Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Our Legacy

With the recent passing of my canine pal and a life-threatening infection in my aging father's hip, I have a had a lot of emotional activity to observe in myself lately. To put it simply, I've been about as much of a wreck as I can be. To any outsider, I am equanimously handling each challenge with a modicum of grace, but internally... oh boy! I observe myself struggling to keep a rational perspective while tsunamis of emotion crash on my inner shores. It is fascinating to watch how quickly my thinker starts churning up fearful thoughts and negativity.

This may qualify as "navel gazing" to some, but now and then, when things get very intense, it enables me to step further back and look at myself and humanity from some distant stance beyond my own life. One of the observations that keeps popping up, is how very wrongly we live in respect to animals. I see how acutely I suffered the loss of my doggy, and I know that many many people feel as deeply toward their own pets. Yet, in spite of this indisputable bond we make with our pets, many of us go on munching bacon, fishing out the oceans, harassing marine mammals, enslaving elephants, chasing down wolves from helicopters, and so on. I personally do not participate in all of these activities, but we humans do. We are all part of the human family that has become shamefully dysfunctional in relation to coexisting with other species. In the same way we feel deeply for our own family or friends and protect them fiercely, we feel for our pets, yet dismiss and disregard the well being of other animals and peoples.

I am no history expert, but I think most historians would agree that the domestication of animals was a major leap in human social evolution. It started with partnerships. Wolves and humans competed for the same prey and teaming up was mutually beneficial. Later nomads started keeping herds of sheep and goats, which insured against starvation of the clan. Eventually plants and food source animals became domesticated by humans and were an important part of the fundamental shift to settled communities and the rise of civilizations. With this change in basic human behavior came change of diet, the introduction of infectious diseases, and a wide range of other biological shifts in human evolution. In short, when our relation to other species changed, we changed. I am, of course, drastically simplifying a very complex topic, but the point being, that the human relationships to animals has been a major factor in our development both socially and biologically. A decent article on domestication of animals and plants is posted here, and there are dozens of books on the subject.

Domestication of wolves began 13,000 years ago, but, where are we today? The way we raise much of our food is a shameful abomination. In truth it is so horrific that few can bear to honestly acknowledge where their food actually comes from. How did we go from partnerships with animals to the enslavement and torture of so many creatures?

I have a suspicion that there is another huge step in human/animal interaction that is already underway. Many of the beliefs we have held about animals are now being examined more closely and some even proven false. Assumptions that animals do not have memory, cannot plan, do not feel emotions, have inferior systems of communication, do not use/make tools, or sophisticated social contracts are all being scrutinized by scientists. The results are astounding, and to me, the seeds of a revolution. Birds can learn our language and actually communicate their desires to us. Crows make tools and use them to harvest food. Whales develop complex languages and communicate across oceans to set up meetings and share information. Elephants recognize and respond to skulls and ivory from their own species and are reported to show signs of extended grieving for lost family members.
Moved by music, camels weep. Dogs smell disease in humans. Primates exercise self control and plan ahead. I could go on and on...

Of course folks will say that these achievements are a drop in the bucket compared to human achievement, but we must remember that we are also measuring these critters by human standards. If we were to measure humans by animal standards we would quickly see that we are inferior in many, many ways not the least of which is sensory perception.

See this film if you have not already!

I sometimes try to imagine how aliens would see humanity as a whole. Gurdjieff did this brilliantly in "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson" and points out the absurdity of what he terms "process of reciprocal destruction." But what about the destruction of other species? I believe the effort to understand the intelligence of other species is a frontier that will yield nothing short of a huge evolutionary leap. So many of our technologies are weak efforts to do what animals do naturally and expertly: navigation, long distance communication, disease detection, architecture, flight, sonar, and the list goes on... if we have figured out how to do something with technology there is likely a counterpart in nature that has the ability built in.

What would our world be like if we truly cooperated with other species, letting each do what it has evolved to do? I for one, believe it would be far superior world. What arrogance has implanted itself in our hugely complex thinking apparatus that convinces us that we are superior to other creatures? Or more fundamentally, that we are separate? It is my wish to live to see the day we treat humans as humans and elevate animals to their rightful place of respect in our world.

Diamond Lily

Chimp Grin by Amp26