Saturday, October 5, 2019
OK, so we are waking up to the benefits of a healthy wolf population. Yet many of us can't shake our built-in anti-wolf bias. It seems to be deep within our DNA. How did it get there? I believe a basic reason is that we've been in competition with wolves from long ago. Dogs were smart enough to tame themselves tens of thousands of years ago, when they saw it would be advantageous to partner with us on the hunt. Humans and dogs both profited from the collaboration. The wolf, however, stayed wild. Since it preyed on many of the same game animals that humans did, we became adversaries. It's like two guys wooing the same gal, who thus become arch enemies.
When humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, over ten thousand years ago, wolves really became hostile for us. As we settled down, we domesticated sheep and cows—transforming them into docile, dumb livestock that idly consumed vegetation. It was as if humans had generously offered easy meals to wolves. Why put effort into chasing down a fleet-footed deer, when a tasty meal just stood there—waiting to be consumed? Those human tribes who tended their flocks especially came to see wolves as an enemy.
And any enemy is a being to fear. Put another way, any critter that we fear tends to become an enemy. We put distance between us and them, which makes it easier to regard them as the “other,” and hence to sanction violence against them. We see this being played out today, as those in power stoke fears of immigrants—encouraging citizens to become frightened of how they might distort our society.
There have been many opportunities in the past to feel fearful of wolves. In medieval times humans clustered in small, rural groups that had cleared a few trees for farming. Surrounding these clusters of small communities were primeval forests, filled with wild creatures who seemed terrifying. Many tales described the dreadful happenings of those who ventured into the woods. All sorts of terrifying beasts lurked out there.
The Middle Ages further filled the heads of people with fears of wolves. We came to imagine that wolves were bad. Horrible events like the Black Plague stoked those fears, as wolves fed on the stacks of corpses. We further magnified our terror, into images of what they might do, if we didn't stop them. The howling of wolves at night brought dread to our soul.
Some of our hatred of wolves stemmed from a kind of transference of our own violence onto them. Religion played its role in this process, as Christians viewed the wilderness as ungodlike. We humans did not have dominion over the wild animals. Dante put the wolf in hell, as a symbol of greed. Unfortunate humans who were labeled as werewolves were burned at the stake, in the Middle Ages.
Thus wolves found themselves as the blackguards in many stories... Little Red Riding Hood being just one example. Aesop's Fables—dating back to the sixth century BCE—cast wolves as evil beings. Plays and songs have long portrayed wolves as lurking, threatening beasts.
Fairy tales were written by adults, to provide entertainment and moral lessons for children. With each passing generation a new wave of offspring were inculcated with the propagandistic dogma that wolves are depraved. The second definition in the American Oxford Dictionary of wolf is “the name used in similes and metaphors to refer to a rapacious, ferocious, or voracious person or thing... a man who habitually seduces women.” Even Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm weighed in on the sexual and violent images of wolves!
After centuries of framing wolves as vile creatures, some of us are beginning to appreciate their role in a stable ecosystem. It's an uphill battle, however, to change public opinion in their favor. Maybe we need a few movies and fairy tales that cast wolves as the caring social, cooperating, playful creatures they are; who play a vital role in Mother Nature's plan.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
I am currently enrolled in an online course on fairy tales; which is exploring their origins, their sometimes subtle messages, their moral themes, and their deeper psychological revelations about what makes us human and how these viewpoints vary across cultures. The first fairy tale considered in the course is “Little Red Riding Hood.” Most of us who grew up in Western cultures are familiar with the story of this sweet, innocent, naive little girl. She is off on a walk through the dark forest, to take some nourishing provisions to her infirm grandmother, who dwells alone in a cottage in the woods. Along the way, Little Red encounters a wolf, who is up to no good, as is the habitual way of wolves.
There are various versions of Red's tale, due to it being an old story told orally and later written down, over the last several centuries. In some versions the wolf triumphs and delights in a monumental meal of both grandma and the cute little girl. In other versions the wolf is thwarted and dispatched by a passing hunter or wood chopper. In every version of “Little Red Riding Hood” the wolf is cast as the villain. He (and it's always a male) is the nasty beast who threatens the virtuous, sweet little girl and her frail grandmother.
As students in my online class exchange thoughts and reactions about the deeper emotions and feelings of this fairy tale, I began to wonder why they seem to have accepted, without question, the nefarious behavior of the wolf. Why is it that we read these tales of wolves' dreadful conduct and rarely question their veracity? How is it that the wolf is always cast as the evil one, and we willingly accept that depiction? The “big bad wolf” appears in countless stories. They are unquestionably depraved beasts. You can't trust them. The only good wolf is a dead wolf, etc.
It's interesting that the dog—descended from the wolf—is often regarded as “man's best friend,” while the wolf is cast as a perpetual enemy. A predatory male human is often depicted as a wolf, especially when he emits a wolf whistle or attempts to seduce an innocent lass. Werewolves in folklore are people who transform into wolves, especially at full moon, and commit various kinds of mayhem. There are countless movies, plays, and songs that demonize wolves—including other fairy tales such as “The Three Little Pigs.” Wolves don't get much sympathy, when they are perpetually preying on innocent little girls, helpless old ladies, and sweet, small swine.
Thankfully, we modern humans have begun to change the story, as some of us have come to value the role played by wolves in the ecosystem. In those locales where wolves have been largely eradicated, their prey have become overabundant and are damaging the environment. Deer, elk, and other large herbivores have been consuming valuable plants and saplings, causing erosion and allowing weeds and other invasive species to proliferate. In attempts to rebalance nature, wolves have been reintroduced into rural areas where they once ruled. As a result, in Yellowstone National Park, for example, introduced wolves are reducing the number of elk—which is permitting aspen groves to recover and streams to flow clear, as erosion is curtailed.
More on wolves next time...
Saturday, September 28, 2019
Sunday, September 15, 2019
...Continuing a fanciful visit to Earth from outer-space visitors looking for signs of intelligence here...
Visit 4, 700 million years ago. Volcanoes had burst through Snowball Earth's ice crust, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm once again. (In a similar fashion, we humans are now spewing carbon dioxide into the air, causing another global warming event.) At that time, our space visitors would have encountered microbial life forms that were very primitive. Nothing larger than a few microns, and certainly not intelligent. Nothing much of interest going on here at that time.
Visit 5, 400 million years ago. This would have been tens of millions of years after what scientists call the Cambrian Explosion, when millions of multi-cell critters had evolved. Many primitive animals and plants were flourishing across Earth. They were fantastically varied and our visitors would have been amazed at it all, but still have noted no intelligent life forms. None of those creatures appeared to be likely to build a space ship, let alone a stone hammer.
Visit 6, 100 million years ago. Outer-space callers would have found a tropical planet, with huge, reptile-like creatures crawling on land and swimming in its oceans. Countless kinds of plants would be thriving everywhere. Earth was bursting with life, yet no sign of technology could be found. Even though those giant lizards ruled the planet, our guests would conclude that intelligent life (at least smart enough to make rockets) was not there, and maybe never would be. All signs pointed to the fact that Earth life had settled into a stable, unchanging mode. Little did the visitors know that, had they come calling 35 million years later, life on the planet would be struggling to survive, in the aftermath of an asteroid crash that wiped out some 80% of all species.
Visit 7, six million years ago. At this time our extraterrestrial callers would find that Earth was populated by mammals—especially an intriguing one that walked on two legs. They would note the planet was changing rapidly, oscillating from hot periods to times when glaciers covered nearly half of the globe. Although the upright hominids appeared to possess the potential for intelligence, their technology consisted only of crude chunks of stone. Would they advance? Time would tell.
Visit 8, today. Our space travelers would discover a planet seething in hominids, who occupy every corner of the globe. They'd note abundant examples of technology that have rendered the lives of the hominids convenient and comfortable. Their structures are everywhere, as proof of their capabilities. They even have made the first tentative steps to leave the planet and investigate nearby worlds.
Yet something appears to be awry. Many of the planet's life forms are no longer healthy and thriving, but are threatened by the overzealous activities of the over-populous hominids. There is evidence that, in their push to extend their technologies, they have foolishly polluted their world. Yes, our visitors would discover a relatively advanced species, but would doubt that it has sufficient intelligence to survive much longer. The ET travelers conclude that these hominids are yet too savage... they fight incessantly among themselves and are trashing their lovely planet.
Maybe if they returned in a couple of hundred years, they would find that these dominant hominids either smartened up and got their act together, or made themselves extinct. Whatever fate might await this “intelligent” species, the visitors have faith that the planet has previously survived worse catastrophes, after which life took a new tack and once again flourished.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
There is much research and speculation currently going on, regarding the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. The search is vigorously proceeding, on the part of several scientific disciplines: astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, and evolution. Now that thousands of planets have been discovered around nearby stars, we know that worlds exist where life might possibly be present. The recent discovery of hardy life forms right here on Earth, thriving in extreme environments (high/low temperatures, dessicated locations, high-acid spots, sunless pockets, etc.), tells us that life can flourish in what are extraordinarily harsh situations; once thought impossible for life to even exist.
At some point in the future, humans will travel to other worlds where life could potentially exist, and we will be inspecting them for possible forms of life. A pertinent question that could be posed is: Would we recognize life of a very different kind, if we visited its world? Just a few years ago researchers would have doubted that life could exist in some of the extreme places found here on Earth. It has prompted scientists to open up to the possibilities of bizarre life forms elsewhere.
Maybe a way to put the search for extraterrestrial (ET) life in a different perspective is to conduct a fanciful thought experiment. Suppose we think about some intelligent outer-space species that might have visited planet Earth to inspect it for life, at different times over our planet's existence. Suppose we look at what these ET visitors would have observed, and what they might have concluded from their inspections.
Visit 1, four billion years ago. That would have been only a half-billion years after Earth had formed. It would be a molten, heaving surface of lava, with spewing volcanoes. No life possible then.
Visit 2, three billion years ago. While cruising our solar system, the visitors would also have checked into both nearby Venus and Mars. All three planets would have been water worlds with thick atmospheres, and were quite warm. Had they looked closely on Earth at that time, they'd have detected some single-cell, simple life forms. Nothing intelligent. Not much going on here, but some possibilities for the far distant future. Would the outer-space visitors have found similar kinds of primitive life on Venus or Mars? It's certainly plausible. We humans may someday find out, when we have conducted our own inspections of our partner planets.
Visit 3, two billion years ago. For millions of years around that epoch, Earth's temperature had dropped far below the freezing temperature of water. Our visitors would have encountered what scientists call “Snowball Earth.” The planet would have been essentially encased in ice. At first glance, it would be doubtful that life could have existed under such conditions, but had the space voyagers probed a little deeper, they'd have found that single-cell critters did live beneath the ice, deep in the oceans. Astronomers today think that similar kinds of life may be found by humans one day in ice-entrapped oceans on Saturn's moon Europa. Still, our ET visitors would just find primitive life here on Earth—no intelligence yet.
More visits next time...