Beta Culture: Honoring the Fallen … of Science

joy adamsonI’m not a big fan of that pro-military, jingoistic “Support the troops” and “Freedom isn’t free” crap, mainly because it compresses a very complex situation down to a simplistic slogan, with an added “with us or against us” flavor. When I visit Washington DC, I’m always impressed with how MANY memorials there are glorifying war, how few there are — zero — glorifying peace.

Also, in counterpoint to the two national holidays we have honoring soldiers, I’ve suggested a national holiday, SALT Day, to honor Scientists, Artists, Librarians and Teachers. You know, those OTHER people who make American freedom possible, and livable.

So I was happy to find this:

The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists

The site honors those who have died in the pursuit of KNOWLEDGE, and I can’t imagine anyone who more deserves hero status. It delights me in this way, too: It ignores the lines of nations, presenting honorees as citizens of this other country, Planet Earth.

I don’t know most of the names on this list, so it was nice to be able to read over it and gain exposure to them. (It’s weird how many died of poison darts, spears and such.)

Some of the ones I did recognize:

Adamson, Joy (1910–1980), a naturalist, artist, and author best known for the book and movie Born Free, found murdered, age 69, in her camp on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, by a former employee.

Adamson, George (1906 –1989), British wildlife conservationist and author best known through the book and movie Born Free, shot dead, age 83, in Kenya’s Kora National Park by Somali bandits.

Cousteau, Philippe (1940–1979), French oceanographer, diver, and filmmaker, second son of Jacques-Yves and Simone Cousteau, author of  Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea, died, age 38, when his PBY Catalina flying boat crashed in the Tagus River near Lisbon.

Felzien,Gregory (1965-1992), predator biologist, killed, age 26, by an avalanche in Yellowstone National Park while tracking mountain lions.  He was experienced at back country work but is said to have remarked, “If I ever have to die, I want it to be here in Yellowstone tracking cats.”

Fossey, Dian (1932-1985), leading primatologist and conservationist studying mountain gorillas, found murdered in her cabin, age 53, in the Virunga Mountains, Rwanda (case unsolved).

Gambel, William (1823–1849), American naturalist, namesake of Gambel’s quail, age 26, of typhoid fever in the Sierra Nevada.

Leopold, Aldo (1887-1948), father of wildlife ecology who helped found The Wildlife Society and the Wilderness Society, died of a heart attack, age 61, while battling a wildfire on his neighbor’s property.

And one I knew personally:

Gaines, David (1947-1988) , birder in the Sierra Nevada,  author of  The Birds of the Yosemite and the East Slope, and the main impetus behind saving Mono Lake from SoCal’s unquenchable thirst. He died, age 41, in a car accident near Mono Lake. Here’s a good biography (but disregard the dates).

I’d like to see this same effort for all of science, every field, all the researchers, boundary-challengers and explorers of reality who died in the course of their work.

 

The Root of Transcendence

Dan MountainsAs an atheist, you hear it all the time – the in-your-face assertion that Humans are “wired for God.” We believe in gods, we’re told, because it’s natural to us. Because we have something in us that NEEDS a god or gods. Maybe because it carries some evolutionary advantage, so we evolved to have it.

The conclusion, in the mind of any faith-professing Christian, is that we’re this way because there really is a god, or at least some sort of “something bigger out there somewhere” that makes it so. We believe because we need to, because we have to, because to do anything else makes us less viable organisms. Lacking a god-need is an evolutionary dead end.

In how many conversations have I had someone tell me “Well, I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I think there’s something out there. Something beyond anything we know.”? I’ve heard that a LOT. Even people I would otherwise consider full atheists have said such things to me.

I’ve felt that pull myself. I’ve thought many times, “We live our lives on a human stage. Everything we do is for other people. But is that enough? Isn’t there anything … more?”

I actually think there is. But it’s not God or gods or mystical superbeings of any sort. It’s this whole other thing, something real. But it’s something so much a part of us we fail to notice it.

I’ll tell you what I think it might be.

First, here’s me: Atheist. Beyond atheist, in fact. I independently came up with the term “antitheist” to describe myself 20 years or more ago, long before it was in vogue. Rather than the current fashionable pronunciation, “an-tee-THEE-ist,” I pronounced it “an-TITH-ee-ist.” I described it humorously as “Not only do I not believe in gods, but I don’t think you should either.”

But I’m also a realist. You have to face the real world and take what it gives you, even if you don’t like it, even if it flies in the face of things you think you know. So whenever I’m presented with a woo-woo idea, something I know isn’t right as presented, but which nevertheless seems to have some sort of substance to it, rather than dismiss it with “No, despite what it looks like, there’s nothing there,” I have to 1) accept whatever realness it presents, and then 2) see if I can figure out a real-world explanation for it that makes sense.

So do we have a need for gods? Are we wired for that? If not, what is it we DO have? Let’s explore a couple of conceptual trails and see where they lead.

Most of us, when we talk about going hiking in the woods, or camping in the wilderness, talk about it in terms of “going out there.” We live in cities, and we “go out” when we head away from the city into the wilds.

But it’s the other way around, isn’t it? Because cities are NOT our natural environment. Our natural environment is … the natural environment. It’s where we grew up, where we evolved to be. We’re not going OUT when we go to the wilds, we’re going BACK. The only time we go OUT is when we trek from the wilds into a city.

Our home, our real home, is in the woods, on the mountains, in the midst of trees and creeks and blowing wind. It is out in the sun and rain, in the dirt and dust, the pollen and bugs and mud. It’s out where we can stomp around in our bare feet, filling our toes with mud, seeing wild animals and birds and distant valleys, blue sky and fluffy clouds, nights filled with full moons and stars. Where we can taste berries and ripe fruit, where we can smell waterfalls and flowers and our own sweat, but also skunks and even blood and death.

I know you’re thinking all this is some kind of artsy-fartsy poetic allusion, but I’m dead serious. CITIES ARE NOT OUR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT. Cities are alien. Artificial.

They’re not even all that good for us. Yeah, we’re comfortable in our engineered and sanitized ’burbs, but we’ll also eat until we weigh 300 pounds, and then whine that we feel sick all the time. We’ll tolerate noise and pollution and chemically-adulterated foods until it weakens and kills us.

Think about all the animals we’ve invited out of the wilds, bringing them into towns and cities to live with us. Compared to their wild cousins, domestic animals are almost invariably weaker and dumber. More fragile.

Wild animals are generally tougher, stronger, faster and fiercer than our pets and livestock. We’re used to how soft and cuddly kittens and puppies are, but pick up a baby raccoon – which I did, years back – and you’ll be shocked at how hard it is. The little bastards are tough as boiled leather.

Just as our pets are, we humans here in cities are soft. Less robust. And probably a lot dumber than whatever wild cousins we once had.

But there’s a deeper point than that our real home is in the wilds. It’s this: That we’re a part of the world around us – profoundly inseparable from it. We’re no more alive without the world around us than a toe is alive when removed from its foot.

Allow me to argue the point:

Say we wanted to define “human.” We’d probably have a fairly involved description, possibly accompanied by a picture of some individual person, maybe some other animals for comparison. But what we wouldn’t have is a full understanding of what being a human means. Because we never really even think about it.

