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Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider

(About a 6 minute read)

The spider had been stalking the fly for minutes.  There didn’t seem to be anything on the barren patch of ground to attract a fly.  I expected it to finish its investigations and leave.  But it would only buzz away a few inches when the spider approached it, then in a minute or two return.

Sometimes it would allow the spider to get very close before flying off.

The spider was the jumping kind that wanders about looking for prey to pounce on.  A bit bigger than the spider.  I’ve heard some of them have good eyesight.  Can see objects a foot or more distant.  I wondered what kind of eyesight the fly had.  It didn’t appear to recognize the danger it was in.

I had the sense I was watching something primeval, something going back billions of years, almost as old as life itself.

The spider pounced.  The fly roared off, but the spider had tethered itself to a pebble, so the two merely buzzed around together a few inches off the ground. It was surprisingly loud.

It’ took more than a minute, but eventually the fly fell to the ground, unmoving.

I didn’t suppose the fly was dead.  I had heard the poison only parallelizes.  The spider would now eat the fly alive until death came to it in the course of being eaten.

There is something about human consciousness that cannot watch the dance of predator and prey without feeling at least a tug to take sides.  There also seems to be something in our nature that urges us to sentimentalize such events by thinking about them in terms of good and bad — or even evil.

That is the attitude that led us to kill off the largest predators in most of North America.  More than merely our own defense, or even the defense of our domestic animals, we killed the wolf, the cougar, the bear out of a sense of nearly moral outrage.  You can read the 1800s language used in describing those animals to get a feel for that outrage.  They were “outlaws” and “villains”, among many other such things.

Our sentimentalization of nature can be seen as either childish or ugly — or both.  But before we wholly condemn it, consider what it is most likely a manifestation of.

The human instinct to sentimentalize nature seems to be rooted in the same instinct we have to treat each other mercifully, fairly, and justly.  Humans may often do a poor job of that, but it is certainly not for lack of ideals.

Most likely those instincts are not merely cultural in origin. In our myths, we speak of savages and barbarians, but the truth has always been that most societies — however “primitive” — harbor notions of mercy, fairness, and justice.  But so, in some respects, do other animals.

There are studies of apes, monkeys, and dogs showing that several species have some notion or the other of fairness.  At least one or two species will even refuse treats if their friends are not being given the same treats.  Our relative sophisticated notions of mercy, fairness, and justice probably predate our own species, and have been rooted in our DNA since the days of our ancestors going back millions of years.

Just as deeply rooted is our instinct to care for the old, the young, the ill, the injured, and the less fortunate.  We often express that instinct differently — some of us care only about those we personally know; some of us care about society — or even humanity — as a whole.  But most of us excepting a few anti-social types care about people other than themselves.

It is reasonably hypothesized that humans survived during most of our evolutionary history mainly by being among the most cooperative species ever to see daylight.  I once saw a film of a group of about seventy-five or so Africans hunting a lion with nothing more than surprisingly thin sticks.   Not even stone points on them.

None of the humans could have taken on a lion individually, nor even perhaps as a small group.  But they were, combined, a formidable killing machine.  Once the lion had been cornered in some brush, it was all over.  The outcome inevitable.

Ever since the early 1990s, virtually every other theory apart from the notion that cooperation was the primary and deciding factor in our evolutionary survival has been blown out of the water by the empirical studies of Robin Dunbar and others.  Dunbar discovered that in primates (such as ourselves), brain size is closely correlated with social group size.

To over-simplify a bit, the bigger a primate’s brain, the bigger its social group.  Clearly, the implication is that our brains evolved in order to deal with living with relatively large numbers of other people.  So much for the notion our brain size was mainly driven by tool use, competition for mates,  warfare, or any number of other suggestions.

The picture that emerges is we evolved as social animals living in relatively large bands of perhaps 200 or so individuals that took care of their own.

But do not mistake us for herd animals.  While it is clear now that there has not been a genuine “rugged individual” in our lineage for millions of years, we are by no means merely a herd animal.  We are an approximate balance between a social species and an individualistic one.

So many of our values — caring for others, mercy, fairness, justice — amount to defiance of any simplistic notion that “survival of the fittest” for humans means simply the strongest, most capable, or competent members of species survive while the rest are weeded out by natural processes.

Put differently, if it were genuinely true that the folks many of us might think of as “unfit” were really unfit, their genes would have been weeded out perhaps millions of years ago.  Nature does not broke keeping around truly unfit individuals.  A band of hunter/gatherers cannot afford to feed a disabled person unless that person is somehow contributing at least now and then to the survival of the group — perhaps through their wisdom or through their ability to bring people together.

In some ways, modern America is the most divorced from the earth society the world has ever known.  Besides the obvious ways in which that is true, we might add another: We appear to be increasingly a society that refuses to take care of our own.

Desmond Morris once warned that America would be destroyed from within by its extremist culture of promoting competition among its members at all costs.  Perhaps he will be proven right.  There is an ancient Korean saying about the difference between Korean and Japanese culture.  “If a Japanese and a Korean fight one on one, the Korean wins every time.  But if ten Japanese and ten Koreans fight, the Japanese win every time.”

Questions? Comments?

10 thoughts on “Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider”

  1. Paul,
    I enjoy your posts because I usually end up wrestling with some new way of looking at things. You write of collectivism and individualism, which for all intents and purposes, is a dichotomous view of Western vs. Eastern philosophy. But what is it called when you combine these two into a third way?
    Mona

    1. Hi Mona! Good to see you. You know, I don’t know what it’s called. I just know that, so far as I can see, we’re both individualistic and social. It’s an odd combination when you think about it, isn’t it?

  2. I see the human race as opportunistic. We adapt ourselves to fit. We are prepared to do most things in order to survive, but we’re becoming megalomaniacs; forgetting that in order for our race to survive, we need to keep the planet fit for us to live on.

    1. I hate pessimism, but I really don’t have much optimism left when it comes to our species and the environment. With seven billion of us — scheduled to go to nine billion soon — and growing economies everywhere, I think we’re likely to stop only when the last forest is gone, the last species of large animal, other than us, extinct. And then maybe we’ll go too.

      In the long run, life on this planet will recover. What’s left after us, even if it’s only bacteria, will eventually evolve to fill the ecological niches again. That gives me some consolation. I like to think of life going on.

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