Posts Tagged ‘animals’

SERMON: “Strange Creatures” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

"Wait! We're related!"

Dinosaurs look so strange.  They look like something that lived in another world.  It is a great part of our fascination with them: they are our familiar monsters.  Monsters because of their size, for one, and their mysterious absence (but for fossil remains) for another.  But they are also a bit familiar.  They walk on two or four legs, after all, and have two eyes, a nose, two ears and a mouth (with plenty of teeth in the mouths of our favorites).  So are they really so strange as we portray them to be?

I once attended a lecture by the director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History about a huge herbivorous dinosaur whose bones were found in Northern New Mexico.  At some point during the lecture, he mentioned that — like today — the Cretaceous prairies were populated by herds of herbivores that would have vastly outnumbered their carnivorous predators.  Suddenly a light went off in my head, and the funny-looking duck-billed hadrosaurs went from being exotic dinosaurs to ancient wild cattle grazing like any buffalo or modern range cow: the “wild cows of the Cretaceous” (as I called them in my musical “EXTINCTION: A Love Story”).

This began a series of shifts in my thinking that steadily undermined my capacity to see ancient life forms as being any more odd in appearance than any animal living today.  As if on cue, there then came the occasional chain e-mail or National Geographic article with a collection of photographs of the strangest-looking living things that have been found in our modern world.  Turns out we don’t have to go back to the Cretaceous to find animals that look like they were built of spare parts late on a Friday afternoon at the biological assembly line.  (See some in National Geographic HERE)

The situation is not much different from that of the foods that we eat.  Each of us surely eats something (without a second thought) that would induce vomiting in another human from another spot on the earth.

The problem with seeing extinct species as completely un-related to us is that it can make it easier to dismiss the biological link that all life on earth shares.  Now I’m not certain that it is really necessary that each living human feel a warm and fuzzy bond with the small 210 million-year old rodent that we appear to have descended from, but it couldn’t hurt.

Seeing myself as a part of not just the chain of current life, but of the history of life on the planet has given me a not insignificant comfort in the face of a universe that is seemingly incapable of regarding my existence.  Whether the hungry tiger can appreciate it or not (as she decides how she’s going to snap my neck before eating me) we are brother and sister, in this parade of life together.

But that’s the rub: we humans are the animals who think about these things.  Fortunately for us (and especially for certain cats and dogs), we have found other animals willing to abide our expressions of familial affection.  And it is these animals that we consider the most familiar and pleasing to our eye and mind.  Dolphins and whales appear very different from us, but perhaps it is their earlier life as four-footed, land-based ungulates (as well as their obvious intelligence) that makes it easier for us to consider them part of our family of “friendly” animals.

In contrast (Creationist exhibits of Velociraptors frolicking with children notwithstanding) we know full well that were we to come face to face with even the most intelligent raptor of the dino-age, the only meeting of minds would be that of our terrified brain and the raptor’s hungry one.  To us, he would be a dinosaur: to the dinosaur, we would be just another animal.  An exotic one, to be sure, but (as long as we weren’t armed with a man-made weapon) an ultimately easy one to catch, kill and eat.

But we are loathe to see ourselves as “just another animal”.  This offends us in some way.  We have a deep need to be special.  So deep, in fact, that it’s not enough to be special on just on a local level: we must matter on a cosmic scale.  We want to believe that a part of our selves lives on forever with our creator.

Honestly, I think this may be a fair trade-off for being saddled with a brain that can consider its own mortality.  After all, what harm will it do in the long run?  Yes, apocalyptic religious thought is currently gumming up the works like a giant wooden shoe in the gears of the sustainability problem solving machine, but in the end how much difference will that make on an earth scale measured in geologic time?  Practically none.

(On that score, I think we humans are clever enough to stretch our time on earth by a considerable margin.  After all, we have so far escaped the extinction that has been the inevitable norm for ninety-nine percent of every other animal that has ever lived on this small planet.  And, barring another six-mile wide meteorite strike, we might just find a way to use our technological skill to survive the damage done by our technological skill.  Seeing ourselves as the clever animals that we are would help enormously in that process, as it would strip away the false veil of differentness that we hang between us and every other thing in nature.  After all, as you sit reading this, half of your body’s cellular weight is made up of bacteria (a fact that makes our current obsession with antibacterial gel seem a bit existentially absurd.))

We are as exotic as any species that ever walked the earth, with our odd bipedal, upright and naked bodies.  With our flat faces, we may be the most unusual primate on the planet.  And with our mutant brains, we have built our own un-natural world within a world in ways unmatched by any other creature.  It’s no wonder we see ourselves as different.  We are different!  In tiny but significant ways.  But whatever the differences between us and nature, they are minuscule when weighed against the most basic commonalities we share with every living thing.

Perhaps we are the strange creatures on this planet, and the other animals have just been too polite to tell us to our face.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Rodeo Monkeys” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

It was the movement in my peripheral vision that that drew my attention to the troop of approaching primates to my right, followed by the sound of their feet heavy upon the hard soil as they ran at full speed toward me.  I expected them to be juveniles (I often see them cutting across this field in ones and twos) but these were adults, all of them males.  One of them stumbled, and the group enveloped him — that’s when I realized that the individual was being chased by the others.  He rose to his feet and tried to run away, but he was already injured, and could only stumble another twenty feet before the gang was upon him, four beating one, two of them using weapons (two of the six pursuers hanging back).  I stood in surprise that they appeared so acclimated to my presence that only one of the troupe (that had hung back from participating in the beating) even took any notice of me as I stood, cell phone to my ear, calling 911.

Of course these primates were humans, and the soil they traversed was the dirt parking lot behind my apartment.  The consensus from other witnesses and police was that one gang was chasing another, six chasing four (the other three of which managed to escape, leaving their unlucky compatriot behind).

Modern monkeys would have to travel a great evolutionary distance yet to match us humans in our cognitive (and physical) development, it’s true.  But it’s also true that our ancient animal natures are always just a heartbeat away.  I expect that I have as much interest in concealing this truth from myself as any other human alive, even as I choose to acknowledge it here.  I would say that despite my rational approach to my beliefs about myself and the world around me, I find it best to bend my attention to the positive aspects of my inherited human nature (even as I remain ready to recognize the other aspects).  Considering the innate propensity toward fear that is part of our cognitive birthright, it’s probably not a bad thing for us humans to focus on the benefits of our social natures and the great accomplishments we have achieved by learning to trust each other through acts of cooperation both large and small.

Yet here at my feet was the splattered blood of a fellow human, beaten by others of his kind similar to him in every way imaginable except for some detail of territorial affiliation.  We would think nothing of this violent scene were we watching a television program about a troop of baboons in Africa.  We might flatly state that this is what they do: they protect territory, young males ganging together as bide their time until they can challenge the more dominant males for a recognized role in their society.

I like to believe that the more humans who carry an understanding of our place in the animal kingdom (as well as our evolutionary history), the better off we’ll be.  I think this offers us the best chance of making the best possible decisions regarding the ways in which we deal with social and resource problems.  This is an area, however, where I cannot claim to have solid evidence backing up my beliefs.

Witnessing a gang beating may have made me more sensitive to the stories on this week’s news: famine in Somalia made worse by warring gangs of armed militias, their battle lines no doubt dictated by tribal loyalties: a blond, blue-eyed man in Norway turns delusion into a shockingly effective rampage of murder: a small group of almost religiously certain ideologues somehow manage to bring the democratic legislative process to a halt, threatening potential national (and international) economic disasters that they are able to blithely dismiss.  I feel as if the “powers” of dark-ages ignorance that I grew up thinking we were steadily leaving behind us are turning out to be a legacy that we can never fully cleanse from our DNA.

