The Law of Life
“It is the Law of Life.
It’s a universal law.
Written where only the gods could have written it.
In the fabric of the living community.”
In the fabric of the living community.”
– Daniel Quinn, The Book of the Damned
Humankind. Nature. In today’s society these are seen as two different entities entirely, when in fact they are one, woven and interconnected through the web of life. The human species has generally come to see it as man: superior to nature, exploiter of all nature provides, and lover of nature at the same time. A Hippocratic species we are indeed. We have intellect, they say. We have more than communication, we have language, and spoken language, they say. We completely alter the environments around us, they say. We have no predators, we are at the top of the food chain, we have emotions and culture, we have a concept of self, and a concept of past and future, we have utmost control over our surroundings, the list goes on. No other animal on this planet has these qualities. We are unique.
The truth is that we have – at least in the western world – obliterated “nature”, or the rest of the living community, from our lives such that we must leave our homes in order to get to a wild, natural location, and even those one can hardly call wild. This is a direct result of humankind’s belief in our utmost dominance over the natural world (as well as a result of high density living and overpopulation amongst other factors), a superiority complex if you will, and a result of pure ego.
Which brings me to the point: Humankind is nothing but Homo sapiens sapiens, a descendant of Homo sapiens, who is a descendant of Homo erectus, who is a descendent of Homo Habilis, who is a descendant of Australopithecus…who is a descendant of a minute, microscopic life form billions of years ago. We ARE life. But we are not THE life. We are a part of the living community and should damn well be fortunate to be so.
So why is our ego so harmful anyways?
The dominance we constantly find ourselves exhibiting has found its way into harming other living creatures, wiping out species, and a total disdain for the rest of life on this planet, often including even our own species. We persistently see violence and torture in our own community. We treat aboriginal peoples as “primitive” and “savage” simply because they seem closer to “animals” (we’re all animals) than we are. Even women have been looked down upon time and time again by others who have elevated themselves above the “lowliness” of women, to the point where some cultures used to kill off babies born female. Do these men not realize they need women? Their species needs a woman to reproduce, if nothing else! Maybe this separation and superiority started in our own community and extended into the animal world. However this is not the simplest, or most parsimonious explanation. It makes more sense that our belief in superiority over all nonhuman life allowed us a false sense of power, which found its way into a belief in power over all life, human or nonhuman. We now think of ourselves as capable of making any decision regarding any life form.
Another thing to mention is that our ego has led to a destruction of life on this planet; we cherish some megafauna (large, famous animals, usually mammals) and choose to keep them alive while trampling on everything else. But it is the little things that keep our planet alive, that even keep US alive. If anyone were to be given dominion, it is the microorganisms who truly run this world. Some of these creatures are so tiny that they have just recently been discovered, and some of these have proven to have a larger biomass in kilograms than any other creature on earth, actually sustaining the oceans. And we didn’t even know about them until a few years ago! YES, that means we ARE dependent on many life forms on earth. It has been said that we are 95% microorganism and 5% human, because of all the life forms in the human body that we depend on for survival. And yes, eventually even megafauna we try to save may disappear. To steal an analogy recently heard from one professor, to divide the animal kingdom the way we have in our minds, so egocentrically, is like dividing cars into Mini-Coopers and all other cars. It simply makes no sense. For some reason, when humans hear the word animal, they do two things: a) associate it with mammals or megafauna, and b) separate themselves from inclusion under the term animal, which immediately places animals “below” humans. There is so much more life on this planet than the creatures we are used to seeing, and we are definitely a part of that community, so there is no sense of denying it. Change comes in the way we think.
Now, in reference to our superiority, there is no denying our qualities mentioned in the first paragraph. Of course we have intellect, of course we have language, we alter our environment, have emotions, etc. However, while we may not have any natural predators (except for the few humans living amongst predators such as lions or tigers), we are still susceptible to viruses and diseases, as well as to the elements (look at the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, or the 2011 Japanese Earthquake) and that, I believe, will not change for a long time, if ever. But back to our qualities. Just because we have all these things, how can we use ourselves as the base to compare the rest of the animal world to, in terms of superiority?
Just like bats and dolphins have echolocation, just like birds have flight, just like marsupials have pouches, just as ants can move “mountains” we too have unique qualities. Yes, ours are found nowhere else in the animal community, but do you ever see a bear that can fly? Or an ape with a pouch? Of course not, because like our qualities, those of the kangaroo and the crow are unique to their kind. The kangaroo does not go around the animal kingdom saying “I have a pouch to carry my babies in so I am better than you and have dominion over you” And to this you may say: well, what good is a pouch? Well, what good is language? Other animals have been communicating since the dawn of time and can accomplish amazing feats together without sophisticated language. In fact, we have used our qualities more to destroy our world, which will eventually destroy us, rather than to create incredible solutions for the betterment of our society at large (although there are no doubt many cases of the latter). Ants coordinate with each other using a variety of mechanisms, and can lift and move immense objects (in relation to themselves), while all going in the same direction. And okay, you are still saying: so what? Well this is my point entirely: we cannot compare these qualities to ours, because as I said above, to each their own – each species has qualities which benefit that species more than they would another, just like our qualities. But that doesn’t mean our qualities set the precedence. And why would they? We have been around for such a short period in evolutionary history it has been said that if the entire history of the world were compressed into a year, we would appear at 30 seconds to midnight on December 31st. So all the life that came before us actually set the precedence through natural selection and “survival of the fittest”, and we simply evolved from the characteristics of our ancestors. We have not been around long enough for our qualities to evolve in other creatures, as we are the first of our kind. Our qualities may not even turn out to be beneficial at all, we can only know in a few million years if and when our qualities survive and are passed on in other creatures.
Maybe you can’t stop yourself from comparing our species to all the rest, and using ours as the base. After all, it is probably natural to do so. I will therefore use these comparisons for the purpose of this argument. Firstly, maybe our tests just don’t show everything that goes on. Unless we are a cow or bacterium or toucan, we cannot TRULY know whether cows or bacteria or toucans have emotions. Maybe they do not exhibit them, or maybe we just can’t see them by our standards. We can come to the conclusion that we are pretty certain (maybe even 99% certain) about this, but we can never know for sure unless we experience being these creatures. The same goes for many other human attributes, such as self-concept. And we now know that some animals do in fact have emotions. For example, dolphins, dogs and great apes (chimpanzees especially) have been studied extensively and do exhibit emotions and use them widely in communication.
In the case of language, this has also been displayed in great apes. They do not have the physical capabilities (which have arisen in us through evolution) for speech in terms of the appropriate vocal apparatus. However, they have been taught (on many different independent occasions and in different species) symbolic languages. Famous apes include Kanzi the bonobo, his sister Panbanisha, Chantek the orangutan and Koko the gorilla. Most of these have been taught American sign language, some even draw their symbols with chalk on the floor to express their thoughts and desires. Some you can have an entire conversation with, and it will be like exactly speaking to a deaf human. Kanzi can even make a fire. Some apes who have had no interaction with humans, have learnt these languages from their mothers! This is a form of culture, and chimpanzees have also exhibited culture, because particular activities have become specific to certain regions across Africa, passed down through each successive generation.
We can be anthropomorphic for the sake of argument and say “wow, they may just be pretty similar to humans”. While this is good as an eye opener, we must be cautious of taking it too far. Even humans who truly care about the animal world consistently find themselves ranking animals. Humans come first, then the intelligent, similar to human animals mentioned above, and finally the rest of the critters. Although it is extremely hard to remove ourselves from a whole lifetime of conditioning, we can at least do our best to try. We can try to appreciate the living community and be immensely grateful for being a part of it. We can try to treat ALL living creatures, even the most insignificant seeming, invisible microorganisms, as equals in the community of life and embrace our place amongst them. We can try, for those of us who use religious texts to say that the god(s) have given man dominion over life on earth, to take that to mean stewardship in caring and kindness and compassion for these creatures and their survival rather than utmost control. Wouldn’t it make sense for the god(s) to retain utmost control?
And yes, living creatures are meant to live and die every day, such is life – one life is given to sustain another. But we cannot just use this to our advantage to exploit the lives of trillions of creatures on this planet, for our greedy species’ benefit. A few lives here or there is natural, part of the cycle. When we start extermination programs, huge breeding facilities, exploitation operations, etc., it is unnatural. It is the equivalent of raping a member of our own species, taking what was not meant for us to take in such a manner. We are in fact raping the community of life on our planet.
I will end by educating you about the Law of Life, or the peace-keeping law. We all know the law of life, we have grown up with it surrounding us, but we choose to exempt ourselves from it, which is a very dangerous game. This law defines the limits of competition in the community of life, and every other living organism abides by it. Organisms will never exterminate their competitors – something we do, especially in agriculture, that no other creature does. They will never destroy a competitor’s food to make room for their own, but will only take from what is provided, what is needed. They will also never deny their competitors access to food in general, while we deny our competitors access to all the food as long as it’s under our cultivation. Too bad if they’re in our space they’ll just have to go extinct. The essence of this law is that you may compete but you may not wage war. This law promotes the diversity which enables survival. By competing outside the law we are waging war on the living community. The community of life would be destroyed if all species exempted themselves from this law, and one species exempting themselves ultimately has the same effect. Diversity is progressively destroyed; life is destroyed to make room for their expansion. And here we relate back to superiority.
The way we treat the animal community is a result of our carelessness in treating the world around us. Because “we” are separate and “better” than “them” we can do to “them” whatever we wish. If this dichotomy means torturing animals for faster production and economic benefit, so be it. We must learn to think with changed minds. Changed minds provide the vision. Vision is the flowing river; it creates its own programs. With this vision of one community of life on this planet, we can learn to try our best to take our rightful, non-hostile place on this planet. We can only try, but with this trying, some creatures will live a better life, and some species will survive longer than if we had unfairly stated our greater place in the ecosystem by wiping them out for such things as economic gain.
“If you ask me on my last day, as I close my eyes for the last time, whether I know the Law of Life, I’ll tell you: ‘I’m beginning to know it.’ If any man tells you he knows the whole of the Law of Life or that he can encompass it in words, that man is a fool or a liar, because the Law of Life is written in the universe and no man can know the whole of it. If ever you’re in doubt about the Law, consult the caterpillar or the gull or the jackal; no man will ever know it better or follow it more steadfastly than they.”
– Daniel Quinn, Tales of Adam
The Future of Life. E.O. Wilson. 2002
Ishmael. Daniel Quinn. 1992 (2nd last paragraph paraphrased from here)
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