Saturday, July 19, 2008

Law of the jungle


Nature tries hard. I was watching a black ant drag a flake of oatmeal through blades of grass at an alpine lake last weekend, thinking what a hero the little guy was going to be when he got home, when it occurred to me how much junk I had to carry to survive for a few days in the wilderness.

A few weeks ago a series of aerial photographs were sent around the world showing a small clan of "uncontacted" natives living in the rainforest of South America who continue to live independently of the modern world, without drug stores, shopping malls or movie stars. A similar group of aboriginals, the Jawara, were photographed by rescue planes above the Andaman Islands south of India after the devastating tsunami of 2004.

Unlike the needy and malnourished millions at the bottom of the first world pecking order, these fourth world people resist outside help, usually shooting arrows at the airplanes flying over them. Do these people know something we don't?

An estimated 500 uncontacted tribes numbering about 100,000 live very much off-the-grid around the world today, relying on an intimate knowledge of, and interaction with, their environments to survive. The mere existence of these people reminds me that we are all very much a part of the natural world. Their animistic belief systems often attribute living, conscious qualities to the forces of nature, and provide myths to explain the interactions of creatures within the jungle. Scientists do this too, in their own way, pushing forward the frontier of conscious understanding with each generation. Some of them see a hidden wisdom in the natural world.

NASA scientist James Lovelock first presented the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1960s, which holds that the living matter of the Earth (everything from ants and plants, to bacteria and humans) functions like one enormous, self-regulating organism. Lovelock's theory places humanity with thousands of other life forms as an unwitting constituent of a larger intelligence, far beyond our own. Branded a neo-pagan weirdo by the biological science community early on, Lovelock's ideas are gaining momentum in an academic world, which is rapidly becoming more interdisciplinary.

Just as Lovelock crossed the boundary between biology and metaphysics, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson joined biology and sociology (sociobiology) to find scientific reasons for human belief systems. He began by studying the lowly ant, which he said outweighs humans in terms of body mass on the planet, and performs vital chemical reactions which make life as we know it possible.

Wilson came to believe that humans, like ants, are genetically designed to live within natural limits. It is becoming increasingly obvious that those limits are directly related to reduced energy use and consumption of natural resources, family planning, and cooperation among societies, rather than competition.

Now that both the educated and the chic are falling all over one another to be greener than the next, perhaps we should contemplate the lifestyle of those last remaining landlords of the jungle and start shooting some arrows of our own at the bad ideas thrown at us by the advertising machines of our post modern age.

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