But if I step back and view this from the knowledge we’ve gained from science, I have to first admit that there is no determining force in evolution that has any capacity to adjust life based on moral or virtuous factors.  Such are the domain of us social animals, alone.  Next I have to realize that our development as a species has only very recently taken the turn to living in larger non-blood related groups, and our technology and agriculture have transformed our global presence in unprecedented ways in only a few hundreds of years.  In evolutionary terms, I’m not much more than a rodeo monkey in a little hat and vest riding a saddled dog — holding on for dear life on a ride I can barely comprehend!

Evolution doesn’t care if we humans progress toward an ever more civilized state.  We do.  I do.  (That’s why I write these sermons, and badger my fellow citizens in op/ed columns and cartoons in the local paper).

As I stood watching the gang attack unfold, I was also snatching glimpses of how my mammalian brain’s machinery was working under stressful circumstances.  Once my vision triggered my attention, my “predictive” brain first told me that I was seeing kids running across my lot, because that was the closest past analogue to what I was seeing now.  Then I slowly recognized that the kids were actually adults, and that they were running with an unusual intensity.  Then I saw the group stop, and one fall.  I saw the glint of silver of a swinging pipe.  By the time they were ten feet in front of me (another moment later) I fully comprehended what was happening, and when the victim said “Help me!” twice, my “civic” outrage (at a crime against the COMMUNITY) was instantly mixed with a twist in my gut at the victim’s plea.  But he was not my kin, or anyone I knew, so my brain could not generate a more primal response to physically intervene in the fray (there must have been some self-preservation at work in there, but I was not aware of any thoughts along that line).  My adrenaline spiked, my heartbeat elevated, I pulled out my cell phone with speed, stood my ground, and attempted to bring down the power of the state on this mob.  Having read so much about the unreliability of the human mind, I looked at the faces I could see, searching for signal details, wondering if I would be able to identify them again in another context (I doubted that I would).  The fact that 911, on this particular call, took so long to answer that both the attackers and the bloodied and disoriented victim had walked away before official help was on the way only complicated my feelings (should I have taken a different course that might have interrupted the beating?  Could I have done anything that would not have inserted my own person into a potentially violent and/or lethal encounter over a battle that was not my own?)

Only later — after comparing notes with two neighbors — did I realize that my focused attention on the fight had blinded me to the 3 other men who “got away”, and who had, it appears, run right past me.  I also realized that had I known 911 wouldn’t answer in time, my mind might have been free to use my phone to photograph the attackers (for use by the police).  But knowing what I know about our brains, mine was working at its full capacity, and because of that that I can have no basis for complaint (especially after having just finished a book on human neuroscience).

I responded like a rational, social, community-minded animal.  Had I or a loved one been threatened, a whole different range of instincts would have been triggered.  I suspect that I didn’t think to run or hide because of the man’s plea for help: the effect it had on me was to make me plant myself there and visibly call the cops in a way that I must have hoped would intimidate the attackers (I couldn’t abandon him after that direct plea, even if I would not put my life on the line for him).  In retrospect it’s possible that my presence may have made two of the six attackers hang back, but the rest were probably so focused on their target that they never even saw me standing there, and continued their aggression to their own satisfaction.

In saying that I think it would be better for us if more of us accepted that we are animals at heart, I suppose it could be argued that what I am proposing is like saying that if monkeys could become aware that they were acting like monkeys, they might be a bit embarrassed and think of better ways to behave.  Yet that is surely the case with humans.  Our history of social and technological progress has only been possible because of an ongoing civilizing process that began ages ago.  I still think that our continued progress will always be limited by the degree to which we keep acting more like monkeys and less like humans.  But that is a lot to ask of an entire species.  It always has been.  But what, really, are our other options?

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Animals on Bikes” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

The not-so-reverend bob. Photo by Jack Diven.

It’s a beautiful, clear and calm December morning.  As I pedaled my way toward some morning coffee, I felt a familiar sense of solitude even as I traversed city streets, dodged the slow-driving church traffic, and rode through passages of silence save for the cooing of mourning dove and the cawing of chatty crows.

I think it was both the exposure to nature that bicycle riding offers combined with the man-engineered machine of metal and rubber which carried me that put me in the mind of my complicated human relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom.

I’ve been thinking lately that it would be better if more humans thought of themselves as animals rather than as god’s special creatures.  My assumption is that this would make us better humans: more humane, more humble and, therefore, more realistic and compassionate.  I’m projecting, of course, because this is the effect such an understanding has had on me.  (I cannot be certain it would have the same beneficial effect on everybody else, but I hope).

But as I rode and pondered that idea this morning, I realized the difficulty we have in seeing ourselves as just one among the myriad other living, breathing creatures that we share this planet with.

Perhaps an apt illustration for this difficulty might be a pendulum that slowly swings from one end of its arc to the other, with one end representing an awareness of all that we share with our animal cousins and the other end the great gulf of consciousness and culture that separates us from our barking, mooing and caw-cawing cousins.

I’m sure many of us have experienced those moments of awareness when a passage in a book or a nature program on television blows our mind a bit with a demonstration of the behaviors we share with other primates, for example, or our DNA links with everything from lettuce to mice.  It is in these moments that I am overcome with a sort of global feeling that “I’m no different from any other animal”.  But then I climb into my car, or open my refrigerator or take a dose of modern medicine and consider just how far this species of ape has come in the last few thousand years (or, in the case of cars, refrigerators and medicine, the last hundred years!), and I am suddenly swinging back the other way, away from my feelings of deep kinship with dolphins and whales.

But soon enough, I’ll run across another fact or witness another behavior in my self or in another animal, and the pendulum is pulled back in that direction.

It reminds me of a moment, years ago, as I was driving (not riding!) up University Avenue.  Approaching an intersection, I was aware of catching some dim bit of light out of the corner of my eye — in my peripheral vision.  At the time, I was well into my post-christian years, but was still working out what those years had meant to me, and how best to make sense of the phenomena that I had taken to be evidence for my beliefs.

It was through that moment of peripheral vision that I suddenly understood “where god lives”.  For the idea of god lives in the peripheral vision, as it were, of our consciousness, like a faint star in the night sky.  Meaning that whenever we look right at it, the light is too faint to be perceived and, therefore, is not available for full scrutiny.  In the same way, if we turn our heads from it, it is gone as well.   But in the space in-between the direct gaze and the turned head, god will always flicker like that faint star: impossible to prove or disprove, and impossible to ignore.

I say impossible because the more I learn about the subject, the more I have to accept that irrational belief is so much a part of the consciousness of our species that it would be only slightly less irrational to believe in its near-term eradication than to believe in UFO’s or the power of “aligned” stars to determine personality and whether one will have a four star day or not.

And so even as I begin to get my mind around the limitations of the human mind (and see in ever greater detail how much we over-sell the capacities of our primate brain even as we under-appreciate the evolutionary wonder of what we can do with the animal equipment we’ve got) I hold out less hope that a critical mass of humans will suddenly “come to their senses” and start making long-term choices based on reason and the best science and behave in the way I think they should.

Which, of course, swings my pendulum back to seeing humans as animals acting out of raw instincts that, in our present circumstance, are much more likely to get us killed than assure our survival.

In that respect we are first of all defensive and aggressive creatures, with friendship and generosity our secondary (albeit impressive) response to strangers and challenging situations.  It is our reason that has allowed us to moderate our aggression and develop the bonds of social trust that allow us to live in cooperative communities both large and small.

Acknowledging this, my pendulum swings again toward our exceptional status in the animal world.  Yet even within our social structure, the bared tooth and fang are ever ready to be deployed when we feel threatened.

And so back and forth it goes.

But that is the place of we humans in the animal world.  We are both common and exceptional at the same time.  (Just as we are unique personalities that feel both special and common as dirt at different times in our lives).

Our capacity to have such thoughts about ourselves is one of the things that makes not only the pendulum swing, but allows the internal “pendulum” to exist at all!  And we can still assume that this aspect of our consciousness is one of the major things that sets us apart from our non-bicycle riding animal cousins.  For now, at least.

t.n.s.r. bob