Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Humanising the Inhuman

This morning, I was swooped a few times by an aggressive magpie. I was frightened. Flying creatures aren’t scary to me by default. Most of the time I’m perfectly happy with the existence of birds, moths, etc. It’s when they fly near my face that I really start to freak out. I might even be able to trace the fear back to some one trial conditioning event where some facial cavity got dusty. But anyway, after swatting at this thing with the book I was carrying for a few seconds, I began to run. Once there was a reasonable distance between us, I began swearing at the magpie, saying how much I hated it, and how much of a dickhead it was in general. Not only was this a waste of time, but I was completely wrong. Not in the way you might think though. The magpie wasn’t a kind, but ugly and often misunderstood magpie who was perhaps asking me for directions, discussing football results or asking me to pick up some ‘naughty’ salted cashews from the shops I was heading to. No, as you can imagine, the magpie was deliberately trying to scare me away to defend its children. The mistake I made was to give in to the illusion of human agency after the chase. The magpie was an animal, and acting on an instinct. As another animal with more or less functional perception faculties, I responded with the supposedly appropriate instinct.
Antagonising the magpie just adds to the frustration.
As arbitrarily assigning motives to creatures is rather unreasonable, I really hate doing it, and I’m certainly not the only one to do it. The best way to get a really good example is to get somebody to watch a documentary on wildlife of some description. The reactions to some of the predator/prey scenes in these films seem amusingly reminiscent of soap opera commentary. For example, take a scene of a shark attacking a small seal. How many times have you heard (or indeed said) “Aaargh! Go man, go! Run away!! Get away from him, you fishy sonofabitch!”? Many will accuse the shark of a complete lack of civility and humanity. Even think that the shark is evil somehow. The obvious issue is that the shark is just a big fish acting on instinct. It’s chasing the seal purely to eat and subsist. Not harvesting the seal hearts to power its giant super-charged shitstorm gun atop Mt. Nasty. People even take the pet thing too far. I was speaking to someone who claimed that while they were apathetic towards politics, Mr. Puppynubs the Budgie was rather unhappy with the election results. Why is that urge there? We have 6.8 billion people to perceive as character-rich free agents, and yet we won’t be truly satisfied until we add a few trillion to swear at or get to vote for us. One theory suggests that this tendency is a by-product of our evolved ability to sense intention in threatening animals. Like magpies. But when we start yelling at animals on the television or decorating our Christmas cards with photos of the family cat in small hats it all becomes way too much. Please don’t mistake this for an emotional separation from the animals. Many other animals experience emotions like humans do, and what really makes us different is a more sophisticated system of awareness and thought. Compassion for living creatures is fine and natural, but trying to slot the seal and shark into the constraints of human morals (which might not even be applicable to the entire human race and only to one culture) is very inappropriate, and denies the dignity that animals deserve. And you’d best respect a shark when he’s up in his castle plotting your doom and creating his malevolent legion of atomic cheese sticks. What makes this whole situation worse is that we don’t reserve this crap for animals. Inanimate objects cop more than their share too. We hate computers that ‘refuse’ to boot up or keys that ‘decide’ to remain lost. We swear at the sun and praise the cloud that obscures it. Maybe all of this is a sign that we need a little more human contact in our lives. Feeling in touch with animals and nature can bring plenty of happiness and peace. Pretending that all of those aspects are human in some way will only serve to offer us delusions of sociability and species superiotiny… superioritt… fuck! Fuckin’ dumbarse keyboard!