The Auto-Pygmalion and the inner predator
We were predators before we were shepherds. Despite what a liberal interpretation of myths such as Genesis might tell us – that we are caretakers of the Earth and all that inhabit it – our reality is that care-taking is primarily a sop to conscience, and that we have a preferred method of dealing with the world outside ourselves. Although “preferred” may seem like the wrong word, it is not. Humanity evolved as predators, and that is how we continue today. Even those of us who eat no meat cannot be said to abstain from that predation, as the evolutionary defences of plants make it clear that they too share in the hunting relationship. Some of them, such as pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps, even predate back.
Thus, in the sense of our own evolutionary history, the choice is made for us. We are predators, not caretakers; bloody-mouthed shepherds, not sheep. Yet along with our jaws and our running pelvis and our throwing arm, our minds also evolved, and it is that which gives us the choice of whether to retain our view of ourselves as predators, or to subsume that old knowledge into a new identity.
Yet as we look at the world today, it is not hard to see that this new identity has not been taken up by many of our fellow predators. For predation continues – on the weak and the helpless, those that cannot fight back, who are the lesser predators themselves. And deep within us – or, at least, deep within me – there is a small voice that says: “Do they not deserve it?”
It’s easier to remember your evolutionary heritage when you are physically strong. Then, any interaction with others is coloured by weakness – specifically, their weakness or lack thereof. It’s something that’s felt not only in real life communities, but in virtual ones as well, when each individual met is automatically put in one of two categories: they are weaker than me, or I am weaker than them.
It’s bragging to say it, but in most cases people I meet fall into the first category: men and women, physically and intellectually. And that is where my problem comes in. I can’t get away from the fact that I size people up like a predator – people or posts give out particular vibes, like an animal limping at the edge of a pack, like blood in the water.
It is the strong that survive, and the strong that should survive. Give me not that milquetoast “and the meek shall enter…” please. Why should they? I ask myself. And then that question gets damped down quite quickly, for the stronger part of me, the part that is not wholly predator, realises that a world run according to the will of the strong is more likely than most to end in bloodshed and destruction – and even in the service of a wider ideal, the improvement of the species, that is not a tactic that can be justified. Yet what is it that surmounts those millions of years of physical evolution? Is there a social evolution that moves alongside of it, a development of altruism that benefits the species, if not the individual? Some would argue that this knowledge comes from God, that atheists cannot explain the knowledge of good and evil in any other way – and yet, like the religious, atheists have that knowledge every moment of every day of their lives, for it exists within the body, “red in tooth and claw”.
If such as thing as God did exist, he would be the ultimate predator. You only need to read the Old Testament – among other religious texts – to realise that anyone who can and will slaughter entire cities of themselves can keep lesser predators in line when needed. But without that top predator, what keeps the rest of us from giving in to our own ability to predate?
There is the social contract, of course. If you don’t predate me then I won’t predate you. But if one were given the chance to predate, in an environment where that predation is free from risk or almost so, does that social contract hold? It doesn’t and neither does the religion – the fear that God will punish can and is often subsumed in the assumption that God will forgive, or that God will excuse or support a predation done for his sake.
Yet that God should doesn’t necessarily mean that we should – and are we not the predators with whom we should have the most concern? It’s inescapable that, whether you believe in the death penalty or not, the world is just better off without certain individuals in it. Few would shed a tear if instigators of genocide were to be brought down by their own packs, and their blood spilled in place of others’. There is a certain temptation in power that the ability to successfully predate feeds upon, and that temptation is ongoing. If we cannot match the ultimate predator with his ultimate forgiveness, our own mortal lives still revolve around our ability to predate and our ability to judge the predation of others, and of ourselves. A certain amount of predation is necessary to live, after all. Perhaps that is the duty of the evolving Autopygmalion: to live with the temptation of our own nature without wallowing in it or hiding from it. To know the truth of our bodies and ourselves.
I don’t know the final result of this conflict between our two natures – the natures of our past. Where will they take us in the future? Can there ever be a resolution, while we look at our hands and see the remnants of claws, while we can see the canines in each other’s smiles, and the soft pulse in the softer throats around us? Perhaps that is where we find the real knowledge of good and evil – in our ability to predate, and our reason to employ or withstand it.
Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.