The Cogito: The Mantis in doubt
[This post is part rant part figuring-out- life. It imparts some strong personal views vis-à-vis my own experiences in the wild or otherwise, and are not intended to be imposed upon the reader.]
Cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am; is a philosophical argument first made in 1637 by René Descartes. Simply put, to doubt one-self’s existence is to exist. It is said to be philosophy’s keystone from which one dives into the swirling thoughts of existence and nonexistence, of truth and lies.
But if you think you exist, and therefore exist, you must also think others exist, but they may or may not indeed exist, for that thought is only applicable for yourself. If every person thinks the same, you could, like them, may or may not exist. With all its beautiful fallacies, the thought alone is enough to push you onto the next level of self-realization: that we all exist. And once you’re here, and you believe you exist, and so do others, self-realization is not only about yourself or your own kind; it is about realizing that your mere thinking affects others as other’s affects you.
I compare the quality of self-realization to a commodity; not all of us possess it (but we can if we will). History has shown that all the greatest people said to be self-aware were those with little or no material commodity, their gift was their ability to question their existence, and share, not trade, the faith to others. To think of a poor man as the greatest philosopher therefore for me is more plausible than a generous rich man in his seat of leather. For the poor man has a greater chance of understanding the worth of leather not in death but life than the rich man who has already made his decision. And if you’re confusing a philosopher with an entrepreneur, you’re looking at not a philosopher but a professor of philosophy (Thoreau, Walden): a philosopher need not be right all the time but be universally true. And the only universal truth, as I have come to learn, is nature.
It is our inherent nature to impart knowledge than share it, and it has brought us closer to books more than it has to our everyday life learning: the rich text of Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Quran, or the knowledge of the tribal communities, our forefathers, was no mere book-derived content but a long process of their tryst with nature, of trial-and-error, until they got their knowledge together to build up an Index for the book contents we read through.
What sets man apart from other living things is that we learn from our nurturer more than from nature. The debate I raise is have our genes become far too weak to be the powerful storehouse of information they once were, as they still are for over 99% of all living things in this world. Perhaps it makes us one of the very few species capable of retrospection. But does it really make us self-aware?
I know of a Dung Beetle which always flies around with his bulk hanging perpendicular to the ground (he is that heavy in the middle), and would always crash-land on his back, exhausted (and drunk?) and probably on the verge of fainting. Then one of us would flip him upon his legs, and he would make a loud chirping sound expressing annoyance. Remember anyone? Or that moth, which, with a hundred feet falling all around her, and even after nudging her to get up and fly to some other place, only flutters in discontent and rests in the exact same spot.
This beetle has evolved over millions of years not to crash-land all the time. If you take a look at its feet, you will see that it is hard and hooked, which belongs to the moist earth of monsoon – they emerge in this particular season and are one of the best adapted to it. With their head as a shovel, their strong feet their helm, they are capable of digging and carrying weight beyond imagination. But this beetle on polished stone has no support to cling its feet onto to get back up – it is hopelessly flailing its legs, and soon it would fall prey without a little push. Similarly, the moth that doesn’t budge is not suicidal, it evolved to sit freely on the forest floor releasing pheromones before some invasive species trampled it, or its car ran over it.
They evolved so in content and at peace with their natural surroundings. Who is man to question their pretentious dumbness in an element in which they were never evolved to belong? Philosophy of old religions teaches us that it is not man alone who is capable of self-realization. Religions around the world recognize the respect for other life sharing this planet with us. The Quran says, “Allah will not give mercy to anyone, except those who give mercy to other creatures” (Prophet Muhammad).
A farmer knows an earthworm as his friend, but a wild boar his foe; but hardly does he know that every animal on this planet is neither his friend nor his foe, but he makes them so, for his needs are his own, as the needs of the animals are their own. Barely does he know that merely killing it will not resolve his problem.
I am of a belief that an animal damages crop, or kills livestock, simply because it follows the rather basic law of nature. Having said that, laws which protect crime of some kind, which if you see from the eyes of basic laws of nature may be quite natural – such as felling trees, is a law to curb the menace of one of man’s most prominent sin. A lion kills one zebra of the entire herd, eliminating the weakest genes, than wiping out the entire herd at once. The tree feller here is well aware of his needs, but not self-aware.
