4.2 Our Ecological Niche

Space station.jpg

It is necessary for us to correctly answer the "Who Are We?" question, at least from a purely biological sense so that we can put the puzzle pieces together on the much more important "Why Are We Here?" question later on. Fortunately, this task isn't so difficult if we focus on what makes our species unique biologically. That is, what are the unique skills that we possess which can be deployed to help the planet's ecosystems thrive? Biologically, we know that we are close cousins to primates and that we share a substantial portion of our genetic code with almost every complex life form on the planet. We know that we are an agglomeration of human cells but our bodies also house ten times as many foreign microbial cells as human cells. Since the mitochondria in human cells are bacterial in origin, each of us is literally a cooperative microbial colony that experiences an integral consciousness and agency.

We also know who we are in terms of sense perceptions and physical abilities. We are really quite an ordinary mammal species; we don't see too well, we don't hear too well, we don't smell too well, we don't climb too well and we don't run too well. Other non-human beings have us handily beat in each of these sensory and motor skills.

Eagles, hawks and buzzards have a sense of sight that is 3-4 times sharper than ours. A buzzard can track a small rodent from a height of 15000 feet and dive at 100mph while keeping the rodent in constant focus[8].

The Greater Wax Moth has a sense of hearing that ranges 15 times higher than ours. While humans can hear sounds up to a frequency of 20KHz, the moth can hear sounds up to a frequency of 300KHz! This enables the moth to hear a bat's sonar signals and thus, escape from becoming the bat's breakfast[9].

Bloodhounds have a sense of smell that is ten million to one hundred million times more sensitive than our sense of smell. Bears have a sense of smell that is seven times more acute than that of bloodhounds[10]!

The Alpine Ibex can easily climb up near vertical surfaces for grazing and for evading predators, while we have a hard time emulating even our close cousins, the bonobos, in climbing up trees[11].

The peregrine falcon can travel at speeds of 240mph, almost nine times faster than Usain Bolt's top recorded speed of 28mph. Among land animals, the cheetah clocks in at over 60mph, the lion at over 50mph, the tiger and the hyena at around 40mph, and all of them are routinely much faster than the fastest human ever and therefore, perfectly capable of capturing Mr. Bolt and turning him into a meal if he was not protected by the technological defenses of our human civilization[12].

The early days of our human ancestors must have been spent in constant fear of predators. We were strong only when we were together, but when alone, we were easy prey. For we, humans, were easy to catch, didn't have claws and were quite defenseless until we learnt to fashion spears and other weapons to help us fight predators from a distance. Indeed, it is now known that the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all currently living human beings, the Mitochondrial Eve, is only 100,000-200,000 years old, which means that the descendants of all other female contemporaries of our Mitochondrial Eve did not survive into the present[13]. Therefore, it must have been a really tough, terror-stricken life for our early human ancestors.

Thus our human species was born into fear within an environment that was literally red in tooth and claw. It was fear and the quest for survival that shaped early human behavior and which has been coded into our cultural memory through our ancestors. From the very beginning, fear, specifically fear of death, was our default emotional state with love and compassion as an exception, instead of the other way around. But all that we now consider to be evil is rooted in this same fear for we have been undergoing a steady transition away from this primordial fear towards love and compassion.

The principles of Yoga assert that fear is the root emotion for our disconnection from our true selves. It traps our life energies in our base “chakra”. That in order for us to become truly successful in our pursuit of happiness, we must let go of fear, guilt, shame, grief, lies, illusions and earthly attachments, in that order, as we ascend in our spiritual development towards enlightenment, our personal moral singularity. To accomplish that, it helps not to be ensconced in a socioeconomic system that is fundamentally rooted in fear!

But our birth in such a fearful environment was necessary to help hone the intelligence of our species. The survivors of the pre-civilizational carnage must have become self-selected for intelligence, for it is only the most intelligent of our species that could have escaped the fearsome predators of that early era. We see the same phenomenon occurring in other non-human beings today. From the hunted, we humans have become the hunters, killing coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions and other predators en masse in order to protect our expansive livestock herds. In the process, the wild animals and especially, coyotes, have become self-selected to be incredibly intelligent to the point where they have been consistently outwitting their human hunters over the past few years. Coyote hunting has become a specialist profession and many coyote hunters will attest that if coyotes had opposable thumbs, they would be ruling the world today[14]!

Not only did we become self-selected for intelligence and learned to harness fire, we also formed partnerships with dogs about 50,000 years ago, who lent us their superior sense of smell and hearing in exchange for food[15]. This partnership enhanced the probability of survival of the human species, for a human with a canine companion is far harder to prey upon than a human alone. We also developed an expanded vocabulary of language to communicate with each other, mainly to describe the wider range of foods that were available to us through cooking with fire. But language is a skill that is common to all social species, not just humans. Dolphins have sophisticated languages and so do prairie dogs, lizards, birds and most other non-human beings[16].

Prof. Con Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, has decoded the language of the prairie dog systematically by recording the sounds emitted by the prairie dog sentinel of a prairie dog colony in response to various stimuli. At this point, it is the most sophisticated non-human language ever decoded so far, and it is breathtakingly complex and amazingly efficient[17]. Prof. Slobodchikoff believes that sometime in the future, humans will appreciate the language of other social species and totally understand what they are telling each other and telling us and respond back to them in their own language. Through his careful scientific experiments, he has shown that many non-human beings describe the world around them with words and gestures making language skills a continuum among all species and not just an exception, unique to humans.

If language skills are a continuum among all species, then so is the accumulation of knowledge over generations. This is aptly illustrated by the behavior of elephant herds, flocks of birds and even butterflies and other insects that clearly pass on knowledge of water holes and migration paths from generation to generation.

Therefore, what is unique about humans? What defines us? David Korten said[18],

"We humans are born with a capacity distinctive among Earth’s species to reflect on our own mortality, ponder the meaning of Creation, and ask “Why?” By our answers, we define ourselves, our possibilities, and our place in the cosmos."

But the trouble is that we haven't yet satisfactorily answered the "Why?" question. Indeed, if anything, we humans are distinctive among Earth's species, not for knowing our place in the cosmos, but for not knowing it. The elephant herds of the Western Ghats have us handily beat in that regard. Besides, we can't really tell what the elephant herds in the Western Ghats are truly thinking, either. What if they have already answered David Korten's "Why?" question since they clearly know their place in forest ecosystems and are now asking a different "Why?" question, as in,  

"Why can't humans stop using our tusks to make trinkets and leave us in peace so that we fulfill our possibilities, and our place in the cosmos?"

Indeed, Charles Darwin wrote about 150 years ago that[19],

"The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind."

But despite Darwin's observation, in the Western perspective, it had remained axiomatic that only humans were conscious beings, while all other non-human beings were assumed to be mechanical, emotionless, unconscious beings, incapable of feeling pain, pleasure or anxieties about the future. But animal behavioral scientists have been knocking down each of these assumptions one by one. Anyone who has ever lived with a dog or a cat would know that they are perfectly capable of emotions, feel pleasure and pain, anxiety and joy. But science depended upon such a mechanistic model of non-human beings in order to justify the live-animal experiments that were necessary for early scientific progress. To this day, many conscientious scientists chafe under the requirement for mandatory live-animal experiments needed for the approval of medical treatments and procedures by government regulatory authorities, for they suspect that those animals being experimented upon have feelings as well. Finally, after centuries of mostly willful ignorance on this issue, a prominent group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists signed the following Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness on July 7, 2012[20]:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

While the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was sweeping, it didn't specifically ascribe consciousness to fishes, crustaceans and insects. But that is likely to change soon. In a recent paper authored by French scientists, it was demonstrated that crayfish exhibit a form of anxiety similar to that described in vertebrates, suggesting the conservation of several underlying mechanisms during evolution[21]. Another recent paper published in the journal, Animal Cognition, showed that[22],

"Fish perception and cognition match or exceed that of other vertebrates… fish compare favorably to humans and other terrestrial vertebrates across a range of intelligence tests."

Western and scientific perspectives are thus becoming more in alignment with dominant Eastern and indigenous perspectives, where it had been accepted for millennia that all Life is conscious from the smallest microbe to the largest of animals. All life forms have evolved to their present state over billions of years and as such, they are all contemporaries of our species on an equal footing. In the Upanishads, it is said that consciousness is in everything and everything is in our consciousness. The Buddha stated 2500 years ago[23],

"All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?"

This acceptance of the consciousness of all Life birthed the concept of Ahimsa, compassion for all Creation or kindness to all Life, in India, a few millennia ago[24]. Therefore, consciousness, far from being unique to humans, appears to be universal and science is beginning to accept that, though grudgingly.

From a purely mechanical perspective, we do know that humans are unique tool builders. While other non-human beings such as crows and higher primates build tools and use them, our controlled use of fire and our opposable thumbs help us to be superlative tool builders. It is the fear of predators that initially drove us to be great tool builders for we needed the spears, the javelins, the bows and arrows in order to fight our predators from a safe distance. Later, it was the fear of other humans that led us to continue developing this tool-making capability for militaristic purposes. As Steve Jobs pointed out[25],

"I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts."

With our tools and technologies, we are able to enhance all our senses to be superior to those of any other species on Earth and thereby, outwit, outpace and outcompete them all. This is how humans came to dominate the Earth and consider themselves "the crown of creation." The birth of our species in an environment of abject terror helped hone our superlative tool building skills. Conversely, our superlative tool building skills has helped us successfully shed all fear of our natural predators, except predators of our own kind. Nevertheless, we continue to admire the predators of the world, the tigers, the lions and the cheetahs. As any safari owner in Africa would tell you, it is the carnivores that attract the tourists, not the herbivores. We admire these predators and strive to emulate them, especially in our diets. It is to support our diets that we perpetrate the vast majority of the institutionalized, deliberate violence towards other beings in our human societies[26].

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accipitridae

[9] http://nyti.ms/1XnUfdj

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodhound

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpine_ibex

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peregrine_falcon

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_Eve

[14] http://bit.ly/1qz1Fxm

[15] Human partnership with dogs formed an evolutionary advantage for humans as explored in Shipman, Pat, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, Belknap Press, March 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0674736764, http://amzn.to/1WIBAKO

[16] Research on Dolphin language is documented at http://www.speakdolphin.com/home.cfm

[17] Slobodchikoff, Con, Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, St. Martin’s Press, Nov 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0312611798, http://amzn.to/1YLFf86

[18]  Quote found in http://www.yesmagazine.org/pdf/kortennewstory.pdf

[19] http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/darwin1.htm

[20] http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

[21] Fossat et al., “Anxiety-like behavior in crayfish is controlled by serotonin,” Science, vol. 344, issue 6189, pp. 1293-1297, Jun 2014, http://bit.ly/2crXH8S

[22] Culum Brown, et al., Fish Cognition and Behavior, Wiley-Blackwell, Aug 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1444332216, http://amzn.to/1YLFjEJ

[23] http://www.teachingsofthebuddha.com/see-yourself-in-others.htm

[24] See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa

[25] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c__DV-Ul9AM

[26] https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/160/9-animals.htm