You’re sitting there right now believing yourself to be a complete individual, a discrete quantity of personness, probably picturing your exterior, your skin, as the boundary between “you” and “everything else.”

But your skin is NOT the boundary. In fact, when you really think about it … well, think about this:

Take a human. Hang a large sign around his neck, “Human.” Have him stand on a stage with no other person around, and take a picture of him. QED, this is a human, right? This is all a human is, all there needs to be. No, because you still haven’t separated him out from a great deal of other stuff.

But take that same human and drop him through a portal that deposited him someplace where he could REALLY be alone – say 50,000 lights years away, out in the space between galaxies. What do you have? A dead person.

We never think about it, but the definition of “human” has this hidden implication – that the human is alive, and that quite a lot goes into that aliveness. We never think about the food and water, the gravity and atmosphere, a solid place to stand, other people around to make life work, other animals and plants, a lot of them, somewhere nearby to eat.

The atmosphere we breathe doesn’t just go in and out of our lungs, it seeps into and out of our skin, penetrating us on a cellular level, maintaining a pressure without which we’d die in seconds. The food and water we consume, and later excrete, forms a flowing river of input and outgo, without which we’d also die in short order. And the thing is, the food and water comes from somewhere, the air comes from somewhere.

So we are linked, bound into, an entire system of processes that extends backward in time and outward in complexity in a way that no end can really be found. The oceans? Part of us. The mountains? Part of us. The rainforest, the arctic, the deserts? Part of us. The clouds, the rain, the snow, the bees, the plants, the rocks, the crustal plates, all part of us.

The sun? Oh, yeah, part of us. BIG part of us.

And WE are part of IT. We don’t just live on Earth, we’re nailed into it, soaking in it, connected to it in a way that allows no separation. Even the International Space Station astronauts can live for only a brief time before they start suffering serious health effects – and they get continuous supplies from Earth.

There is only one way to define “human” without also including all this other stuff – the way that specifies “dead human body.” To have a live human, you have to include everything else … at least as far out as the sun.

We say “we” and we say “I” but those are rhetorical conveniences that have no true reality. The view of ourselves as separate and individual is purely subjective – a view which is fantastically, stunningly, titanically oversimplified from the real situation.

The truth is, our mysterious and powerful “something out there” is the natural world. Yet here we are off in cities, acting in our vast ignorance as if we’re discrete individuals, separate from our larger inclusionary selves.

On some level, I think we know this. We yearn for that larger part of us. We reach for it. We desire to be a part of it, to touch and be touched by it.

But divided from the natural world in cities, ignorant of it, we think the missing “something out there, something larger” is a god, or gods, or some other mystical formulation.

It’s a drastically wrong, tragically misleading answer. But sadly, it’s all most of us can understand or accept.

Earth Day 2015: Thoughts Like Falling Leaves

[This is a repost of a piece I did several years ago, slightly edited for 2015. This essay is also part of the conceptual force driving my thoughts on the need for Beta Culture.]

Leaf One

Con games and sleight-of-hand magic work because, one, we humans only have so much attention to spare at any one moment, and two, they direct that attention deliberately in one direction. If you look at where the finger points, you miss … well, everything else.

Like the movie teen backing through a darkened doorway in the serial killer’s lair, we focus intently on one thing while something more important takes place just outside the sphere of our focus.

I’ll give you a real-life example that has bugged me for a long time.

I met Timothy Treadwell some years back in Flagstaff, when he came to give a talk about grizzlies. Tim’s the guy who got killed and partially eaten by a bear in 2003 in Alaska, and was immortalized in the 2005 film “Grizzly Man” a “documentary” by filmmaker Werner Herzog.

I hated the film (and I think Herzog is a pandering jackass for making it as he did) because it projected exactly two messages into the minds of viewers: 1) Tim Treadwell was crazy. 2) Grizzlies are deadly killers.

The finger pointed in those directions, and most of the viewers looked that way. Treadwell was in fact killed by a grizzly. But off-screen, what the finger didn’t point at, and what most of us failed to notice, was that he lived within spitting distance of these huge bears for 12 summers.

Unprotected.

Unarmed.

Unhurt.

Out of all the things we might want to know about grizzlies, we already know “Any sane person knows them goldurned bears’ll kill yuh!” What we don’t know is “There’s a way to live right in among grizzlies for 12 years without getting hurt.”

I can tell you in one second which of those things I’d like to see in a film, which of those things I’d like to KNOW. Herzog, sleight-of-hand documentarian, wasn’t interested in it. Today we have one more titillating, somewhat stupid film pointing a finger at something we already “know,” and most of us still view bears as unpredictable, inevitable killing machines.

So here we are on Earth Day 2015, equally awash in sleight-of-hand: Oh my gosh, are we ever jumping on the “green” bandwagon. You can’t watch TV for half an hour without seeing five commercials about companies going green. Corporations are going green, politicians are going green, builders are going green, banks are going green, cities are going green, for all I know states are going green. Green green GREEN — Yowzah!!

TV, billboards, radio messages, magazine ads, newspaper stories, websites — everywhere you look, clean, well-fed mommies and daddies and happy children are pitching in to cut water consumption! Save energy! Produce less trash! Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Man, I already feel better about it, don’t you? We’re DOING SOMETHING, at last, to Save the Earth. Let’s all heave a deep sigh of relief. Yessssss.

Meanwhile, in all those places where the finger doesn’t point …

Leaf Two

Was it just a dozen years or so ago I was writing an article about Baby Six Billion? She was born on or about October 11, 1999. I wrote about the world of progressive scarcity she would be born into, and I wished her well.

But we’re already living in the world with Baby Seven Billion, who arrived on Earth — as estimated, anyway — on October 31, 2011.

Halloween was the SECOND scariest event on that date. Even though you’d expect Baby Seven Billion to be a daughter or granddaughter of Baby Six Billion, she’s not. (Unless Baby Six Billion got pregnant at the age of 12, that is.)

Instead, Baby Seven Billion was born, give or take a few years, to the same generation that produced Baby Six Billion. The SAME generation.

Jeezus holy jacked-up shit.

Knowing that, I have to ask: What exactly is the point of going green?

I mean, if you and I conserve and recycle and stop eating endangered fish and refuse to support companies that log the Amazon, and do everything we can possibly do to keep the Earth green and growing …

And we each of us cut in half our annual environmental footprint on the Earth …

Where’s the net gain if, during that same period, our neighbors produce more than 205,000 more kids EVERY DAY?

That’s 75 million a year, in case you wondered — roughly equal to the combined populations of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah,Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Or more than the individual populations of Turkey, Thailand, France, United Kingdom, Italy or South Africa.

Or, if you prefer, more than twice the population of Canada. Each and every YEAR.

Oh, and by the way, prepare to greet Baby Eight Billion in NINE YEARS.

Your piddly-ass half-person conservation effort vanishes in the noise.

Leaf Three

I saw a beautifully designed book on the environment a few years back, a thick, well-researched tome about all the possible things you can do to Save the Earth. (Wish I could remember the name, but I seem to have put it out of my mind.) I was so excited, I ordered it immediately. And man, when it came, I unwrapped it lovingly, admiring its heft, its colors, its stunning cardboard slip cover. I dove into it with excitement — it was like a whole weighty library of greenitude.

But I made the mistake, within an hour of getting it, of delving into the index for articles on population control.

Nothing.

Huh? I couldn’t believe it. I tried different words, different combinations. In the end, I discovered the entire book seemed to contain only two PHRASES related to the subject. I mean, there weren’t three whole sentences about it. Amid stories of fish farming and water conservation and energy from wind and sun and recycling plastic and improved strains of rice, there was virtually nothing about human numbers.

It was like going through a million-word book of instructions on how to save a sinking ship, reading a thousand different formulations of “Bail faster and better,” but finding no mention at all of “Hey, stupid, plug the fucking hole in the hull!”

I instantly lost interest in the damned thing. I mailed it to a friend who’s into green stuff, and have since then entertained several brief imaginings of punching the authors in the face if I ever get to meet them.

But … can I really blame them? I haven’t had the chance to read every book ever written on saving the earth, but I’ve found few recent ones that deal with population as the real core of the problem.

Is the subject taboo? Is it simple despair that puts it off-limits?

Maybe it’s the inevitable over-reaction. The instant you start talking about encouraging people to use condoms and contraceptives, to pursue various avenues of family planning, etc., to limit human population, the shriekers slam down on you like a rain of neutron bombs — blam, blam blam! “You want to murder babies!! You want to commit genocide!! Oh my God, why do you hate human beings so much!!?”

Whew.

Leaf Four

I had a cowboy friend, Tom Wood, who was an eternal optimist. I noticed the day I met him that he had this small purpley bump on the side of his face, and I asked him about it not long after, when we’d had a chance to get to know each other.

“Ah. That ain’t nothing.” Big smile, dismissive gesture with can of beer. “Been there for years! You gotta go sometime!”

Two years later, the purpley bump was bigger, but the gesture and optimistic dismissal was the same. Every time the subject came up: “Hey, you gotta go sometime!”

Except for the day he found out he had malignant melanoma, and the three or four months he lasted after.

Turns out optimism, like anything, is misusable. If you have a problem, but you refuse to grapple with it because you’d rather be optimistic and hopeful about the future … well, there are side effects.

To get well, you first have to admit you’re sick. To climb out of a financial hole, you first have to admit you’re not handling your money well. To stanch the bleeding of a gaping wound, you first have to notice the gushing blood.

Sometimes, for a while, optimism has to slide over into the passenger seat, keep its smirking mouth shut, and let pessimism take the wheel.

In the midst of an emergency, in the face of a deadly threat, you have to think more about the worst that can happen, rather than the best.

The population of Planet Earth has yet to realize this.

Leaf Five

I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t use the word “retarded.” And I get the point — it can be an insult to people with mental handicaps.

But like the shock value of carefully-applied profanity, it can also serve to slap people awake.

Here’s retarded: The smug idiot who laughs “Hey, we can’t hurt the Earth! Ha-ha! It’ll be here and fine long after we’re gone!”

Here’s retarded: “Even IF we were capable of wrecking the environment, God could fix it with a wave of his hand.”

Here’s retarded: Buying into all those corporate messages that if we recycle and reuse (with their corporate help, of course), everything will be just fine.

Here’s retarded: Every environmentalist and green advocate who ever lived who failed to recognize that the foundation of EVERY environmental problem is too many people.

Here’s retarded: The guy who repeats the vague reassurance that “Educated women tend to have fewer children. All we have to do is raise the level of education and social welfare in the world, and world population will level off at some sustainable level.”

Problem is, we’re out of time on hopeful reassurances. The planet is already over the load limit on humans — there’s nothing left, no excess capacity to hold us until that optimistically hoped-for population leveling begins to kick in.

If ever there was a moment to be pessimistic, to attempt to be thoughtful and worried and to imagine the worst, this would be that moment.

We’re killing the Earth NOW.

Leaf Six

I don’t see it getting better in my lifetime.

Don’t think I don’t hate to say it.

I hate to even think it. Hey, I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was about 11 years old and first read Zip-Zip Goes to Venus.

As an SF fan, I’m a devoted futurist. For years I thought about the possibility of cloning my dog, the Best Dog I Ever Even Met, but I held off on doing anything about it. Then one day he got sick, and it hit me that I could either 1) read about all the possible technological innovations but do nothing to make ready for them, or 2) I could live and act as if these imagined futures would be real.

I picked the second option. The future is a real place, a real time, and many things will become possible. I set the wheels in motion for collecting tissue samples when Tito died. Today those samples are frozen in liquid nitrogen, providing me a doorway into one of those possible futures. When (if) cloning gets to be reliable and cheap, I’ll be ready to have them build a puppy for me, the latter-day twin of the Best Dog I Ever Even Met.

But futurist or not, no matter how much technological progress we make — on gene-engineered crops, fish farming, pollution-free energy — none of that can fix the hole in the boat, the hole of more and more people, more and more mouths, arriving daily like unstoppable civilization-smashing dreadnoughts of unthinking hunger.

Leaf Seven

The truth is — brace yourself for some carefully-applied profanity —

We’re fucked.

Seriously. We’re raping ourselves to death with our own appetites. We are bent over, grabbing our metaphorical ankles, while a dick the size of Montgomery, Alabama — population 205,764 — rams repeatedly, daily, up our collective butts.

And it looks like we don’t have the brains to stop it.

For instance: Even the idea of conservation has enemies. And not quiet enemies, but active, loud, wealthy enemies. Enemies with TV and radio shows. Enemies with audiences of admiring millions. Enemies with the backing of huge, globe-spanning churches. Save the environment? Do something about global warming? It’s un-American, it’s crazy, it’s EVILLLL!!

But even those who aren’t active enemies of possible solutions are still thinking we can do pretty much all the same stuff we’ve always done. Everybody can drive cars and live in big houses, and buy everything we buy wrapped in a disposable plastic sheath, and have two or three or four kids. As long as we all pitch in and conscientiously — voluntarily! — conserve, everything will be fine.

Even those of us who are active champions of the environment, as long as we fail to bring the subject of human population into every single discussion, are little more than enablers, co-dependents who help wreck things by failing to admit the real problem.

Taken together, we’re the battered wife who won’t admit she needs help. “I know he loves me. He only does it when he’s drinking.” Wham! “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t provoke him.” Wham! “He doesn’t really mean to do it. I just can’t leave him.” Wham! Wham!

Out here in the real world, we’re already dying. We’re already killing everything else we care about. It’s just that it’s been happening in slo-mo.

Like the stupid pigeon that stands still while the cat sneaks up on him in broad daylight — “Yeah it DOES look like a great big predator, but hey, it’s barely moving, and nothing bad’s happened SO far, right?” — we’ve sat mired in calm complacency in the midst of a slow motion crash.

But things are speeding up.

The Earth is bleeding to death under us, faster and faster, and the best we’ve managed so far is a string of very small Band-Aids.

When the real way to stop the blood loss, the only workable treatment, is the tourniquet of Everybody Stop Having Children. For a while, anyway.

Leaf Eight

Nothing I’ve said here is meant to imply that I have absolutely no hope. Even the statement “we’re fucked” is not something I feel in any final way.

But I’m not optimistic. The only hope I DO see is if we admit the problem, the real problem, and deal with that. Plug the hole in the hull first.

Stop human population growth. Now. Reverse it. Get our numbers down to four billion, two billion, whatever number really IS sustainable in the real world.

Because this is it, kids. The photo finish where humanity as a group crosses the line a split-second ahead of Mr. Death and lives as the better selves we could be, the ones who become rational adults and enter the next Age of life on earth.

Or the photo finish where Mr. Death beats us across, and stands mocking as we murder each other attempting to claw our individual selves out of the sucking pit of our own sewage and malignant runaway growth … and kill everything else we care about — all the whales and wolves, the polar bears and eagles, and even the cats and dogs and horses — along the way.

There is a possible future, maybe even a probable future, where quite a lot of us will live to see the squalid, dehumanizing background-world of Blade Runner, or Mad Max, or Idiocracy, as the depiction of an enviable Golden Age.

(Just FYI, all you uber-rich people thinking you might survive inside some kind of walled compound, I’d bet real money that the zombie hordes will be eating you FIRST. After all, you’re the fat, juicy ones. Besides, do you really want to live in a world without toilet paper? Without coffee? Without chocolate? )

You, or your kids if you have any, will face this fact: A decidedly unpretty future of death, death and more death is coming soon to a planet near you.

Leaf Nine

And now — deep sigh — cue the shriekers. I obviously want to murder babies, and commit genocide on poor people, right? I’m crazy, I have no proof for my silly dark fantasies and I should probably just shut up — Why do you hate people so much, Mr. Gloomy? — and try not to kill other people’s optimism.

Anyway, things aren’t really that bad, and Science Will Find A Way. Like, you know, mining asteroids and colonizing the Moon, sending our surplus population into space. Stuff like that.

Besides, somewhere out there somebody smarter and better informed than you and I has the problem in hand and will fix things up.

After all, those wise strangers, wherever they are, whoever they are — you know, like government people and corporations and such — care SO MUCH about you and I and our families, right?

Right?

Right.

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 8 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

This is the Truth:

In my hunting days, I was headwaiter at a seafood restaurant in a little resort town in the California’s Eastern Sierra mountains. Hunting season had opened several days before, but I’d had to work every day. This was my last evening shift before I had a couple of days off, and I was ready to go.

I had my new Ruger .30-06 rifle with a 7-power scope. I had my pack and my sleeping bag and two days worth of camp food. And I had an intimate knowledge of miles and miles of backcountry trails that would lead me into good hunting country, far away from the lazy, clumsy road-hunters who swarmed the hills every fall.

I had to work until 9 p.m., but the almost-full moon was coming up soon after, and I thought I could get in a good couple of hours hiking under its light. The high-country moon is brilliant enough to read by when full, and it would light the mountain trails to near-daylight certainty.

I hiked in the starlit dark for half an hour, then welcomed the moon like a sunrise on the rocky trails. I trekked on for another hour, then started thinking about pitching camp for the few hours before dawn.

And found myself reluctant to stop. Thinking about it blithely in the previous days, I saw no problem with the plan. But now that I was faced with it, I realized that I had never actually camped out by myself in the wilderness. And I was … afraid.

I traveled onward in the light of the still-rising moon. Another hour passed and it was well past midnight before I convinced myself to at least stop and think about it.

I took off my pack and began laying out my camp with slow, overly careful precision. My movements were mechanical, my body running itself while my mind, weighted with the fear, flowed like glaciers. All my attention was routed through my ears, listening for the slightest suspicious noise. Though I was ravenously hungry, I didn’t want to use my little butane stove, because to do that would mean making a light, which would make me vulnerable by diminishing my night-sight. I rolled out my sleeping bag and lay down in it like a death-row inmate sitting in that last chair, hearing each tooth click as I slooooowly raised the zipper.

I lay like a statue for another hour, while the moon moved across the sky and finally buried its light in the trees overhead. Finally my own body rejected the fear: tiredness overcame frozen panic and I finally asked myself, “What the heck am I afraid of?”

I listed them. Black bears. Mountain lions. Coyotes. Um … well, what else was there?

Not a damned thing.

I stood outside myself and imagined what a bear or mountain lion might think if it came upon me: I was a human being lying suspiciously just off the trail, breathing easily and wrapped in a miasma of strange smells, gun oil and cordite and the stench of human sweat.

Even from my own viewpoint, I looked dangerous. With a loaded, high-powered rifle ready to hand, I was like some comic book villain with Death Vision: Down the barrel of that gun, I could kill anything I could look at.

I suddenly realized that I was the most dangerous animal within five miles, and after 30,000 years or so of living on this continent with Man, everything with a brain bigger than a walnut would damned well know it.

I relaxed in minutes and, cozied down in my sleeping bag, drifted off and slept restfully and well until dawn.

— End —

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

© Hank Fox, 2011 and earlier.  No part of this document may be reproduced in any form, written or electronic, without explicit written permission of the author.

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 7 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

Stomping Kittens

In America there is a safety-conscious social force backed up by the power of law – and constantly reinforced by frequent and large lawsuits – that decrees that every tiniest hint of danger must be stamped out of every activity. People must be taken care of.

Even in the midst of our riskiest pastimes, we do everything possible – which is always considerable – to eliminate the risk. The requirement for wearing floatation vests and helmets on river rafting trips is a good example.

Yet we love the feeling of exertion, and hazard. It makes us feel more alive. It may even be necessary to our mental health. We so enjoy the excitement of risk that we reduce ourselves to arguing about whether we should allow ourselves to be coerced into wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle, or whether we should be required to wear a seatbelt while driving, or whether we should be forced to put safety locks on the triggers of our guns.

Generally speaking, our lives are so safe (except from other humans) that we have to travel great distances, pay considerable amounts of money, and work very hard to contrive situations that enable us to experience a little real risk. Contending against the ongoing and all-pervasive campaign to make our lives safer and duller, we have to invent ways to experience excitement.

We entertain ourselves with the illusions of risk: We sit through adventurous movies. We ride roller coasters. We pay to enjoy indoor climbing walls.

And we make up scary stories for ourselves and our children, stories of monsters with fearsome teeth and claws, Face Eaters coming at us out of the night. We plaster befanged predators on the fronts of our magazines, and disseminate “true” tales of the menace from the wildlands.

Yet far, far distant from the world created on hunting magazine covers and supermarket tabloids is a place called Reality. In Reality, every bit of wildlife on “our” planet is susceptible to human will. To our anger. To our greed. Even to our carelessness.

And especially to our ignorant fears.

Wild animals are like nothing so much as a litter of newborn kittens left lying in the path of booted millions of marching humans. We can and do tread on them, and their only safety lies in their feeble, ignorant scramble to evade our crushing, world-spanning feet.

The Grizzly’s Gamble

Somewhere out there is a grizzly – any grizzly, every grizzly – who knows nothing about any of this. He has no idea the entire rest of his world is occupied by an incredibly dangerous, barely-in-control (out-of-control?) predator: Man.

The grizzly has his teeth and claws, his own muscle power, a sharply limited intelligence, and no possibility at all of adapting to a changing world. His whole existence is part of a game too vast for him to imagine.

