We have been listening to the audio version of Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. Everyone should read or listen to this book. If you are religious, the odd dig at religious belief might irritate you but that shouldn’t put you off.
I won’t spoil the book for you by saying too much about it but, briefly, Dawkins takes a backward “pilgrimage” through time and evolution showing how all the branches representing modern creatures converge at various “rendezvous” points along the “tree” of evolution. Among other things this takes us successively to the common ancestors we share with other species and gives many fascinating insights into evolution and what it means – or should mean – to us.
In last night’s episode, the dodo was discussed. In the context of the history of life on earth, the extinction of the dodo is perhaps not hugely important. Closely related to pigeons, the dodo had found an environment that suited it marvellously, where it had food in abundance and no enemies. It had therefore lost the power of flight and all fear of other creatures. It must have lived an almost idyllic existence until man appeared on the scene.
What happened next is not entirely clear but it seems that over a relatively short period of time, ships’ crews putting into Mauritius, the home of the dodo, clubbed to death the whole species. If hungry sailors, anxious to replenish supplies of food used up during long days becalmed at sea, had taken the birds there might have been some excuse but it seems that dodo flesh was not particularly palatable, so that wasn’t the reason why they were all killed. Why then, were they killed? The answer is that they were killed for no very good reason, just because it was easy to do so (having no enemies, the dodos were trusting and approached human beings) and, to some people, entertaining.
We might be tempted to dismiss the destruction of the dodo as a sad piece of mischief perpetrated in a less enlightened age than our own. The signs, however, are that this excuse will not wash: our treatment of our planet and its inhabitants, human and non-human, is still far from exemplary. Most people know of the extinction of the dodo; how many know of the extinction of hundreds of other species, some of them barely known to science?
Again, we might find some excuse for this if the cause were beyond our control or if our ignorance prevented us from understanding the causes or knowing what we could do to prevent it. That excuse is simply not available. Many species have disappeared and many are on the danger list, seemingly condemned, and this is purely our fault. Whether it is a sin of commission (e.g. killing creatures whose only sin is to cause us some inconvenience) or of omission (e.g. allowing the forests which the orang utan needs for its survival to be cut down) hardly matters. We are to blame and we cannot duck the responsibility.
At the heart of the problem lies a single terrible fact: the human race is violent. It commits acts of violence in order to survive; it commits them in order to make its life comfortable; and it commits them for sport. Yes, for sport. Cock fighting, dog fighting, hare coursing, hunting and fishing are all examples of violence used for sport, for entertainment. The fact that humans are violent with one another hardly needs stating: it goes with the character of such a violent breed.
I watched a famous TV thriller series on DVD recently. Well, actually, I followed part of it and then gave up on it. I simply couldn’t bear it any longer. I won’t tell you the title because this is not a crusade against a particular company, studio or author. What sickened me in this series was not just that someone was killed, often gruesomely, every few minutes and that torture was continually used, but that these acts were shown as if they were normal, natural, no more worrying than the characters taking tea together. I found this presumption of the normality of violence repugnant and totally unacceptable.
You may argue, as the partisans of violent games, books and videos do, that this is just entertainment, fantasy, pretend violence. But so what? The point is that we believe in it while we are watching it otherwise what is the point of watching it? Is it credible that we can enjoy violence in entertainment and deplore it in real life? You may think so but I somehow doubt it.
In my more optimistic moods, I still hope against hope that a miracle will occur and that we will come to our senses, save the planet and the surviving species we share it with, and learn to live together in peace before it is too late. These optimistic moments are becoming rarer. If the miracle happens, I doubt whether I will live to see it. On the other hand, if I die before it happens then it will probably be too late, anyway.
A fitting symbol of our predicament would be a dodo with a human face.