My last African visit set me thinking about humans’ and animals’ place in the world. This is an early bit from my upcoming book on travel in Africa, due in early 2017.
During Europeans’ first blunderbuss intrusions onto the African continent they denigrated the natives and abused wildlife. With the human superiority we’ve all been taught most of us still fail to consider the astonishing abilities other living things have.
Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, gives some examples:
- Bacteria compare sugars, a food source, and move toward higher concentrations using a flagellum, a microscopic tentacle, to propel themselves.
- The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
- Honeybees, on finding a food source, perform a “waggle dance” to give directions to other bees.
- Rats seem capable of creating maps, triangulating through their environment. Certain cells fire corresponding to points on a grid, others fire according to the direction the rat is facing and then a third neuron fires as a rat moves through an area it recognizes.
- Albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds seem to sniff their way across oceans to return to the obscure rock they call home.
- Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
- And most remarkably to me, green turtles seem to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. We will talk about a magical night we spent with egg-laying turtles on Ascension Island later in the book.
“Cogito ergo sum,” declared Rene Descartes, and that was that. “I think, therefore I am.”
Those three Latin words made the French philosopher sound so smart that the term Cartesian Logic has survived him by 400 years. But Descartes also thought language was a requirement for thought.
He wrote, “There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)”
Cogito ergo sum for humans but not for animals.
That is not so smart.
In 1967 Thomas Struhsaker, then of the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that vervet monkeys have different calls with different meanings for different situations. In Stanford University professor of biology and neurology Robert Sapolsky’s example, they use different sounds to mean “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.”
Carl Safina has written a beautiful book called Beyond Words, exploring what animals think and feel. In it he writes that the vervets of Amboseli park have words for leopard, eagle, snake, baboon, other predatory mammal and unfamiliar human, among others.
Safina wonders why “… we maintain a certain insecure insistence that ‘animals’ are not like us – though we are animals.” When researchers played a recording of a family or bond group member,” Safina says, “elephants would return the call and move to the sound, but when they heard the recorded sound of strangers they “bunched defensively, raising their trunks to smell.” He thinks “Each elephant in Amboseli probably knows every other adult in the population.”
To biologist and author E. O. Wilson, “The human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression toward either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion.”
If the mind evolved as an instrument of survival for humans why would evolution be different for animals? Why are chattering baboons not expressing fear of the lion down below as a way to further their survival? Why is not the entwining of elephant trunks expressive of the emotions involved in friendship?
We say that humans have the capability for “complex symbolic thought … because showing … concern for the dead reveals the value placed on social-group members, as well as the cognitive ability to represent group members even after they have died.”
Elephants, too, have been seen to bury their dead. There are stories of elephants standing vigil over their dead mates, kicking and prodding them as if trying to bring them back to life, as if they wish their mates to hold on to life no less than humans.
To Safina beliefs like heaven, hell and reincarnation are “devices for keeping the deceased undead. The main thing humans seem to believe about death is: you never really die.”
Safina intuits some things backed up by research.
Natalie Emmons, a researcher at Boston University, writes that it appears people everywhere view death as a transition:
“belief in eternal life goes back tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest documented evidence shows that modern humans were intentionally burying their dead with animal bones and shell beads in the caves of ancient Israel 100,000 years ago.
To which physicist Alan Lightman says,
“We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand on the desert.”
In The Old Way, A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas considers where humans rank in the elemental hierarchy of protecting oneself in the animal world. “Our fists and feet are too soft to deliver meaningful blows, we have no claws, and over time our teeth have become too small to act as a deterrent.”
Safina seconds the notion. “Human senses have evidently dulled during civilization.” Meanwhile, “Many animals are superhumanly alert.”
The poet Amit Majmudar writes that “Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”
He hopes the time comes when we no longer regard animals as “inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.”
Photos from EarthPhotos.com.
My two previous books are:
Common Sense and Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far from Home and Visiting Chernobyl