Thursday, March 24, 2011

Darwin Is Alive and Well In Tanzania!

Do Animals Trust?
Or, Why Animals Would Die If They Trusted, and Why Humans Would Die If They Didn’t

Polls say something like 40% of Americans don’t “believe in” Darwinism. It’s safe to say that here in Tanzania 100% of life not only believes in Darwinism, it also practices it and depends on it.
Rule #1: All life wants to live and will do everything in its power to stay alive.
Rule #2: A mutations either contributes to the ability of a living plant or animal to survive—or it doesn’t.
Conclusion: Nature is the ultimate pragmatist. What increases the capacity of a living thing to survive—what works in evolutionary terms—itself survives. What doesn’t, doesn’t.
Look at a plant, a bush, a tree, an animal, a bird, and you will find clues as to what has helped it survive.
The whistling thorns on the acacia have two lines of defense against hungry giraffes. The first are the thorns designed to discourage hungry giraffes from grazing on the tender green sprigs of the acacia. But giraffes evolved with lips and tongues capable of nibbling around those sharp thorns. So next came gull-shaped bulbs that sit between the thorns—and are filled with attack ants. When the bulbs are shaken, disturbed, moved in any way, the ants swarm out and attack whatever has caused the gull-shaped bulbs to move. For instance, the tender tongue and lips of a hungry giraffe.
Or take the honey guide, a bird that uses its distinctive song to attract the attention of human hunters from the Hadza tribe. The men of the Hadza tribe depend on a supply of honey as part of their hunter-gatherer diet. The honey guide sings to get the Hadza’s attention (and sometimes the Hadza whistle the honey guide’s song to see if any are around) and then lead the Hadza to nearby trees where bees have hidden their honey combs.
It’s easy to see what the Hadza get out of this arrangement, but what in Darwin’s name do the honey guides get?
The answer comes when you watch the Hadza harvest the honey and what happens next.
The Hadza stick their arms into the honey holes, ignoring the stings of the bees—or trying to numb the bees by smoking them out with a punk fire. Then they pull out comb after comb of the bees’ honey and eat it right on the spot, slurping down the deliciously sweet honey, eating the larvae, and spitting out the wax.
But it’s the wax the honey guides want! Without the help of the Hadza, the honey guides wouldn’t be able to get to the honey combs in the first place—the birds have no way to get inside the trunks of the trees to access the combs. And then without the Hadza chewing up the combs and spitting out the wax, which the humans don’t want, the birds wouldn’t be able to get the one part of the combs they want, the wax.
It’s all existentially pragmatic, on both sides. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t survive. And if it didn’t survive, it wouldn’t work.
Which brings us to the topic of trust.
Do animals trust each other? Is trust a survival instinct for animals?
When a herd of zebras is grazing together, do they stand so that the stronger ones can protect the weaker? When the leaders start to run and the rest of the herd takes off instantly, is that a measure of trust?
My friend and mentor Richard Leider says yes.
Animals do, in fact, trust each other. Look at how younger elephants learn to look up to, to respect and to trust the older ones. Look at what happened some years back when young male elephants had no older males to teach them the ropes. The herd was running riot, and it wasn’t until some older, mature males were introduced into the mix that the younger males settled down and learned the ropes. Trust, he says, is part of the animal kingdom.
I say no.
What we’re seeing in animals, what he’s describing, isn’t trust. Animals don’t know about trust, much less practice it. What we’re seeing, what they’re practicing, is behavior that results from millions of years of evolution.
Their leaders aren’t leaders because the other animals “trust” them. They’re leaders because they are the biggest, the strongest, the toughest, the fastest.
If you are, say, a zebra, and you are none of those things—not the biggest, strongest, toughest, fastest—and one of the zebras who is all of them starts to run, you don’t ask yourself whether you trust him. You don’t call a meeting of the other lesser zebras to see what they think. You run. He runs, you run. Otherwise you’ve just increased your chances of being eaten.
Or try flipping it the other way: for animals to be capable of trust, they also have to be capable of not-trust.
Can you honestly imagine a herd of wildebeest who stop as their leader starts to run, and engage in thoughtful wildebeestian dialog as to whether or not they trust this particular leader? Should they run? Or not run? He’s been wrong before, you know. Remember that time he thought he smelled something, but it turned out to be nothing? This is a pretty nice grazing spot. And if we run, and it turns out there’s no reason to run, we’ll have left it for no good reason!
Of course, if the leader was right, the weakest of the wildebeest is now jackal fare. So much for not trusting the leader!
But what about humans?
We have a problem very different from the other animals.
We are small and relatively weak. We do have opposable thumbs and a great big brain. We have a fight or flight mechanism like the other animals, but we also come equipped with an over-ride switch: our left-sided, problem-solving brain. Our consciousness. Our social networking skills. Our ability to work with each other, plan with each other, depend on each other. In other words, to trust each other.
We need to be able to trust each other to survive. Animals need not to have to trust each other to survive.
Darwin is alive and well and surviving in the Serengeti of Tanzania. It’s where you go to see how the world really works, how life works, what it takes to survive.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What's the Opposite of Capitalism?

