The Rogue Animal and Gaia Consciousness

The Idea: A Canadian naturalist argues that civilization has obfuscated important truths about our world in a defensive and overwhelming mythology of prosthetic anthropocentrism, and that it is not too late to turn away from this disconnected mythology and rediscover our true purpose and a higher, wilder consciousness.

gorilla
It must be hell to be a decade ahead of your time. Canadian naturalist, environmental filmmaker (with David Suzuki) and retired Environmental Studies professor John Livingston’s 1994 psychological and phenomenological review of man’s relationship with nature, Rogue Primate, presages the flurry of subsequent studies on this topic, but besides a Governor General’s award did not net him much fame.Livingston believes the root of Earth’s environmental problems is man himself, “the animal with something askew”:

Alone among the beings who have arisen on Earth, we have evolved into virtually total dependence upon not our nature but our nurture…a fabricated prosthetic [replacing a missing part] device…a surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being…”Software technology” — storable, retrievable, transmissable technique, is the human specialty…The dependence into which we have grown has made us not merely the servants of this technique, but one of its very artefacts, its own domesticate.

 

This self-domestication, he argues, is synonymous with civilization. We are now utterly dependent on learning the technique of how to live, and on other humans whose roles in this awkward way of living dovetail with ours. To make it work, we have invented and imposed a “linear, vertical hierarchy”.

These constraints, especially in a species that is both social and cooperative, are psychologically suffocating, he says. And “the most barbaric punishment that can be visited upon such a species is dense confinement.” But we were genetically vulnerable, perhaps even genetically predestined, to be self-domesticated because we have all the qualities needed for a domesticated species: Docility and tractability, a pliable or weak will, susceptibility to dependence, insecurity, adaptability to different habitats, inclination to herd behaviour, tolerance of physical and psychological maltreatment, acceptance of habitat homogeneity, high fecundity, social immaturity, rapid physical growth, sexual precociousness, poor natural attributes (lack of speed, strength, and sensory acuity. We share these qualities with all the creatures (and many plants) we have domesticated. The only difference is, we domesticated ourselves.

Once domesticated, dependent on ideology and learned technique, we and our fellow domestics have been ‘transplanted’ across the globe, replacing, as Richard Manning subsequently explained in Against the Grain, robust natural ecosystems with poor, fragile artificially-sustained ones. Genocide of all undomesticated species, including gatherer-hunter humans, followed, and an ideology of apology and denial for our devastation was constructed to justify this behaviour: Myths that ‘wild’ creatures and cultures lived ‘short, nasty, brutish’ lives, that all life was inherently competitive not collaborative, that ‘development’ was a natural and evolutionary driver, that hierarchy and ‘pecking order’ is natural, that everything is property to be claimed and fought over, that domesticated humans were ‘the crown of creation’, that life was inevitably a struggle in a ‘market’ economy of scarce resources, and that the “simplified, homogenized, monoculturalized industrial-growth imperative” was ordained by God and confirmed by Darwin. These myths prevailed, and still prevail, despite overwhelming ecological, anthropological, sociological and scientific evidence to the contrary.

Livingston carefully dispels these myths. For example, Alpha males, he shows, are not the top of a hierarchy but the centre, the glue of community circles, with responsibility far outstripping the reward of the position. And marking territory is not making a property claim, but is a natural way of establishing sufficient distance between creatures of a particular species to ensure a comfortable level of food for each and prevent overpopulation of the species messing up the ecological balance of the community. He argues that, far from being less conscious than civilized man, wild animals and wild human cultures actually have a greater ‘participatory collective’ consciousness beyond the our primitive individual consciousness, that extends to their ecological community and to the entire Gaia organism of the planet, an interconnectedness to which we, and other domesticates, have become numb, have lost from disuse or ideological counter-programming.

The most important question he asks, I think, is whether, once we reach adolescence, it is too late to acquire this greater consciousness, much as it becomes too late to learn language — our brains have been wired for good, and the capacity for it is lost forever. This is a terrifying possibility, but one that explains why so few humans ‘get’ the message of environmentalists, even though it is imprinted in their DNA. In young wild animals a key experiential learning is the bonding of the youth to the rest of its ecosystem, reverence for balance, respect for predator and prey alike, attentiveness and sense-ability that in our simpler, sheltered human world we never really acquire, just as animals domesticated from birth cannot be ‘reintroduced’ much later to their true natures. If we could acquire this consciousness, this ‘becoming a part of the whole’, Livingston argues, we could not possibly continue to tolerate the “aberrant and deviant” destruction of nature — it would be as unthinkable and unforgivable as destroying an integral part of our own bodies. The amputation of wildness from our collective psyche would be seen as no different from the amputation of our own limbs.

Livingston goes on to show the absurdity and chauvinism of the idea of animal ‘rights’ — an impossibly poor substitute for ‘rightness’, and concludes with an analysis of our psychological condition and options. “There must be an alternative way of human being in the world”, he says, though “there is little reason to think that the human community is about to address the ideological content of our cultural prosthesis”. It is all too easy, he laments, to go back to incremental work ‘within the system’: “Why try to blow up the entire human metaphysical dome when there is so much within it calling for immediate attention? Why not attempt to do what is possible, what works? When one is very tired, or very discouraged, these can be attractive propositions. But they are not good enough.” We must, he insists, stop equating ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ with something ‘other’, outside us, a set of “free material commodities and garbage commons”. He concludes poetically with this portrait of the appreciation of and belonging to wildness which he says we must rediscover:

[By wildness] I mean the dissolution of the ego-centred self, as when one was drawn close, ever closer and at last into the gold-flecked eye of a toad, or when one melted into black earthy humus, laced with wintergreen, on a cool forest floor. Or when one’s cry of joy was transposed into a gull clamour by a sea wind pungent with the scent of rotting kelp. When one sought, and found; when one relinquished, and was free…Look at a child gently holding an unfledged young robin that has fallen from its nest. Look in that child’s eyes. The sweet bondage of wildness is recoverable.

 

Although Livingston’s portrait of our predicament and our possibilities is more upbeat than the one painted by John Gray that I reviewed two days ago, it is also more tentative, and ten years older. In 1994 the world seemed to have turned around, and for the first time since the late 1960s anything seemed possible. In the light of the grim and relentless legacy of human destruction, deceit and denial of the past ten years I wonder if Livingston, who has been strangely silent for a decade and who lamented to interviewers that his students never really understood or accepted the message of his work, would today be silently nodding his assent to the much darker view of Peter Brown or John Gray.

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4 Responses to The Rogue Animal and Gaia Consciousness

  1. kerry says:

    I can’t claim any right to an opinion here other than my logic which tends to concur with Baz’s book (currently in development…I’ve read the rest though it is not yet available in full online because it will be published as a book first) – at http://www.megafauna.com. It would appear, by the facts presented, that it is neither recent human domestication nor inustrialisation that has caused this imbalance. I’m not sure if I should quote a large chuck of it here out of context…but any questions can be directed to the website and to the author directly, I guess, Suffice it to say that the rest of the book is thoroughly researched with ample supporting evidence to substantiate this introduction…and more and more qualifying facts are surfacing from around the world all the time that support it too:”The reason the story of the vanished Serengetis and their destruction by humans hasn’t found its way into the general consciousness, is that it contradicts just about everything we think we know about the ecological history of our species. To many of us it’s still “obvious” that the first humans to settle the Americas and Australia — the “native” or “aboriginal” inhabitants of those continents — lived in harmony with the natural world. It’s widely assumed, in fact, that no members of Homo sapiens wiped out other species before the industrial revolution. Even to acknowledge that the great Serengetis we’ve been talking about existed, would already cast a shadow on this vision of pre-industrial ecological harmony. To take the next step and admit outright that our species destroyed them, would require an entirely different conception of human ecological history.That new history would start with the currently unfashionable fact that members of the human family had already learned to hunt animals larger than themselves as far back as the Late Pliocene. It would go on to tell us that, by the early Pleistocene, the hunting skills of the human family had already become formidableenough to cause the extinction of numerous big-animal species in Africa and South Asia. It would inform us, further, that an unbroken flow of human-caused extinctions was to continue after the wholesale extermination of the Australian, European, North Asian and American Serengetis that took place near the end of the Pleistocene — a flow that has swelled, in the last century or two, into the enormous mass-extermination which our species is presently inflicting on the biosphere.It would suggest, finally, that the phenomenon of human-caused mass-extinction was not set in motion by cruelty, greed or thoughtlessness on the part of our species. The first humans to arrive in Australia didn’t want to wipe out the marsupial “rhinos” and “lions” they met up with on that island continent, nor did they even know that they were doing it. To a large extent, present-day humans still lack the power to control their impact on the natural world, and it’s by no means impossible that the destructive impact of our species will turn out to be an unstoppable and inevitable process — the price that is paid, for all we know, in every biosphere where a level of intelligence equal to ours develops.If humans do, however, develop the ability to control their impact on the biosphere, — and develop it while there’s still something worthwhile to save — they will do so through the acquisition of knowledge and awareness. Ecological salvation appears to depend, therefore, on the same phenomenon that initiated the current mass-extinction: the power of the human intellect. Before it can work effectively, however, toward stopping the human-caused extinction, that intellect will have to free itself of the myths which currently becloud its understanding of the biodiversity crisis, and acquaint itself with the real ecological history of its possessors.”I personally believe that the ‘darker views’ may well be a natural response to not understanding the true nature of the problem. And the facts presented in Darwinian evolution are apart of the foundation so rejecting this may well skew your perception. Just my thoughts :) I will avoid delving into either despair or hope until I have a rational framework from which to determine a potential way forward….along with many others who will be doing the same based on the increased amount of information that will become available with the publishing of the book.

  2. kerry says:

    Oh, and I’ve “stolen” that gorgeous baby gorilla pic becuase the nurturing and feminine side of my nature requires that I respond, helplessly, to his neoteny! But don’t worry – it won’t spread further than Mum :)

  3. Trix says:

    I also believe that we have simply ‘evolved’ out of ‘wildness’, having learned different survival techniques more adaptable to our ‘environment’. It leaves us with a more abstract and pliable concept of what is nature and wild.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Kerry: Baz’s book seems entirely consistent with John Gray’s argument in Straw Dogs, except that Gray does not believe in ‘free will’ and hence would not accept Baz’s “ecological salvation through intellect” escape clause. Gray argues there is NO “rational framework from which to determine a potential way forward” and it is sheer neo-religious folly to believe in one.

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