Human beings, on the other hand, have the ultimate hole card – the fact that we are the most incredibly, overpoweringly deadly animal ever to live on this planet.

Drop a human down in grizzly country and see how long he lives. In fact, the experiment happens thousands of times every summer, and with extremely rare exceptions, the man remains healthy for the length of his stay.

Drop a grizzly into the middle of a human habitat, a city, and see how long he lives. The answer would be a matter of hours at most. Which is the more dangerous?

To put a finer point on it:

Humans are so dangerous, we’ll kill predators for decades after a predator attacks just one of us (even a perfect stranger), and we’re so bright we can remember a grudge for generations.

We’re so dangerous, we organize and deputize our killing; we hire people to kill millions upon millions of captive, helpless prey animals – each year.

We’re so dangerous, we have gadgets — traps, snares, landmines — which will kill at random, and without even having a human present, for months or years after being set in action.

We’re so dangerous we produce chemicals which will kill any creature they touch. We produce substances that will deform, cripple or kill anything and everything for decades after we last used them.

We’re so dangerous, we and our children kill – for fun – creatures such as songbirds and ground squirrels which are not only harmless, but absolutely useless for food, fur or anything else.

We’re so dangerous that even our well-fed pets kill – for fun – birds and small mammals in the millions every year.

We’re so dangerous that we in turn kill those pets, in untold numbers, simply because we become bored with them.

We’re so dangerous, we kill by accident, just as a side-effect of traveling on our highways, uncountable millions of animals each year, in this country alone.

We’re so dangerous that merely building homes and growing the food needed for our burgeoning billions results in the deaths of unreckonable numbers of other creatures, as we thoughtlessly consume the habitat they need to survive.

We’re so dangerous that a single juvenile human can torch a thousand square miles of wildlife habitat in one weekend – simply by dropping a lit match.

We’re so dangerous we kill, by accident, even our most beloved family members and acquaintances: our children, wives, husbands, lovers, friends and neighbors – to the tune of thousands each year – in household, auto, playground, school sports, recreation, fire and shooting accidents.

We’re so dangerous, we kill, deliberately, members of our own species in the thousands each year – in the commission of crimes, in law enforcement activity, in military actions, in deliberate murders.

We’re so dangerous, we have the power, via nuclear weapons, to wipe out most life on the planet in a single afternoon.

No animal or collection of animals on earth could ever even conceive of the ability to do this. No other creature on Earth could be so unconsciously, unintentionally destructive. Even with full, constant, murderous intent – virtually nonexistent even among predators – no animal could ever hope to equal the dangerous potential of the world-sized monolith which is Man.

The grizzly is in a game which he cannot hope to win, a game which he doesn’t even know he’s in. He can never even comprehend the stakes: that his entire species — and thousands, perhaps millions, of others — is on the line.

What chance does the grizzly have against human beings?

Out of billions of chances for death, out of near certain extinction, he has this one chance for life: that human beings will choose not to bet against him.

— CONTINUED —

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 6 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

Technological Man

Guns. Fire. Helicopters. Radios. Infrared sights. Light-amplifying night scopes. Binoculars. Poisons. Traps. Electrified fences. Bulldozers. Chainsaws. Fishing nets. Maps.

We humans live in a society where we can draw on the accomplishments and assets not only of our own families, not only of our own acquaintances, but the intellectual fruits of literal geniuses for the last ten thousand years.

Call it the realm of Man-to-the-X-power, where human advantages rise into the exponential, to be multiplied together an unknown number of times.

The question becomes, not “what advantages do we have?” but “what advantages do we NOT have?”

An animal has its own fur, teeth and claws, and only what it can pick up by direct experience. It is 100% naked and defenseless except for what it was born with, and what little it can learn with its tiny, disadvantaged brain.

Through technology, we humans have senses that no animal ever had: comic-booky-but-real senses such as X-ray vision, microscopic and telescopic vision. We have even wilder abilities, such as the ability to hear or see radio waves, connecting to remote eyes and ears that work in the air, on and under the sea, even from space.

On a more everyday level, we can go out in the wilds for a weekend (instead of being permanent residents), and enjoy the advantages of warm, waterproof fabrics; lightweight, everlasting camp food; warm, dry comfortable places to sleep; shoes and gloves to protect our hands and feet; magnifying and spotting scopes; projectile weapons that are simple and lightweight but extraordinarily deadly; vehicles to travel faster than any land animal can run (and also far enough that we can hunt animals thousands of miles from our home range); fire for cooking or lighting or warming; flashlights and lanterns to free us from the confines of daylight; knives with razor edges, sharper than any tooth or claw – and all of it made for us and all of it obtainable with money earned from the tiniest fraction of our daily labor.

A worthless corporate lawyer – someone who cannot even butter a piece of toast on his own – can pay a few hours’ pocket change from his parasitic profession to outfit him instantly with rifle, camp gear and guides. He can depart his Washington, D.C. office on Friday afternoon and be out killing African lions on Saturday.

What chance does our card-playing grizzly have now? Lend him human intelligence for a moment and he might sit wide-eyed with his pair of twos, beginning to realize the terrifying, one-sided truth of his situation. Across from him sits not a single opponent, but an opponent backed up by a host of other men – not just ordinary simpletons like you and I, but brilliant men, geniuses, the best and the brightest and the most accomplished, tens of thousands of  years of inventors and discoverers and creators and captains of manufactury – each standing ready with a technological ace, until our human card player’s hand would overrun with them.

Hyperlinked Man

Like a hypertext document which allows you to click on a link and get a pop-up layer of additional information and meaning, individual humans are connected by hyperlinks to practically the whole of western civilization.

This fact is most evident in the field of information sharing, but human compassion comes a close second. Every person in our culture lives within a complex web of hyperlinks – communication and rescue apparatus assembled to give teeth to our feeling for our fellows.

Drop an 18-month-old girl down a well, as happened in Midland, Texas in October of 1987, and within hours tens of millions of people become tearfully aware of it. Great numbers of volunteers responded personally, backed up by millions of dollars of immediate aid and rescue equipment. “Baby Jessica” McClure was pulled to the surface after 58 hours of effort, and in the ensuing joy at her survival, gifts of money and toys arrived from all over the world.

In 1994, a 40-year-old jogger, Barbara Shoener, was found dead and partially eaten by a mountain lion. Though no one witnessed the attack, it was reported as such – and millions of people knew of it within 24 hours. A vigorous political campaign was mounted within a short time to re-establish sport killing of these menacing predators. It might have cost even more millions of dollars, and it did engage the attention of a large fraction of California voters for months.

Perversely, if that same death had been caused by a domestic cow or a pet dog – both of which happened numerous times in that same year, not just in California but all over the world – the case would receive zero publicity, and no urgent action.

Every person, in this country at least, lives in a web of hyperlinks which includes a safety net of potentially violent, armed, vengeful protectors: police officers, Fish and Game officers, professional trappers and bounty hunters, and even well-armed unofficial volunteers riding out with visions of Wyatt Earp in their heads.

With no effort on the part of the victim, social hyperlinks automatically activate police, fire and search-and-rescue efforts, medical experts, flight resources, and outpourings of compassionate offers to help, console or avenge.

More than this, if we are injured in the wilds, we have a complex network of medical and surgical marvels that will instantly spring into action to repair us or nurse us back to health. A human can literally have his guts ripped open, yet thanks to medical hyperlinks, be walking around on his own power in a matter of weeks or months.

In July of 2001, 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast suffered a shark attack on a Florida beach, in which his arm was bitten off and swallowed by a 7 foot long bull shark. After being given blood to replace the loss of almost all of his own, and having his arm reattached in a 12-hour operation – his uncle wrestled the shark to shore, where it was shot and the arm retrieved – he is alive today. Yes, he suffered significant brain damage from the attack and the ensuing blood loss. The point is not that he recovered fully, but that he lives at all.

An animal that sustained a tenth the damage would be dead within minutes or hours, or at most days. A broken bone is a minor, outpatient matter for humans. We are repaired and sent home, where we suffer worst of all from the boredom of inactivity (or maybe the family’s reaction to our ceaseless whining!). Picture the likely outcome from the same broken bone in a mountain lion, bear or bird: death, death, inevitable death.

Finally, help for victims of natural disasters may come from half-way around the world, it may come at uncountable cost, it may involve everybody from schoolchildren with their pennies and crayon letters to world leaders with grand armies, billions of dollars and shiploads of grain.

Do we need to say it again? Are we tired yet of hearing “no other animal on earth”?

Now our gambling grizzly has to contend not only with the winning hand of his human opponent, not only with the scores of cheerleaders and distracters that stand around poking and pinching him, not only with the ghostly presence and advantage of ten thousand years of human genius, but with a battery of microphones, cellphones and cameras recording and transmitting his every move, eagerly poised to summon an armed cadre of grizzly exterminators if he should play the wrong card.

By no means has every human advantage been mentioned here. In individual advantages and in every conceivable combination, there are simply too many to list. We have the capacity for thoughtful patience, for instance, that few other animals can match – patience that spans hours, days, years. We have the ability to tolerate immense numbers of ourselves, so that we can reproduce virtually unchecked. We happily breed year round (woo-hoo!), and we protect our young with a vicious zeal unmatched in the natural world.

We also have the inestimable advantage of projective forethought, an ability to plan, coupled with all our other advantages, that amounts to the virtual creation of future conditions. Compared to human planning and foresight, a squirrel gathering nuts for winter is a ludicrous cartoon.

— CONTINUED —

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 5 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

Man Plus

How often do human beings come in quantities of one? Certainly a lot of us can feel lonely at times, but we do that even when surrounded by scores of our fellows. Actually being completely alone in today’s world is really not that easy to accomplish. It is almost always the result of conscious choice – and great effort and expense – on the part of the camper, hiker, or cyclist, and usually doesn’t last more than a few hours or days.

At all other times, we come in pairs, threesomes, quintets, hundreds, thousands.

The human animal is tribal, both a herd animal and a pack hunter.

So far, we’ve talked mainly about the advantages of the individual human. Put that individual human in his proper place, though – in the midst of his tribe – and we enter the domain of Man Plus, where a whole new layer of advantages comes into play.

Cooperation

Humans cooperate with each other. Conceiving and refining plans for hunting in a way that no animal could, they combine their intelligence to plan ways to outwit not just individual prey animals but the entire prey animal species. They find ways to conquer the very nature of the animal.

Understanding the basic psychology of the creature, they see the shortcomings of the whole species and use the knowledge to defeat the species for all time. They work together to conquer the nature of the horse, and it becomes a riding animal forever after. They cooperate to conquer the nature of the wild bovine and it becomes a permanent possession, a trouble-free source of meat, milk and leather.

More than intellectual assets are multiplied by cooperation. Every single one of the gifts named so far is multiplied in its effect by men working together. Pyramids, cities, walls a thousand miles long, huge industries of capturing and using animals – or converting their territory into farmland – become possible.

Cooperation and Compassion

Humans have strong feelings for others of their species. Not just for family members, as in most animals – in humans, total strangers reap the benefits of our fellow-feeling. Dynamic lines of passion and compassion flow between us, in a way that mountain lions and bears can never experience … or benefit from. In humans, it can happen that a complete stranger will, without thinking, compassionately put himself in mortal danger to save another. Add in the element of love between the endangered and the rescuer and superhuman efforts become possible, even likely.

If you’re a toothy beastie out there on the edge of the forest, human cooperation and compassion are a huge and dangerous combination. A single child endangered by a predator might result in an open-ended pogrom to eliminate that predator. Not just to kill the one dangerous individual, but to kill every member of the species. Witness the example of California’s Golden Bear, a unique species of grizzly, the last living example of which was cheerfully shot to death in 1922.

Cooperation and Specialization

Every wild animal must be a complete survival mechanism within itself. It must be its own hunter, its own fully-equipped parent, its own nurse. By comparison, even in primitive man there may have been those who knew not a thing about gathering, and who even took pride in the fact. Others may have known nothing about hunting, perhaps even have been forbidden to know and practice the techniques of the kill.

Generally speaking, every adult animal must duplicate the survival efforts of every other. Although some social animals can specialize within their herds or hives (one sex handling the bulk of the hunting as in African lion prides, for instance, or specialized workers handling food gathering or defense as in ants), for the most part each animal has to handle every detail of its own survival.

Yet in his cooperative tribe, Man can specialize so much that certain human individuals can become virtually helpless on their own, even for some of the most basic necessities.

Humans can specialize in any aspect of survival, while other humans handle everything else. The power of specialization is not so much the particular survival-related field that any one person chooses – it is the fact that an unlimited number of other people are handling each and every other aspect of survival for that person.

There are people on this planet who have never done so much as picked and eaten a wild berry – much less attempted to clothe or defend or otherwise feed themselves. Any animal which attempted such a laid-back lifestyle would be dead within days.

Humans can take specialization even one step further from having a single survival-related specialty: consistently backed up by all these other survival specialists, individual humans can, in fact, choose to specialize in fields totally unrelated to survival – being a spoiled rich brat, a beauty queen, a lawyer or televangelist – or even in fields which are in some ways directly opposed to survival – a bull rider or racecar driver.

Memory and Lore

Humans, especially those native peoples we label “primitives” – who, rather than primitive, happen instead to be extreme sophisticates at relating to and surviving in the ecosystem in which they live – have a highly-developed body of stories, instructions and teachings. As mentioned earlier, this body of information is passed among themselves and down to each new generation, and every human learns to survive and prosper in thousands of varied situations and conditions.

By comparison, every single animal that ever lived had the intellectual and physical assets of one or two, or at most a small herd of, its relatives.

Most animals can pick up so little from any other animal, even their mothers, that they can do little more than learn how to find forage or prey animals, hopefully to survive just long enough to find a safe den and a mate before they die. If everything goes right and they succeed at surviving to adulthood – as the majority of siblings or herdmates probably will not – they still have exactly one chance in a lifetime to make a major mistake.

Sadly, due to the lack of human intellectual and social advantages, the example of their mistake might still be lost forever to their species compatriots – even if the entire herd stands watching every second of their unfortunate end. Humans, on the other hand, will be eagerly passing on the lurid story ten generations later.

