolution
Additional examples of the need to reconsider our place in the present and past scheme of things, are the new revelations about Neanderthals. I am astonished at how much intimate detail we know about how they lived and interbred. We also know that the direct lineage of homo sapiens is not so absolutely intertwined with them and other branches of hominids (Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, Rebecca Wragg Sykes). No longer can we think of them as more primitive than our ancestors, with less brain power and no creativity, nor can we think of ourselves as the epitome of evolution, the ideal product of a direct line of development. A tree used to be the analogy for our lineage, but we now think of a bush with many branches and offshoots.
Not just creatures
This discussion has been about creatures, a term which generally does not include trees. But these, too, have lives (The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate : Discoveries From A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, and To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger). They share nutrition, information about disease and damage; they can exchange healing chemicals; they can be aware of each other’s stress (from weather and infestation), and they do all this through vast underground communication via mycorrhiza. They can be communities. They can sense some of what is happening around them, as the white oak: it scatters acorns, which attract squirrels and increase their population. Somehow the oak senses when too many acorns are being devoured, and cuts down the supply, thus sending the squirrels away. And, of course, many trees live much, much longer than we.
Different, not so unique
Really, we must understand ourselves as one among many intelligent, thinking, feeling, creative life forms. We must understand ourselves in our own context and others in theirs, without valuing some qualities more highly than others.
There are hierarchies and competitions within the groups of other creatures, just as among us. We may continue to need ways to keep peace within our own species. Copying other creatures may not lead us to peace and tranquility among our own kind, but if we no longer feel the need to dominate everything else, maybe we can lower the need to dominate our own. Maybe.
* Wild Rituals: Ten Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves, Caitlin O’Connell
The Bird Way: a New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, Jennifer Ackerman
Metazoa, Animal Life and the Birth of the ind, Peter Godfrey-Smith
Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses, Jackie Higgins
Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: the Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change, Thor Hanson
The Hidden Life of Dogs, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina
Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith.