…why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of wild lice in order to milk them like slaves for droplets of sugar? And why is it that a chimp, clearly a superior creature, does not straddle a goat and ride into the sunset?
The questions are not intended for an answer, but to exemplify Hertzog’s attitude to enquiry when it comes to the natural world. Nonetheless, this question is both interesting and easy to answer.
Insects, by virtue of their simplicity, are incredibly malleable, adaptable creatures, and by virtue of their sheer numerousness they encounter and lock in advantages (both genetic and cultural) with comparative ease. Symbiotic relationships, such as farming lice or fungus, persist by mutual advantage. Behaviours like this with creatures like this are not really comparable to those of larger animals such as chimpanzees and goats. We frequently make mistakes by judging insects and vertebrates by similar standards: the world of invertebrates is older and nastier than anything that has evolved since. It is practically an alien world that happens to be here in our midst.
Mammals, birds and other such creatures are also able to form symbiotic relationships, but do so culturally as a product of their imaginative faculties. They understand that other animals are beings at least somewhat like they are, and can indeed display empathy and other cognitive faculties far more sophisticated than was believed just a few decades ago. Elephants, for instance have rescued captive antelope. But such animals lack sufficient powers of imagination to conceive of other animals as both another being and a tool. That said, it’s quite possible some do possess sufficient imagination – dolphins and elephants, say – but lack inclination or opportunity. Since we can’t yet ask them, a certain degree of mystery remains.
What marks out humanity as a species is not so much our intelligence, per se, as our imagination. We are wildly more imaginative than any other creature we know; if there is something our oversized brains are suited for, it’s imagining. We have the creative ingenuity not only to form a working relationship with a horse, but to mount and ride one, and to think through all the complexities involved in keeping them in the long term. A chimp can understand that a goat is another creature, but not imagine the nature of its differences sufficiently to relate to its on its on its own terms, let alone look after one in the long term. (I also baulk at the suggestion that a chimp is ‘clearly superior’ to a goat: on what criteria are we judging?)
Insects cannot imagine even themselves. Chimps can imagine both themselves and others. But only humans can imagine not only themselves and others, but how to forge new possibilities therein. That is what has allowed us to achieve our current position as first-among-vertebrates, even though the planet still belongs to the bacteria, which by any conceivable measure still dominate. What we sometimes lack, alas, is the insight to recognise that this amazing imaginative faculty does not make us Emperor of the World, but merely the latest gambler at Mother Earth’s casino… if we don’t play by her rules, she will have no problem kicking us out.
The opening image is by Bruce McCall, from Encounters at the End of the World. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.