Numbers

Our numbers are huge and growing. Place my mythical Face Eater on a trail and start marching humans towards him to have their heads bitten off one by one. He’d die of exhaustion before one small town’s-worth of men were used up.

Once again visit the metaphorical grizzly’s card game, and we see even more clearly the plight of the beast: the grizzly sits alone on his side of the table with his pair of twos. The human, on the other hand, enjoys the advantage not just of his royal flush, but of a score of helpers and cheerleaders to advise him, as well as to tattle on the grizzly’s hand, to pinch and distract and threaten and shout at the bear as he tries to make his near-hopeless play. And waiting in the wings are seven billion new opponents.

Are we done yet in exploring man’s advantages over our gambling grizzly? Not by – pun intended – a long shot.

— CONTINUED —

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 4 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

Diet

Ah, now wimpy little Man begins to really come into his own. Wouldn’t you just know that our ancestors, who didn’t seem to be good at much else compared to the other big beasties, would at least be good at eating?

In fact, they were, and we are. We humans can eat everything from raw plants to long-rotten meat, and just about anything in between. We have versatile dentition that can cut, crush and grind, and an even more versatile digestive tract to go along with it.

Advantage? A darned big one.

We eat roots, seeds, nuts, fruit, bark, leaves, stems and tubers.

We eat birds, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, worms and both the larval and adult forms of insects. (I once told a natural history buff friend that the only type of creature I could think of that people didn’t eat was arachnids, and he promptly told me that the Yanomamo people in Brazil and the Piroa tribesmen of Venezuela include certain large spiders in their diet. Yuck.)

When it comes to edible mammals, we can make a meal out of everything from the skin of its nose to the last kink of its tail.

We eat things from the tops of trees, we eat things we dig up from under the ground. We eat things from the land, we eat things that fly, we eat things from rivers, lakes and oceans. We eat the biggest things – elephants and whales. We eat the smallest things – micro-organisms such as yeasts and molds – in our beer, wine, bread, cheese and yogurt. We eat fungi such as mushrooms.

We can eat things raw. We can eat them cooked. With proper care, we can consume foods from temperatures below freezing to those steaming hot.

Yes there are plenty of plants, a great number of them, that humans can’t eat due to the presence of toxins or indigestible substances. The fact remains that we’re not just omnivores, we’re amazingly gifted omnivores.

When it comes to eating, we’re more versatile than rats – and a helluva lot more voracious. By rights, the human animal should have its own unique designation – rather than “omnivore,” maybe we should be called “megavore” – the animal that consumes anything and everything.

Hands and Arms

Here’s yet another big advantage on Man’s side of the table.

Even if we had few of the other assets named here, human hands and the complex and versatile limbs to which they are attached would still convey an immense competitive advantage.

Hands allow us to tie, tear, twist, throw, push, pound, pinch, pick, rub, roll, choke, squeeze, sew, shake, swing, swim, strike, stroke, dig, drag, drop, weave, wring, bend, break, carry, climb and club. To say nothing of caress and hold.

Hands can be deadly weapons, too. At the age of 27 in 1950, karate master Masutatsu Oyama killed a charging bull with his bare hands. He repeated the stunt 46 more times. (Irreverently, I picture Mas Oyama as a young man forced into the family business, karate, when what he really wanted was to open a chain of meat markets.)

No other animal on the planet can do all these things.

Versatile Intelligence

Here’s another biggie – possibly THE biggie. This is the advantage we crow about. The one we’re proud of, the one that separates Us from Them.

Our intelligence is so well known that it would be a waste to belabor the point. With our big human brains we can plan, learn, think, imagine, remember, calculate, communicate and invent. And not only can we benefit from our own experience, even our most primitive tribal brothers can benefit from an accumulation of human experience that spans generations.

Tigers occasionally attack people from behind in India. Locals discovered a surprisingly effective deterrent: simply wear a facelike mask on the back of the head. Hardwired into being an ambush-type predator, most tigers see the face and are undone. Not only are they not well able to alter their hunting plan to include attacking an otherwise defenseless animal which happens to be facing them, they also have trouble learning that the mask is not a face.

Being unable to acquire the knowledge in the first place, it goes without saying that they’re not well-equipped to pass that knowledge along to other tigers.

Human intelligence and its application are hugely advanced, beyond anything any other creature can manage.

Gifts in Concert

In evaluating advantages large and small, it’s worth making the point that none of our assets exists in isolation. If we really want to make a fair evaluation of relative advantage, we simply can’t consider any one of our assets all on its own.

Add hands to superior intelligence and you end up with the competitive advantage of tools: snares and fire and blades.

Add binocular vision to hands and you get hand-eye coordination that allows accurate throwing of rocks and sticks. Toss in inventive intelligence and you get bows and arrows and other superbly accurate projectile weapons.

Join naked skin and hands and intelligence and you get the ability to occupy virtually any environment on earth. Thanks to our naked skin and the ability to use our entire surface area for evaporative cooling, for instance, we can remain extremely active even in very hot environments. Thanks to the intelligence and manipulative ability that makes us able to cover that naked skin with ever-thicker furs, we can also live in some of the coldest parts of the world.

Combine endurance and fair night vision with the above and you get a predator that can hunt continuously from the pre-dawn hours, into the heat of the day, to twilight and beyond – in summer, spring, fall or winter – on almost any continent.

Add pretty good eyesight to superior intelligence and you get superb pattern recognition. Couple our binocular color vision with the fact that we’re smart enough to understand the concept of camouflage, and we can see through any animal’s protective (or deceptive) coloration. Citified duffer that I am, I once spotted a bull elk at more than a hundred yards in heavy cover, by picking out the tiny spot of its light-colored rump from the visual confusion of surrounding vegetation.

Our assets combine with each other in ways that would have to be considered more than simply additive. Put them all together or in any combination and you get a very, very large body of advantage. Even if you were being immoderately modest, you’d still have to say that we humans are extremely gifted sonsabitches.

Compared to Man in all his glorious complexity, every other animal on earth is disadvantaged.

In fact, out in the real world, the story set-up of Poor Little Man against Big Terrible Grizzly is so incredibly lame that it’s practically a fairy tale for the mentally handicapped – notwithstanding the full-color painting of the ten-foot-tall-grizzly-in-full-attack-mode on the magazine cover, with every tooth and claw showing.

Place a hypothetical grizzly down at the metaphorical card table with a human opponent and what really happens is that Nature seldom deals the grizzly anything more than a pair of twos; the Man gets a royal flush almost every time.

Lurid hunting magazine covers to the contrary, there is ample reason to believe it is very seldom any different.

Having made this point, it might seem like beating a broken drum to go on. But in fact, a true picture of the advantages of humans over animals is still quite a bit further up the descriptive road.

There are orders of magnitude yet to go.

— CONTINUED —

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 3 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

Smell, Hearing and Taste

We won’t find any advantages here. Pity poor Man, all domesticated and dumbed down so that his wild senses, if ever he had any good ones, are now blunted and tamed.

All the other animals, with their razor-sharp sensory gifts beat us all to hell in this area. Even without the ever-present threat of slinking, silent predators, we seem barely well enough equipped to keep from poisoning ourselves with dangerous plants, bad water or tainted meat.

Yet …

We can hear well enough to pick out the individual notes of a single instrument, whether in a soothing symphony or a raging rock song. Could that same inborn talent be used in the primitive wilds to detect the sounds of predators or prey, perhaps even against a noisy jungle background?

We can taste and smell well enough, some of us – which means the ability is innate in the human animal – to tell the difference between consecutive years of the exact same wine. Is that ability the sophisticated remnant of senses formerly tuned to the detecting of edible plants, of drinkable water, or even the safety of scavenged meat?

Whatever the answer, somehow – in a time when dangerous predators ruled the earth – somehow the little human nebbish seems to have squeaked by. Even with his flat nose and his little wrinkled immobile ears, he made it here to this safe modern time.

Vision

Again, poor little Man. Against the legendary visual gifts of the hawk or the eagle, compare the dim human vision of our species. We struggle myopically in the wildlands, stumbling along a well-marked trail while all around us animals spy on us, marking our clumsy progress with amusement.

Well, at least give points for our ability to see color, which is not universal among our four-legged compeers. Say a few good words about our forward-aimed binocular vision that gives a pretty fair measure of depth and distance in our environment. And though we can’t match the night sight of specifically nocturnal animals, our eyes do adapt relatively quickly to low light levels, allowing us to function with some confidence on any clear night. Plus, our eyes rest fairly high on our spindly upright frame, giving us a distance advantage, sight-wise, on those with eyes closer to the earth.

Size and Strength

Any schoolchild can name animals larger than humans: whales, lions, elephants, bears, rhinos. Size could certainly not be much of an advantage for humans. It would have to be said to weigh somewhat heavily against man’s continued survival, wouldn’t you think?

Unless, that is, you call the roll of ALL the animals on earth, and discover that humans are actually well up in the top one percent. We are, in fact, fairly large creatures.

Maybe this does nothing, however, but make us just that much bigger a chunk of meat on some predator’s table.

Longevity

Compared to most other animals, we live a really long time. Science writer Isaac Asimov once penned an essay about man’s longevity. He compared the lifespans of various animals by the total number of heartbeats in an average specimen’s lifetime. Whether mice or dogs or deer, most mammals seem to live about a billion heartbeats long. Yet at 60 beats per minute (my own heart rate is usually higher than that) a 70-year-old human has lived more than two billion.

Big deal. Tortoises live a long time with their own slow-beating hearts — but in human terms it doesn’t seem to do them much good. Other than the ability to think dull reptile thoughts for even longer periods of time, can longevity make any real difference?

Well, admittedly, we fragile humans have the ability to learn about our environment, and to pass along that knowledge to others of our tribe. Living in mutually-supporting tribal groups as we have for most of our history, maybe a learned elder, there to teach and help care for youngsters, would provide enough of an advantage to his small tribe that they were able to stave off extinction by a tiny margin each time. Generations of such elders, passing along hard-won knowledge, might add even a tad bit more to the survival side of the scale.

Add in that part of our longevity is a period of fertility measured in decades – three-plus on the female side, to a conceivable six for the male.

Yet could either of these be “Man’s special something,” the whatever-it-is that kept us alive this long? It’s not enough, is it?

Endurance

We have the capacity for remarkable endurance. Line up all the land animals on earth for a marathon footrace, and very few would be able to make it past the first few miles. Wolves and horses and a few other critters would be there at the finish line, and not many others. But Man would be.

Advantage?

Well, yes. Endurance works at any speed – humans don’t have to be running to benefit from greater endurance. In pursuing prey, getting out of range of predators, escaping fire, moving away from diminished hunting range, or many other situations that can be imagined – just sitting down and working for hours and hours each day, for instance, something no other predator does – it would have to be considered an advantage.

Okay, we can grudgingly admit to a second small advantage.

But aren’t there at least a few really big ones?

— CONTINUED —

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 2 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

 

… Okay, it never happened.

I did stand under the streetlight on that lonely highway, right enough. After hours of waiting, I began to study the darkness around me, projecting my fears into it, and as I began to think more and more of things that might lurk out there, I gradually froze into spooked immobility. Though I never saw or heard the merest evidence that anything was out there, I stood locked in place, imagining everything from my rocketing, deadly Face Eater to a pack of rabid wolves, from the eighteen foot tall mutant killer bear I’d see in a movie to a horde of screaming, red-eyed baboons, escaped from some cheap carnival and out for blood.

Locked into the recursive reverberation of my own imaginings, I scared myself at nothing. I allowed florid, fictional images to fill my mind and echo back and forth, growing until I could no longer even think.

Betting Against the Grizzly

Thanks to movie-makers, hunting magazines, and purveyors of other kinds of pop entertainment, whenever we hear talk comparing Man the Animal with other creatures, poor Man usually comes out a weak and fragile nebbish, stuck out in the dangerous wilds, scared and alone. He sits down at Nature’s card game with his measly pair of Jacks (his intelligence), and a host of massive, befanged predators snicker at him over paws full of aces: claws, razor teeth, rocketing speed, eagle eyes, merciless instincts wired to unpredictable rage and a hunger for flesh.

The lurid cover story in a hunting magazine stacks the defenseless little Man against a grizzly. The friendly, harmless human – it might be your own uncle, out for a walk – is introduced in folksy language. Soon the deadly griz enters the tale, big as a Sherman tank and mean as a biker on angel dust. Weights are compared. Strength is described. The number and size of teeth come into the story, and the length of claws.

The fear builds. The hapless human is just out for a little harmless recreation, but the deadly dangerous, unbeatable monster of a grizzly has every murderous intention of stalking, horribly killing, and slowly, over a number of days, consuming the bloody carcass of the poor little Man.

And there’s no doubt it has happened. Wild animals don’t keep records, but humans certainly do. Wikipedia’s entry on bear attacks lists close to 60 fatal attacks by brown bears in the U.S. since the 1870s, with an additional 53 by black bears and seven more by polar bears. (Scarily personal, the list includes someone I actually knew: Tim Treadwell.)

A comparison of griz and man certainly is eyebrow-raising. Though continental grizzlies come in at an already-impressive 900 pounds or so, the tabloid-fodder Alaskan brown bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi, might tip the scales at 1500 pounds and be nine feet long. It  can run at 30 or more miles an hour, propelled across the ground on paws equipped with six inch claws. Its hungry mouth is equipped with fangs inches long.

Compare this to an adult male human, who’d weigh in around 200 pounds. Feeble little fingernails. Flat nubbins of teeth. And not a hope in hell of outrunning this souped-up freight train with fur.

We live today in a pretty safe world. Back in the era of the literally-naked savage, not only did we have nothing in the way of machine-era technology – no weapons that didn’t depend on our own muscle power – but the predators were bigger. Imagine living in North America with the sabertoothed cat and the short-faced bear (think of a grizzly on steroids with some thoroughbred racehorse genes thrown in for speed), or the great variety of predators elsewhere in the world – creatures fiercer, more varied, more numerous, and probably much less afraid of us than anything alive today.

It seems a stroke of wild, improbable luck that we survived to the modern day. What, really, could account for it? Do we have any advantages at all, compared to wild animals? Can we tease out any single trait, other than blind luck, that kept us alive this long?

— CONTINUED —

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