Posts Tagged ‘rodeo monkeys’

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