Author’s Note: Written a few years back, this is a chapter of a future book. It’s copyrighted, so if you like it, please, rather than reproducing it elsewhere, send people here to read it. Thanks! © Hank Fox, 2011
Oh, yeah: I would love to hear what you think of it. Feel free to comment!
This is the Lie
Back in my hitchhiking adventure days, I stood one night under a streetlight on a deserted highway outside a city in West Texas, waiting for a car to stop and give me a ride. Waiting, actually, even for a car to come along. Eventually there in the dark, I hadn’t seen one for more than an hour.
An overcast sky and the dirty air of civilization killed even the stars overhead. Surrounded by an ocean of blackness, I stood in a tiny lifeboat of luminance. A tepid breeze wafted over the dried landscape, rattling papery leaves and litter across the road in front of me. As I stood in the weak, orange puddle of light, something about the dead-feeling air created an ominous absence of sound in the surrounding dark.
After a while, I stood riveted there in the lengthening night, listening with the first beginnings of dread to that threatening silence. My backpack lay leaning against the base of the streetlight, a bright friendly yellow which should have been comforting somehow, but which I knew it contained no weapon, no shield from what I was coming to imagine waited out there.
Whether it was a noise or a smell too subtle to consciously notice, suddenly, somehow, I knew that there was something there, lurking just beyond the sharp circle of light. I caught odd musky whiffs on the breeze – maybe I was smelling its predator’s breath, or the rank odor of its fur as it circled around me and passed momentarily upwind. In the middle of the chitter-chatter of leaves on the pavement, I fancied I could hear its claws clicking on rocks as it circled and stalked in the dead zone just out of my sight.
The safety of the nearest trees was easily 30 yards away, in the dark, and the streetlight pole was smooth and featureless, impossible to climb. I huddled against the pole, circled it, peering out into the night, wishing for a rock to throw, or even a flashlight to blind whatever might be out there.
Yet the instant I turned my back on the blackness that lined the road, I heard a pebble click a dozen yards away, then another closer by a third, and another closer still, so rapid they were almost a single sound: tickticktick. Gripped by sheer terror, I crouched and whirled in place to see whatever scary thing might be coming at me out of the night – yet I still had time for only the first gasping intake of breath before the creature drove its razored talons clear into my lungs and heart, and its needle-lined jaws bit my face completely off.
…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 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, just 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. Robert H. Bush reported in Grizzly Almanac that in the lower 48 states, 14 people have died from grizzly attacks since 1900. In Alaska, a whopping two dozen fatalities have been recorded in the last 100 years.
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 might weigh in at 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 a few 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 brainless luck, that kept us alive this long?
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 “instincts” beat us all to hell in this area. Even without the ever-present threat of predators, we seem barely well enough equipped to keep from poisoning ourselves with dangerous plants, bad water or tainted meat.
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.
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 all that common among our four-legged compeers. Say a few good words about our 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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 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 produce for us beer, wine, bread, cheese and yogurt. We also eat fungi such as mushrooms.
We can eat things raw. We can eat them cooked. With proper care, we can consume our 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.
Here’s another biggie – possibly THE biggie. This is the advantage we’re willing to publicly admit to ourselves. This is the one we’re most proud of, the one that separates us from them. We crow about this one.
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. The locals have discovered a surprisingly effective deterrent: simply wear a facelike mask on the back of the head. Hardwired into being an ambush-type predator, the tigers see the face and are undone. Not only can they not 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 also are unable to pass that knowledge along to other tigers.
Human intelligence and its application is orders of magnitude 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 continously 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.
Every other animal on earth is disadvantaged in comparison to Man in all his complex glory.
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 any 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.
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 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.
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 dangerous individual, but to kill every other member of its species. Witness the example of California’s Golden Bear, a unique species of grizzly, the last living example of which was 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. Yet in his cooperative tribe, Man can specialize so much that individual humans can become almost totally helpless on their own for even the most basic things.
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.
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 we label the “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.
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 six (coming up on seven) billion new opponents.
Are we done yet in exploring man’s advantages over our gambling grizzly? Not by – pun intended – a long shot.
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 ManX, where the advantages of Man rise into the exponential, and are 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 ten thousand 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 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 day’s 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 the veldt 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.
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 technology 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 voters in California for months. Perversely, if that same death had been caused by a domestic cow or a pet dog – both of which happened numerous times, not just in California but all over the world, in that same year – the case would receive zero publicity, and relatively minor 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, groups of well-armed unofficial volunteers riding out with visions of Wyatt Earp or The Terminator in their heads.
With no effort on the part of the victim, social hyperlinks automatically activate police and 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, conceivably be walking around on his own power in less than a year.
As I write this, an eight-year-old boy, Jessie Arbogast, is recovering from a July 6, 2001 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 – his uncle wrestled the shark to shore, where it was shot and the arm retrieved – he is showing signs of consciousness. The point is not that he is expected to recover fully, but that he lives at all.
An animal that sustained a tenth the damage would be dead within hours, or at most days. A broken arm 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 or a bear or a 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 so far in this chapter. 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 have the great advantage of projective forethought, an ability to plan that amounts to the virtual creation of future conditions. A squirrel gathering nuts for winter is a ludicrous cartoon compared to the planning faculty of a human.
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 hazard and exertion. 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 be forced to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle, or whether we should be forced 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 fierce creatures 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 the covers of hunting magazines 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, 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, etc.) which will kill completely on their own, at random, 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 or 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.
This is the Truth
In my hunting days, I was headwaiter at a seafood restaurant in Mammoth Lakes, California. 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 out of Mammoth that would lead me into good hunting country, far away from the lazy, clumsy road-hunters who swarmed the roadside 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 about half an hour, then welcomed the moon like a sunrise on the rocky trails. I hiked 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 near 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…uh… 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 twenty thousand years 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.
© 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.