Experiments have shown that very few animals are able to recognize their own mirror image – and these experiences are proof enough that the animal is self-aware, or is it? Although I do not refute this simple theory which is quite credible – self-awareness is beyond recognizing yourself in mirror, in fact, it is so basic that we never really heed it.
That an ant can think is a joke for many. I’m of the opinion that every individual insect is an insect in its own right; knows what it is in its own right; indeed every ant we technically consider to be a carbon-copy of her sister – is not a mere clone, for we wouldn’t see individuals or a group of them prying about their own business rather than strictly sticking to where the colony was. Their business might be of the benefit to the colony, but that ant is unique in itself for no other ant took the lead to investigate that place before. Curiosity, perhaps, is a gift to every living organism on this planet. It makes one push their limits, explore, learn; evolve. I’ve seen worker ants of Leptogenys processionalis acting as guards for a trail of workers shifting nests – no body put them there, whether they volunteered it with thought or instinct, I do not know. I’ve seen a Major Worker of Camponotus compressus with the head of another Camponotus sp. clinging onto its fore-limb, and that Worker attacked a Queen Ant, probably of another colony, and killed her. Then the Worker went about her business around the veranda, with the dead weight of the dead head dragging with her. This war hero was not to be seen on the next day, but the Queen Ant that lay dead was being escorted to the grave by hardworking Worker Ants of Pratrechina longicornis.
The tree fellers or the farmers I met recently deep inside a nature reserve are the victims of the demands from human society. An ant, on the other hand, is a member of the requirements of an ant society. Do you see the difference? Do you blame the farmer or the tree feller alone? Or do you blame the society we live in?
Do you then believe that the ant is a rather primitive form of life than man?
Unlike humans, self-awareness for an animal comes not from recognizing its reflection, but from the very basic idea that it needs to care for his self and others, to survive. That motherly care amongst living organisms is a mere genotypic trait naturally selected from millions of generations might be true, but it has remained so because it was eventually recognized to be the best trait to possess. I am unsure of the ratio of how much a non-human learns via nurture than via nature, but behaviour of an animal is largely its instinct and whatever little it has learnt in its lifetime which it can remember, for instance deer rely on Langur because Langur can alarm them of the approaching tiger which they can see from atop the trees; whereas personality (in its current usage) is a trait of pure human-origin, for instance the laidback attitude towards life for an animal perhaps does not exist, nor does the “kingly” gait of a lion, but can be imposed upon some of them because it is a human trait (and we’re very familiar with it).
In my little experience in nature, I’ve come across animals from insects to large mammals, each with their own individuality. There are some which are completely intolerant at first, but then come to tolerate you. I cannot explain why this is so, because literature tells me their brains are too weak for long-term memory. But I believe, without concrete evidence however, that they can process a plethora of facts about what can harm them and what cannot without having to experience it. Some call it fear, but fear is a raw emotion which I consider to be true in extreme cases only.
To live is not the virtue of mankind alone, to prosper is not the virtue of mankind alone – it is an emotion in possession of plants and animals. On this planet of complex interactions, moments such as a crèche of Flamingos where guardian adults lead the adopted chicks to safer grounds, of leopard adopting a deer fawn, a dog adopting a litter of tiger, are instances of no marvel but the highlights that deep down, every organism on this planet follows the very basic law of nature which are far above that of the relationship of a friend or a foe.
Perhaps animals recognize these basic facts more easily than man. Perhaps a deer knows that it must run to survive, share the space with langurs, or fall prey to a tiger – this is the simple fate without an if or a maybe. And man, who of all the animals is free of its genetic reign, is a rather volatile living organism which not only defines its own but the fate of every other animal. The scheme set up today what Quinn calls Takers is so firmly imprinted on our consciousness that the original scheme of nature remains undiscovered for majority of Earth’s population. And that gives us unprecedented power of mindless destruction.
“I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is a part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely. Have you ever had any suspicions to that effect?” Ishmael, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (Pp. 99).