Saturday, March 25, 2006

Apex Predator Impostor Syndrome

The human species is the de facto apex predator in the world today. We did not evolve our way into this position, like every other apex predator; we were just a mid-level, non-specialist, omnivorous scavenger and small-game hunter species for perhaps a million years until we were handed this mysterious Gift, a few short millennia ago, and suddenly we were driving mammoths over cliffs with fire and spear, and we realized that the world was our oyster. We settled down to eat everything we could kill, which was everything, and increase our numbers; and because we had not evolved naturally into this position, we had no instincts in place to enable us to remain in balance with the world. At heart we are still prey as well as predator; we never adjust our fertility in response to changes in the availability of food; we do not effectively portion out territory and resources according to population density. We do not have the sublime confidence of the apex predator. Instead, we fearfully store up fat, have as many children as we can stand, and work the land for all it's worth. We never sit back and lie in the sun like a well-fed lion; we feel like impostors in our exalted rank, and that it could all be taken away as suddenly as it came.

It is an interesting, but irrelevant, question whether another species, that had evolved as an apex predator, and been given the Gift (of tools and brains and consciousness), would have acted as we did. Endless crap is fed us every day about the nobility of animals, and their innate harmony with the world. I have a feeling that if lions had attained intelligence first, they would have arranged the entire world to their liking as a gigantic game preserve, carefully staked out in tribal and clan territories, and whenever they suspected that intelligence was arising in any other species they would savagely suppress it, to the point of true genocide if necessary, to protect their monopoly. They would have no need or desire for new knowledge and technical ability; they would simply run the ecosystem to an optimum for lions, and they would occasionally war on each other on a local level if they felt crowded. Of course, it is improbable that consciousness would ever arise in such a species, as there is no evolutionary pressure for it when a species is perfectly fitted to its niche. Great advances are not made in tranquil, balanced periods; they are forged in slow, terrible battles unfolding over the millennia. Human consciousness is thought to have arisen in response to gradual climate change in Africa. One wonders what the next thousand years will bring, if major and much faster climate change is now upon us. We might hope for some sort of quantum leap in consciousness, if only we can survive the vicissitudes to come. Occam and his famous razor say that that is highly unlikely; yet after all, we can't access or predict in any way a higher consciousness, using the relatively primitive consciousness we presently enjoy. But we do know that consciousness evolves much more quickly than species do, being that the basic unit for change is the meme rather than the gene. The meme of science, which is the single strongest mental tool we have, and almost infinitely adaptable, may have the potential for stabilizing our future as a species; but it is forced to compete with a horde of pernicious memes based on our emotions and primal animal natures, and those are so much more seductive.

Admit it: which would you really rather read in the newspaper:

a) "Today in the United Nations building, the President of the United States, the world's last holdout, signed the Comprehensive World Governmental Accord, which has been widely credited with staving off and perhaps preventing the collapse of civilization. Signatory nations retain a great deal of autonomy within their borders, but must, in their international dealings..." and blah blah blah.

or b) "Today Israel and Palestine each sent forth into the Dead Zone between their territories a single champion, mechanically armed and caparisoned to a fare-thee-well to settle their age-old dispute forever by proxy combat. The champions were immediately dubbed David and Goliath by the media. Large throngs from each nation sat in bleachers overlooking the acres of barbed wire and cheered for their respective champions. Hopes briefly ran high for a simple and definitive peace settlement. However, before the battle was properly joined, both nations cheated, lobbing missiles and strafing the crowds. Thousands were killed and the status quo was resumed with great acrimony all round. The event scored very high ratings in networks around the world, and a great deal of expensive advertising was sold for next month's rematch."

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