No, it's not communism.
It's Hadza-ism.
Never heard of it?
Try checking out the Dorobo Fund website (and while you're there, make a contribution).
Or read yesterday's New York Time's piece on what separates men from apes, based on studies of hunter-gatherer societies: collaboration and cooperation.
The Hadza are a tribe of about 1,000 people living in Tanzania as they have for something like 70,000 or more years. As hunter-gatherers.
Every day, the men of the tribe get up with their hand-made bows and hand-carved arrows, some more blunt-tipped for shooting at birds, others with metal-honed arrowheads and shafts carefully covered with poison derived from a rose bush, and go looking for animals to shoot and honey to collect.
Every day, the women get up and collect their digging sticks so they can sit at the base of a large bush and tear away at the ground until they uncover tubers that will feed them, their families, and the tribe.
As hunter-gatherers, the Hadza are constantly on the move. So they have few possessions. The men carry knives and hatchets, bows and arrows, and perhaps a small bag with a few important items. But if a Hadza man already has a knife, for example, and he somehow gets another one, he'll simply give it someone in the tribe who needs a knife. He has no need of another thing to carry. The same applies to the women.
The Hadza are a non-hierarchical society, with no "leaders" and no apparent need for leaders. The men and women are equal; the lack of "stuff" makes it easy for a woman who objects to the way she is being treated or who simply wants a fresh start to go off on her own or join a new camp.
The hunting and gathering part of their lives take up roughly 10% of their time. The rest is spent talking and telling stories, gambling (the men throw pieces of wood against a tree until only one of the wood pieces turns up with the same side as the "guide" piece), and enjoying the company of each other in camp.
The Hadza are remarkably happy and easy going. They laugh a lot (and sometimes argue loudly).
They are a society that operates on immediate gratification: an animal that is killed is eaten immediately, as is honey that is gathered, and tubers that are unearthed. They live in the perpetual present.
They seem to lack for nothing, at least nothing that they actually want or seem to need.
Now you could call them primitive. Or backward. Or maybe even uncivilized.
But none of that is true. Far from it.
They live as emerging humans lived tens of thousands, maybe even millions of years ago.
The live close to nature. They live with a way of life that is deeply connected to the animals they hunt, the honey they collect, the tubers they dig. They don't want to use guns--guns would upset the fragile and sustainable balance that they've learned about over centuries and continue to practice. They don't even use matches--not when they can make fire with a stick and some punk and a knife they can use as a flat surface.
Now I'm not saying I want to swap places with the Hadza. I couldn't make it, for one thing.
But we could learn from them.
We have so much stuff, and we still want more. We get everything we can ask for, one way or another, but it doesn't make us happy. Have you checked out the figures for the number of people in the US who are taking anti-depressants every day?
Having stuff doesn't make you rich, and being rich doesn't make you happy.
Wanting more stuff than you need just fills your life up with things you don't need and can't use, but doesn't do anything to fill the hole that's inside, the one hole that matters when it comes to figuring out what your life is about and what your way of life is worth.
For what it's worth, the Hadza have it figured out.
And we need them around to remind us.
Fact is, we need them a lot more than they need us.

Friday, March 11, 2011

When You Ask the Wrong Questions . . .

You Get the Wrong Answers.
One of the first things you notice when you return to the good old US of A after a prolonged absence (especially an absence that was all about cutting off all connections to the web, emails, and media in general, while living in a tent in Africa) is what America and Americans are talking about.
No, I don't mean Charlie Sheen, although apparently he has a firm grasp on the media's imagination.
I mean things like the Wisconsin State Legislature, which apparently thinks that the real, deep, underlying, systemic cause of that state's economic problems is the ability of public employees to bargain collectively. Interesting connection, that one. I did not see it coming. I thought the deep, underlying, systemic cause of that state's economic problems--and much of America's--is our national sense of economic entitlement. We want what we want, except we don't actually want to pay for it.
Or I mean the hearings called by US Representative Peter King, an elected official who is apparently the poster-child for Ding-Dongs, or maybe that's just a connection that I make based on his seriously misguided attempt to explore the connection between Islam in America and radicalization. Perhaps it would be unkind to point out to Representative King that it wasn't exactly Muslims who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, or holed up in a mountain cabin sending exploding letters to people, or dropped anthrax powder into the mail.
Maybe we should have hearings into why Americans are disaffected from America.
Because that's the hit I'm getting upon my return home.
Americans aren't too happy about America these days.
The feeling is, I sense, that, for too many people, we've gone over to the dark side of the American Dream. The old deal was, work hard, study hard, pay your taxes, play by the rules, and you'll get ahead.
Today, people hear that and just laugh.
Today the tax code seems reserved for the already-wealthy, access to power is reserved for the already-powerful, and the laws protect those who are already very well-protected, thank you very much.
A meritocracy (or the promise one) has turned into a plutocracy. Them what has, gits. Them what doesn't have, gits blamed.
It's not a pretty picture, and it wasn't always this way, and there are plenty of things that can be done and are being done to try to fix the situation.
But meanwhile, we've got people in Wisconsin and Washington, DC, to name just a couple of places, who are steadfastly asking the wrong questions and consistently coming up with the wrong answers.
It may make for great political theater.
But it also makes for lost national opportunities and a sad betrayal of the promise of America.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So Near and Yet So Far

I'm back on US soil after a 16-day safari in Tanzania, much of it spent camping with Masai and Hadza tribespeople. But more about that later.
This morning, my first in the US since enduring about 19 hours of flying torture at the hands of the amateur-night-at-the-opera airline known as KLM, I walked 15 minutes down to the nearest newstand and picked up the NY Times, the FT, and the local paper, all of which featured headline news from Africa. Not just the stories of Libya and Egypt, but also the implications of all the changes shaking that continent--from terrorism to oil prices. All of a sudden a continent that most Americans don't care much about and know even less about (even as China races to lock up rare and valuable minerals and raw materials) is dominating the world's attention.
But what I'm thinking about is slightly different: it's the relationship of proximity and news.
For 16 days I was roughly in the same neighborhood as the events that were shaking the world.
Every morning I'd rumble out of my tent around 6:15 and walk up the gentle hill to the campsite and the first fire of the day. I'd pour myself a cup of cowboy coffee and then find a place to stand and watch the sun rise over a landscape of stunning beauty and simplicity. Each morning the moon would gradually surrender another slice; the Southern Cross would still be visible as I sipped my coffee and then all of a sudden it wouldn't be. The birds would start slowly and quietly to greet the new day and before long they'd be loud and constant in their songs.
But what made the morning were the reports from what my fellow campers and I came to call "Radio Pallangyo"--named for Pallangyo, the trusted right-hand man of Daudi Peterson, the remarkable leader of Dorobo Tours who dazzled us with his easy command of facts both natural (he's the #2 ranked birder in Tanzania) and political (he's been working steadily to safeguard the rights and dignity of Tanzania's badly treated tribal minorities).
Pallangyo would come out of his tent and stroll easily to the campfire, greeting the early morning risers with Swahili words of good morning, pour his own cup of coffee. And then, after he was settled, we'd ask him for the latest news from "Radio Pallangyo."
Because as near as we were to the events in Africa, we were off the grid when it came to news.
All we had was Pallangyo's lone plastic radio, tuned every morning to the BBC World Report and Voice of America--when he could get a signal.
And so like small town Americans from another time and another era, we'd sit around the campfire and ask Radio Pallangyo for a recitation: what had he heard that morning? What was going on in Libya? Would Qaddafi hold on? Who was the military backing? Had the dictator actually threatened to kill his own people? Was it possible: first he was blaming Al Qaeda for fomenting revolution, then attacking the West with the same charge!
Every morning Radio Pallangyo gave us the headlines and set the tone for the talk around the campfire.
We were in Africa, Africa was on fire, but we were off the grid and all we knew came from a tiny plastic radio that sat in one tent and gave us the news we craved before we set off to hike the green hills of Africa, spotting wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and countless birds.
There we were, on the front lines of global change, so near and yet so far.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb