Sunday, January 28, 2018

Australia Day Could Learn a Lot From a Mexican Snake

In the Yucatan Peninsula in Quintana Roo, Mexico, there is an amazing phenomenon.  In la cueva de las serpientes colgantes (the cave of the hanging serpents), yellow-red rat snakes have developed a distinguishing characteristic.  To catch their airborne food – bats – they affix themselves to the roof of the cave and, during the dusk bat exodus from the cave, they hang from the ceiling and catch the bats as they fly out for their nocturnal escapades.  Whether on the National Geographic videos or the countless YouTube posts – have a look at this amazing spectacle.  As I watch this in rapt wonderment, the following thought occurred to me.  “What if Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) had been emancipated from the Caucasian elitism of the 19th century and had been inspired in La Cueva?”

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe popularized the African proverb, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  A critic of the social consequences of colonialism from his acclaimed Things Fall Apart (1958) to his numerous essays and speeches, Achebe challenges the ethnocentrism of the domineering influences of those self-proclaimed ‘civilized’ by lampooning cultural insensitivity of the same civilized as they desecrate customary practices and traditions.  Like Darwin, Achebe builds his narrative on the pretext of competition born of callous contrast.  Both see a world in which progress is essentially a human aspiration and survival is a selection bias that favors power over all other attributes.  Those with power – intellect, linguistics, brains, brawn, guns, money, ‘gods’ – achieve their dominion by suppressing all ‘others’.  The persistence of a community (deemed “savage” by Darwin) is inferior to the cunning organized predation of the anthropologically adolescent Christian European or American.

What motivated this bigotry and arrogance?  Simple.  If you’re going to expropriate what is necessary to advance your narrow definition of progress, you must dehumanize and belittle those who stand in the way of your unfettered access.  Whether it’s the Celts, Huns, Vandals, Saxons, Goths, Mongols, Aboriginals, Cherokee, Navajo, Sioux, Palestinians, Mayan, Inca, or Rohingya, if you’re the customary residents of a place that the temporal dominant forces deem necessary to sate a selective resource extraction or access point – you’re in the way.  And to justify your dislocation or genocide, a social narrative must be constructed to make you somehow less human than the bully with the megaphone.  To compete is to be living.  To compete unfairly and with abject injustice is ‘civilized human’. 

For much of my life, I’ve experienced the tyranny of perceived scarcity.  I grew up in a world in which ‘the rich and ungodly’ were demonized for their excesses.  I was repeatedly reminded that elitist existentialism was justified by a religious narrative in which selective interpretations of “right” were the prerogative of the few.  I learned that love is divisible rather than infinitely expansive.  I experienced the noxious stench of competition.  In short, my life has been bombarded with classified exclusion.  And I know that the memes that have been in my ecosystem don’t comport with the direct observations I’ve made of systems that work in nature. 

Our dominant cultural metaphors are based on selective extinction.  That which ceases to exist in its temporal phase has “lost” and that which persisted has “won”.  From relationships to resources, progressive survival requires our story of endings and separation with an ascending “winner” prevailing (and telling the story of success).  But what if the following story was also true?

Let’s think about the serpents in the bat cave in Kantemo.  Our dominant narrative says that the snakes prey on the bats.  They’ve adapted to defy gravity in their pursuit of cunning surprise.  But what would be the implications of other versions of the story?   What if:

  1. Bats taught snakes how to suspend themselves from the roof of caves so that they could experience what it’s like to be a bat?
  2. Snakes observed the whole ‘hanging upside-down thing” and practiced it until they perfected the “living in a dark cave” thing?
  3. By eating upside-down hanging bats, the snakes experienced bat “knowledge” and intuited the whole hanging thing?

Now, let me guess.  Option 1 is simply ludicrous.  Species couldn’t share their knowledge.  Option 2 is semi-plausible.  The powers of observation and mimicry can happen…but probably not.  And Option 3 – absolutely batty!  Right?  But hold on for a moment.  If Mikhail Lomonosov and Antoine Lavoisier’s First Law of Thermodynamics is right, what makes the persistence of cognitive energy immune from consumed experienced?  Is the eaten bat entering its serpentine energy phase when it flies into the mouth of the snake?  Is the wildebeest attacked by the lion or is it transitioning from its ruminant belching, cud-eating monotony to its crazy, roaming lion phase?  And does the wildebeest knowledge teach the lion how to catch more of its kind?

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is what is happening.  But I’m asking, what if it was?  Is predation to extinction isomorphic with the way of things or is it our way of justifying our callous inhumanity to our fellow humans?  Does our saprophytic identity offend our sensibilities so much that we have to rationalize faux transcendence over the matter that we render dead and decaying?  Remember, if Darwin was right in his powers of observation, we’d expect all yellow-red rat snakes to hanging about snatching things from mid-air.  But the species doesn’t.  The ones in the cave do! 

Dawin, Constantine, Commodore Arthur Phillip, General Edward Braddock, Adam Smith, the British East India Company and thousands of others have been given our surrogated amnesia and have told us of the riches of far off lands in the only language they know – greed and suppression.  And we, the cowed masses yearning to suck at the teat of consumerism have listened in wide-eyed euphoria to the promises of El Dorado.  What we haven’t heard is the drum beats of fire dances, the deep-throated purring of the puma, or the buzzing of the synergistic honeybee.  We haven’t heard about the adaptations that local custodians have learned from the nature around them but rather we’ve bent that nature to our merciless conceit under the guise of ‘development’.  Oh, and for those of you anarchists who are swindled into the democratization siren song of crypto-currencies remember this:  no less democratized intervention has been concocted than those who, in the name of emancipation, make the “currency of the 99%” only mineable, transactable, or recordable to those with computational and electronic power and telephonic infrastructure.  Yes, that’s right!  In response to a fiat currency that most people can use, the post-modern hipster conspirators have decided to make a currency that is less accessible to the world’s disenfranchised!  So much for lions and hunters!

There’s a big world out there that has a lot to teach us.  If we learned from the bees we’d build a better system.  If we saw in our remit the propagation of other species (flowers, trees, etc) and, in exchange produced liquid sunlight in excess for all to have a more sweet existence, we’d actually be evidencing a civilized, synergistic engagement.  No boundaries.  No demands for “reciprocity” and “agreement”.  No curation of character.  Just persistent, generative and infinitely orthogonal engagement from which the nectar of life can flow.  Now that’s a sweeter song!  Let’s sing hanging upside down in the dark!


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave