I am of the David Attenborough generation of natural history documentaries. My ‘education’ of the natural world, the idea of instincts and virtually all things seemed to be infused with some version of Darwinian evolutionary certainty. Learning about the ‘birds and bees’ was just birds and bees because we got to see how Mammals did reproduction and it wasn’t ANYTHING like pollination or egg laying.
We love a good comparison to the animal world, especially if it makes us (humans) look good. Far from being a realistic or even ‘natural’ version of the animal world my sense is that all documentaries aim to construct a preferred version of things. Think I might have just felt some of you do a sharp intake of breath as science is objective and neutral right? I am critical of all things claiming a single version of the truth, history is written by the winners – and most historians accept this idea to varying degrees. Less so is the idea that the story of the natural world might also be somewhat ‘made up.’
My angle on this is really how we have used the animal world to justify, reinforce and solidify particular ideas about ourselves as a species. We have selected evidence of our superior abilities and relegated the animal world to some object of curiosity that reassures us we are ‘better than them.’ It is interesting to note however how often ‘mating for life’ is celebrated, even marching long distances to find food and reunite with loved ones after suffering over many months apart. No prizes really for guessing what relationship is honoured here as ideal and monumentally over represented. We are not Penguins people!
Up until now we have been at the mercy of documentary makers who are human and will have something they ‘want to show.’ Not all of this has been intentionally deceptive but it has limited our understanding of the complexities and diversity of all life, including our own. Welcome the age of the internet and the plethora of cameras capturing this. The awkward bit is the alternative evidence that animals might not be so ‘animalistic’ and humans could actually be the ones ‘lacking’ genuine compassion, empathy and intelligence. These images are ‘shocking’ to us because of the monocular perspective presented by traditional documentaries.
Here are a few to dive into if you haven’t already come across them via Facebook or another medium (this is a one of the few ‘likes’ I have for FB):
1: National Geographic Camera Man and Leopard Seal trying to save ‘useless human by feeding him penguins.’
2: Dolphins recognising themselves – very existentially challenging
Good to know vanity has crossed species as well.
3: Understanding loss – love – grief (have your tissues handy)
4: Joy and Gratitude – skip to 6 minutes if you get over the ‘beast in speedos.’
5: Unusual animal partnerships that ‘defy’ nature
6: Recreational pursuits – don’t stone the Crows – give them a lid and they will surf!
6: For ‘big’ cat lovers – some serious kitty love and a genuine message about habitat loss (14 minutes but well worth it).
You might have seen better examples, the list is endless and they all have one thing in common, defying our assumptions about the natural world and what might transcend the boundaries of predator and prey. Some of the commentaries are direct about the wondering this provokes and I agree and hope science can embrace some of these challenges without dismissing them as peculiar, simple ‘imprinting’ or deviations from the norm.
Alas, science has its own version of ‘survival of the fittest’ its called publish or perish. Whilst other areas such as physics appear to have embraced uncertainty – quite literally (Heisenberg), the natural world of biology has remained relatively unscrutinised and almost wrapped in a protective academic bubble. There are many in the field of biology willing to stick their necks out but they do so at great risk from within the establishment, much like other strong social institutions. The tide will eventually turn and I just hope many of them can cling on long enough. Again, perhaps publishing online and via alternative avenues will enable more radical ideas such as plasma life forms to be made available. It literally could be ‘life Jim but not as we know it.’ Life definitely might be stranger than science fiction.
As evidence comes to light there have been monumental shifts towards accepting the animal world as more or less equals. I find it painfully ironic that one of the countries leading the way has been India. They have declared Dolphins ‘non human sentient beings’
At the same time they decided to ‘recriminalise’ homosexual relationships, no death penalty just life in prison – the national ethics committee decided not killing people for being gay was ‘humane’ – thank you George Orwell we now have the Ministry Of Love for real. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Love
As for what has been happening in India, do bother to take a look.
But this has serious implications for our Cetacean friends. What about all those gay dolphins then who are not allowed to be held in captivity anymore? Ethical conundrum there.
Perhaps it comes down to something incredibly simple, yet profoundly important. Animals do not hide their emotions, they are authentic beings. They show us exactly how they feel and they express something few human beings do – unconditional love. We have relegated emotions to things that get in the way or need suppressing, something I believe has not advanced humanity as a species. Animals are beings of pure connection unclouded by ego or narcissism and perhaps reflect a ‘higher’ state of consciousness.
So lets not ‘do it like they do on the discovery channel’ and acknowledge animals are conscious sentient beings that we must stop exploiting for our own gratification. And please, can we get over using avian and insect reproduction processes to cover our ridiculously self imposed shame about sex!
Free the birds and the bees please!