We are a complex species. Many people much smarter than me suggest that the human brain is the most complicated thing in the Universe. The Universe, in totality, is unfathomable and indescribably mind bending. But is it more mind bending than the fact that we can think about it. Our behavior, our biology, our psychology, social and political structures, philosophies, religions, arts, sciences, and our communicative skills as a whole, are richer and deeper than any other known creature. But to say all this does not necessarily say that it makes us ‘better’. When we start to talk about being better at specific things we are not as well adapted as any numbers of animals at survival on this planet. Take for example our vision.
Don’t get me wrong, we see pretty damn well. But eagles and other birds of prey out distance us by miles, really, ‘by miles’! They can see a rabbit from miles away. Sharks can detect a glow ten times fainter than we can. Insects can detect motion way better than us. Bovine and other grazing animals have large bulbous eyes that give them a much wider angle of vision so as to better see the approach of predators. There is a good chance that a person alone in the wild will be sensed by either prey or predator before he or she can see, smell or hear them. That’s just vision. Go into other specifics and examples jump out from every direction. Many animals hear better than us, smell better than us, are more powerful than us, even have more cohesive societies than us, honey bees for instance.
When compared to other animals we have some serious survival shortcomings. Why are we flourishing on this planet in spite of them? What are the effects of our top-of-the-food-chain status on other Earthlings?
When looking at the shear numbers of us, we are doing quite well. The reason why is because even though we may not be as blessed with the physical abilities of other animals. There is one ability that makes up for all of our other deficiencies…and then some. That is the fact that we can do some serious, bad-ass, deep thinking. We have the capacity to think abstractly and with agency. We are big creatures that have evolved really big brains in comparison to are body size. Those brains gave rise to language, technologies and civilization. This in turn gave rise to marvelous things like the internet, symphony orchestras and chocolate covered peanuts… (damn they’re good).
Our numbers testify to our brain’s power. When dealing with animals, (mammals in particular), it is usually the case that the larger the individual animal the fewer there are of them. We are a big bodied exception to this rule. Our numbers have exploded on this planet in a minuscule amount of geological time. Carnivorous and omnivores have a larger proportional brain size to body weight than herbivores. We are omnivores. Meat or veggies suite us just fine. We not only have the best of both worlds when it comes to our diets but also when it comes to brain mass to body mass ratio. Herbivores don’t need to think that hard to outsmart their food source, their protected in part because of their sure numbers. They often live in herds where together they have many pairs of eyes ready to spot predators. Horses brains are not much bigger than a walnut, but collectively in the herd, they can work as one to find food sources, protect themselves and establish hierarchies. If predators were in equal numbers as their food source and there reproduction rates were the same, the prey animals would vanish and become extinct fast. The prey animals would soon follow suite unless they had the power to adapt. The bigger the brain the greater the ability one has to do this. In only a couple hundred thousand years we’ve been able to spread our species over every corner of the Earth. We can’t reproduce as fast as most other animals, but from bacteria to elephants we alone seem to have the greatest capacity to creatively imagine change. We have acquired the ability to control the populations of other species. The reason why, of course, are those big globs of dense, grey cells between our ears. Our brains have served us well, maybe too well for our own good.
Let’s face it, we have become experts. Experts at nurturing, hoarding and killing. The thing we can’t forget is that when we do just one of these things with intention, we can’t predict exactly how things will play out in the end. Nature always seems to give herself wiggle room to do what she wants. The butterfly effect always provides Her with an out for unimaginable change to occur. The only constant is change. Evolution is a pure example of this. When considering quantum mechanics, and barring the possibility of an infinite multiverse, there can never be, or never has been and never will be, another you, or me, or any exact copy of two life forms that have ever existed. We nurture our young knowing unconsciously that this is the case. Nurturing may even be described as the process of directing and teaching others how to adapt and cope with change.
We nurture when we domesticate, when we reproduce and even when we hoard and kill. Emotionally though, it is our young that we think about most often when we hear the word ‘nurture’. We care for our young for a long time before they are prepared to survive and have the ability to nurture others. Thus we have to invest a lot of time and energy into it. Not only is this energy expended on food, shelter and clothing (the basic essentials), but think of the resources that we work so hard to obtain, and do it most efficiently, so that we maybe able enrich our children’s lives. Our ancestors learned really fast that the hoarding of resources gave a much better chance at survival for self and prodigy. It left us with extra time on our hands for our imaginations to soar even further, time to also explore ourselves and our place in the Universe. It gave us time to love, create, connect and disconnect, imagine the past and the future. It gave us time to attach meaning. In our distant past, efficient hunter and gatherer groups started to work together to kill and forage thus providing time for social bonding and propagation. Killing a buffalo may provide enough food and clothing for a family to survive for a while, but a large group of families working closely together developed the skills to kill a whole heard of buffalo, by for instance, working together to drive them off of a cliff. This ensured survival for many families for a much longer period of time. If they can be used as food, or fuel, or medicine or even decoration, and enough of us desire the products made from them, large mammals don’t, and haven’t in the past, stood a chance. They simply can’t reproduce as fast as our speed in being able to kill them. History has shown that this has been in fact the case. Wherever humans have migrated too, many large specie mammals, like mammoths and giant sloths, have gone extinct. Human populations and the populations of the minute number of species that we have been able to domesticate have ballooned, all at the expense of the so called ‘wild animals’. “Wild” only in the sense that they can’t be domesticated. This has been especially true since the advent of agriculture, then exponentially greater still after the industrial revolution took hold. Since then we have changed the planet and what lives on it like only a few events have since the earth came into existence 4.5 billion years ago. Whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in the Anthropocene geological epoch. Another great extinction of life forms is taking place before our eyes. This one is not caused by a large asteroid impacting the earth or huge volcanic activity that wiped out large numbers of species at the same time. We bring this catastrophe on ourselves. The writers of the old testament foresaw us when they wrote the mythological story of Noah’s flood. We now find ourselves playing the part of destructive God. We find ourselves with the power of the Greek Gods too. We can fly, move at tremendous speeds, shape shift. Our technological ingenuity combined with our capricious and too often malicious natures have lead us to become the ultimate Gods of Deconstruction. If we want to define ‘wild animals’ as ones that is dangerous and unpredictable, then there is no creature that fits that description better than the one that I look at in the mirror while shaving in the mornings.
Our big, forward thinking brains have given us ways to increase our natural abilities. We didn’t evolve to have deadly claws and large teeth like tigers, so we made claws and teeth out of sharpened stones. We put them on the ends of spears and arrows. We projected our sharpened stone teeth into the flesh of other creatures and often into our own kind. We devised a way to kill even the deadly tiger. Our claws and teeth are now bullets, fighter jets and nuclear war heads. They are our crisscrossing concrete highways and our petroleum burning vehicles that speed down them. They are the tons of waste that we dump into our oceans. They are our destructive mining practices that can pulverize mountains into dust. No other creature on the planet has been proven to have the ability to stop the destruction that we bring down like hammer blows on the planet. History has shown that our desire to kill, hoard and nurture hasn’t noticeably diminished. But our technology has increased our ability to effect change more forcefully and ferociously. We do it with an ever greater speed and with more intensity. The more power that our species attains the greater the potential there is for both drastic nurturing, destructive killing and the unwarranted stockpiling of resources to occur. Just in my lifetime, 56 years, the human population on the planet has more than doubled. It’s a high reward, high risk game that we unwittingly play. This becomes increasingly dangerous considering how our unchecked technologies, consumerism and industrialization have developed at exponentially higher and higher rates. The challenge that we face is, can we think differently about ourselves, as individuals and as a species? Can we accept the challenges and control our destructive natural impulses to kill and to hoard? Can we learn to nurture more than just our children, our domesticated livestock, our crops and our greedy desires? Can we stop always wanting more, more and MORE? Can we learn to value what is ultimately of importance, that being drinkable water, clean air, healthy food, shelter, education, protecting and reestablishing healthy and diverse ecosystems? Our economics can no longer be practiced without taking into account the natural systems of which we are only a part. No matter what our personal or collective intentions may have been along the way, we now find ourselves having to play God. But if we really want healthy lives for future generations on Earth, if we really want to nurture in the most loving of ways, we have to accept that we will always be trumped by nature Herself. We are a part of Her, but only one small part. In her indifferent eyes we are only a tiny blip on the radar. The planet Earth will still continue to majestically travel around the mighty Sun for billions of years after the human species is long gone. We should be humble and accept the fact that we can never ‘Save the Earth’. But we can make up for our unwise practices of the past and try to do everything in our power to ensure that future generations get to experience this mind-bending and majestic ride on LIFE.