A while ago, Lupa wrote a post on the false natural/artificial dichotomy that so many of us have internalized.
Looking from an evolutionary perspective, humans are animals. And we evolved big brains as our single most important adaptation to the environmental pressures put on us. Everything we have created, from culture to architecture to medicines to religion–all these are the product of the brains we’ve evolved. Not every product of the brain is immediately noticeable as having pragmatic purposes, and indeed there are some interesting extrapolations of survival instincts repurposed into impractical (and yet sometimes incredibly fun!) pursuits. However, there is nothing that we do that did not come about as a result of our evolutionary history.
So put in that framework, all the things we build–homes, roads, cars, computers–are just extensions of the instinct to have shelter, get food and mates, raise young, etc. We have taken the basic need to build a nest and turned it into an unthinkably complex system of shelters and things to acquire shelters (and other resources). For brevity’s sake, I will be referring to this as the human nest-building endeavor.
So it is that humans make VERY big nests. And it just so happens that we are better than any other animal at excluding other species from our nests at will. Birds, for example, will remove parasites and other unwanted critters from their nests to protect their young; so will mammalian parents. We’ve just gotten really damned good at the same thing. We are weatherproofing and removing plants that could undermine foundations and keeping out other animals that could introduce disease or be a threat to us and our families. And so our weathertight buildings and better mousetraps are just the natural result of taking those instincts toward nest building and funneling them through our brains.
The difference between a superhighway and ten-acre prairie dog town is largely one of scale and material. We do what we do because it makes our lives and reproduction easier. Much of what we consider “artificial” behavior or activity is entirely natural human activity.
And as we change the environment to make it more conducive to our survival, other animals adapt to that altered environment, and use it to their benefit as well.
Which is why I found this very interesting:
Scientists believe the phenomenon began after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, and Russia’s new capitalists moved industrial complexes from the city centre to the suburbs.
Dr Andrei Poiarkov, of the Moscow Ecology and Evolution Institute, said: “These complexes were used by homeless dogs as shelters, so the dogs had to move together with their houses. Because the best scavenging for food is in the city centre, the dogs had to learn how to travel on the subway — to get to the centre in the morning, then back home in the evening, just like people.”
Dr Poiarkov told how the dogs like to play during their daily commute. He said: “They jump on the train seconds before the doors shut, risking their tails getting jammed. They do it for fun. And sometimes they fall asleep and get off at the wrong stop.”
And they use cunning tactics to obtain tasty morsels of shawarma, a kebab-like snack popular in Moscow.They sneak up behind people eating shawarmas — then bark loudly to shock them into dropping their food.
With children the dogs “play cute” by putting their heads on youngsters’ knees and staring pleadingly into their eyes to win sympathy — and scraps.
I like the barking trick.
Now, before I get blasted for promoting wild urbanization and the elimination of all wildlife, I should clarify that such is not the case. But as with many animals that have adapted to human development, these dogs are adapting to their environments and taking advantage of their resources to improve their chances of survival. Before complex human habitations came along, animals were doing it to other animals as well, stealing borrows and nests for their own use. It is what life does: it adapts to its conditions and learns to survive.
The difference, as Lupa says, is that we are consciously aware of what we are doing and how it impacts other species, and we can compensate for that to some degree. But what I think this really illustrates is that we are not that different from other animals. Despite our pretense to grant spirituality, intellect, purpose, and enlightenment, we are still animals, and we do what we do largely because our wetware is configured to do those things that have enabled us to survive well up to this point.
We ignore this fact at our peril.