Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Animal Kingdom

My resident Mr. Science has been watching TiVo'd episodes of Planet Earth this morning. Nature is so brutal. It's incredibly beautiful, too, especially when filmed in high definition and watched on a fancy flat-screen TV, but I'm always struck as much by the violence as the beauty. Animals seem to be chasing and killing one another pretty much all the time. Seals capture and eat penguins, wolves chase and eat caribou, males fight to the death over females, and so forth. Basically, animals who want to remain fed, put, and in existence are obliged to maul other animals. This raises - and answers - interesting questions about territoriality, aggression and war in the human animal. It's not hard to see parallels to our own brutality, despite the veneer of civilization we've layered over it. Practically every action in the animal world is a strong argument in favor of the theory of evolution and the essential sameness of animal instincts. In fact, I'm wondering how the creationism folks - not a crowd characterized by pacifism - explain the undeniable human tendencies toward territoriality, war-mongering and other aggressive behaviors and policies. At least animals have survival rather than political supremacy and religious intolerance on their minds. Or is that what we're up to, too?

You'd think civilization would have tamed some of our innate killer instinct as well as given us intellectual bases for it. But while the killer instinct has evidently been preserved pretty much intact in humans, civilization seems to have instead made it possible for us to maintain survival and even domination without keeping the necessary skills honed. Animal societies don't last long if they aren't for the most part lithe, fit and clever enough to outwit their prey and their predators. Human societies presumably have to be lithe, fit and clever to develop into powers and super-powers in the first place, but civilization allows things like money and technology, weaponry and rhetoric, to substitute for animals' ever-sharp skills. Presumably, there's a vanguard in every human society with sharply honed survival skills, but human societies in general seem to get awfully fat, happy and oblivious. If animals were as complacent as civilized humans have evolved to be, they'd never survive.

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