Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Natural Born Killers

When asked “what creature apart from humans is the most violent” on an internet Q&A site I happened upon, most people said chimpanzees, claiming chimps “wage wars” and commit sickening acts of violence and atrocity on each other. But what did the question really mean? Judging by the answers no one was sure. Like an ink-blot test, it revealed the thoughts and fears of those answering the question and nothing else.

One contributor gave first prize to termites, bizarrely equating aggression with property damage. Timbers in human houses are just lunch to them, so why not accuse zebras of committing grass-related atrocities while you’re at it? Another contributor nominated hippos, citing the often heard statistics that show they kill more people than sharks, lions or teenagers do. This reaction was different thing to that of the chimp-haters. This is violence seen as aggression against humans, not against their own species. And that’s the real giveaway, isn’t it? Chimps look like us, hippos don’t. I assume hippo violence against hippo hasn’t registered. I didn’t see anyone talking about male elephant seals. Incidentally, a quick web-search revealed that opinions are divided on actual hippo danger levels.

There’s a scene in Jurassic Park where Sam Neill tells everyone not to worry about the diplodocus munching on a nearby tree because it’s a harmless vegetarian. It’s a commonly held belief that herbivorous dinosaur were harmless. Where did this idea spring from? I’d put this in with a lot of the other old fallacies about dinosaurs because this is surely not true. I think I can refute the argument with one word – Rhinos.

You’re far better able to judge if an animal has a violent nature by checking its physiology, not its diet. High levels of testosterone makes something attack other things. Testosterone-heavy Bull sharks are highly aggressive, more so than Great Whites but have probably added to their cousins’ bad reputation by nibbling on the occasional incontinent Floridian beach-goer. If said Floridian is ignorant of the mind-boggling diversity of the natural world it’s a given that witnessing almost any kind of shark attack will be enough to pin another gruesome statistic on star of the big screen, good old Carcharodon carcharias. Meanwhile most people remain largely unaware of the other 439 known shark species, sometimes as utterly different from each other as the tiny, vicious and surreal cookie-cutter shark is from the enormous yet gentle whale shark (gentle to humans, that is. Plankton would of course see them as ruthless monsters responsible for the deaths of billions).

So what is violence? As is often the way the meaning of the word changes depending on who’s using it and what point they’re trying to make. Language is and always has been fluid, making all attempts to regulate it pointless and misguided. But for meanings to change on the whim of lazy ignorance seems a shame. Language informs how we think and even who we are. Every word we learn carries with it streams of associated meanings and connects unconsciously to innumerable thought patterns, shaping the linguistic framework we use to make sense of the world and of ourselves. When meanings are changed by ignorance and apathy we lose something that took centuries to craft.

All the contributors in the Q&A violent animals survey interpreted violence to mean physical harm that upset them personally. Examples were given of “meaningless” and “pointless” behaviour, as if animals must always act to better their lives, or as if all actions must, and in an obvious way, contribute to an evolutionary advantage within a self-sustaining eco-system. This ignores two facts:

1) Nature is a roiling mass of winners and losers fighting over limited resources, usually to the death of individuals, often of species, and extinction by competition has always been with us.

2) Humans, with all our selfish psychological imbalances and hateful, petty desires, are just as much a product of nature as any other living thing, not somehow removed from it.

The OED online defines violence as “1. behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill. 2. strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force”. So taking that onboard, most animals are violent because they purposefully hurt or kill other animals while defending themselves or others, feeding, and gaining opportunities to reproduce. A rutting stag gouging an opponent with his antlers is intending to hurt and damage his opponent. A leopard seal hunting a penguin is intending to damage and kill. A pod of orcas pursuing a whale calf, drowning it with their combined body-weight then eating just its tongue is intending to kill. We’re horrified and bewildered by that last one yet don’t think twice about the first two, but all are products of natural processes, behaviours prompted by physiological cues in environmental contexts. Orcas are highly intelligent so a seemingly cruel act perhaps comes from a natural desire to solve problems with innovation. Catching their dinner in new and exciting ways is something they must be drawn to and which leads them to come up with the amazing solutions they do when confronted with hard to catch prey. I imagine they find it very entertaining.

Claiming that an animal’s actions are meaningless seems to me to be very close to what Richard Dawkins calls an ‘argument from personal incredulity’. But rather than the premise being "I can't believe this is possible, so it can't be true" what we have here is “I can’t see any purpose behind this, so it must be without purpose.” The absence of a plan doesn’t mean absence of meaning. Stories, believe it or not, do not have to have an author. They can be created spontaneously by groups of people unknowingly acting within a simple set of rules (as in the party game ‘Psychoanalysis’ ). Animals don’t plan things out or consider the long-term ramifications of their actions, they act according to their desires and inhibitions. And regardless of what we tell ourselves, the indications are that we generally do the same. Statistically, the best indicator of future behaviour is previous behaviour. Not our promises, not our sincerely expressed desires to change. We usually do what we usually do. If you need further proof think about how people go about buying houses. Or choosing partners.

Insects can be unbelievably violent. Ants, for instance, are extremely aggressive. I met a group of ants in an Australian jungle that were just 2mm long, three of them were on a tree branch I was climbing over and when they noticed me they instantly stopped whatever it was they were doing (I’m utterly mystified by the purpose of ant processions in exactly the same way I’m utterly mystified by traffic when I look out of the window during night flights over British motorways. Where are all you people going? What was wrong with where you were? Why don’t you just decide where you want to be?!). They assumed their threatening posture, abdomens raised and jaws wide - declaring in ant-speak their intention to fight me, a creature a million times their size, to the death. Ants, enslave and kill rivals. They send their old ladies out to the furthest outposts of the nests to die fighting in defence of their younger sisters. Nature is full of this stuff! Grizzly bears tear living fish apart from the tail up. Male lions commit infanticide while the mothers watch and moments later enter into enthusiastic copulation. And none of these things make it into our nightmares. Is it because we can’t relate to them? Chimps make us question ourselves because we think they’re so much like us. Meanwhile we turn a blind eye to millions killed in African civil wars because African tribes-people seem so removed from us culturally, technologically and geographically. Our mental categories aren’t being cross-referenced. So we’re 90-something% the same as chimps, but let’s get that in context – we’re about 50% the same as cucumbers. A fair-sized portion of our genes just deal with being alive in an oxygen-rich atmosphere with a bit of CO2 in it in the ‘goldilocks’ zone of the solar system. Being impressed at how like us something non-human is apparently doesn’t mean we’re also going to care about something that is human but isn’t especially like us. Chimps do seem a lot like people so their violence worries us. It doesn’t fit with our modern, constructed view of nature as a system in balance. We’re worried that perhaps we and our hairy cousins are spoiling the party for everybody else, that the dreaded spectre of ‘determinism’ has doomed us to an eternity of bloodshed and suffering. Which, ironically, by worrying about chimps instead of people, we’re showing an amazing capacity to cope with.

But of course it isn’t about people, or nature. Or fate. Or world peace. It’s about you. It’s always been about you, it always will be about you. Violence, regardless of its dictionary or colloquial definition, means physical harm to you and yours, or that worries you due to its proximity. That’s what the Q&A survey showed anyway.

Most people said chimps. No one said cats.

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