The Ecphorizer

The Call of the Wild
Gareth Penn

Issue #33 (May 1984)

Why we live in the suburbs

Why two recent box-office hits, Splash and Greystoke, are remarkable not just for their being well made and entertaining, but also for the fact that as different as they are in mood and treatment, both take

The porpose clearly does not need intelligence to survive.

off from the same premise: that human civilization is somehow inferior to the wild. Splash juxtaposes a mythological natural environment, whose denizens include [quoteright]such fabulous creatures as mermaids, with the all-warts-on, kidgloves-off environment of modern civilization, typified by Manhattan. In Greystoke a no-holds-barred natural environment, in which the rule is kill or be killed, is contrasted with a view of civilization as seen through the genteel eyes of the editors of Country Life.

In both cases, the protagonist sees through the sham of civilization and returns to his or her respective wild origins. The jumping-off place in the one film is diametrically opposed to that of the other; yet both come to the same conclusion. This flexibility of content would seem to suggest that the idea has a great deal of appeal to a popular audience. And in fact, even a cursory examination of the annals of literature reveals that especially since the Industrial Revolution, the idea that nature is better than human civilization has been a very popular one.

Nature tends to be idealized or romanticized chiefly by people who have had little contact with it. Those who have had much contact know it to be rather rugged and inhospitable to humans. Those who have devoted a great deal of study to it know that while it is not a place for people, it does represent a kind of perfection that civilization cannot achieve.

One of these students of nature is a whale-behaviorist of my acquaintance, Dr. Ted Walker, who has spent most of his adult life studying the wildernesses of Baja California and southeast Alaska. I consider Ted to be one of the wisest people I have ever met, and I have spent a lot of time trying to distill out of his discourses a comprehensive scheme for understanding the differences between the wild and civilization, and what distinguishes man from the animals. The world according to Walker can be described with four relatively simple propositions:

  1. Human intelligence is an evolutionary response to man's physical inadequacy.
  2. Intelligence, implemented by speech, manifests itself behaviorally in two main traits: collective action (society) and the use of tools (technology).
  3. Behavior is the resultant of two forces: the physical nature of the environment, and the particular animal's unique sensorium.
  4. Intelligence is an asset, where the preservation and advancement of the human species is concerned; but in terms of the overall well-being of nature, it is, to judge by the record, a detraction (e.g. acid rain is a by-product of intelligent activity); sensing that our main virtue is in many respects a fault, we project it, by anthropomorphization, onto other species, to spread the blame around.
Proposition #1 is proven by this thought-experiment. Go out naked, unarmed, and alone, into the wild. Make it any place you like, Muir Woods or the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Now try to survive without the help and counsel of others, without clothing or shelter, tools or weapons. This is not a Boy Scout survival course: you don't get string, a pocket knife, or fish hooks. Even the use of sticks and stones is prohibited. How many days will it take you to die of starvation or exposure? Which one will get you first?

Proposition #2 is, I think, self-evident. The power of an individual is amplified through cooperation (a lone hunter cannot bring down an elephant, but a whole village can). The power of an individual is similarly potentiated by technology (I cannot move this boulder on my own, but with that stick over there as a lever, I can do it easily).

Concerning the third proposition, anyone who has tried out the thought-experiment suggested above has already come to the conclusion that the unassisted H. sapiens is generally not able to subsist on wild prey faster or smarter than banana slugs. Human dentition, which is long on molars and incisors, but short on canines and bicuspids, suggests that when the terms of this thought-experiment were in fact the rule, man subsisted mainly on roots and other vegetables. What little meat man ate was too slow to get away from him - and may not have moved at all.

The acuity of the sense of taste is directly related to the number of taste buds per unit of area on the surface of the tongue. As a rule of thumb, animals that depend for their sustenance on live prey have a relatively low concentration of taste buds and very little appreciation of what they eat. The animals that have the highest taste-bud count are the ones who depend on the sense of taste, in part, for their survival: carrion eaters. It is important to a carrion eater to be able to distinguish between good meat and bacterial colonies. It says something about our origins that H. sapiens has one of the most acute tongues in the animal kingdom. Now you know why it is that the greatest delicacies in the civilized menu are the products of decomposition, e.g. wine and cheese. Can I interest you in a goulash of road-kill?

To prove the fourth proposition, I suggest you go out and see the wild up close. The sea is the most accessible and as yet still unspoiled wilderness, where the invisible hand of the ecological marketplace still governs. A textbook case of anthropomorphization is going on with the porpoise. There are those who would have you believe that the porpoise has a human-like intelligence and even possesses the power of speech. These claims are not only completely undocumented, but they run counter to the general observation that evolution has never produced anything superfluous, and that as soon as something becomes superfluous, evolution either eliminates or vestigializes it (e.g. the human appendix, e.g. the porpoise's hooves - all the cetacean species evolved out of an ungulate ancestor).

The porpoise clearly does not need intelligence to survive, let alone thrive. While it is a social animal, it does not need society. It does not need tools, or shelter, or anything beyond its magnificent physique. The porpoise can swim alongside a boat making 12-15 knots for a half-hour at a stretch without tiring, then loop backwards a half-mile, turn around again and with an amazing burst of speed, catch up with the boat again. While it is tossing off this minor athletic miracle, just to rub in its superiority, it will playfully shoot its 300-pound body out of the water, flying maybe twenty feet through the air at a time. Its mouth is armed with big, strong, sharp teeth: it could sever a man's thigh if it felt like it. A blanket of blubber insulates it against the heat-sink in which it spends every moment of its life, from birth on. It has one of the most ingenious senses ever bestowed on an animal - echo-location - with which it can actually reach out and feel objects and animals hundreds of feet away. What need does an animal like this have of intelligence or speech? Why would it need to deal in verbal abstractions? It is true that the porpoise brain is larger than the human brain, but it seems likely that the extra brain tissue is there to handle the millions of transactions needed to interpret echolocation data, not to philosophize.

In short, the reason for the success of the porpoise species is not their intelligence, but their superb physical adaptation to their environment. By contrast, H. sapiens could be said to be a similar evolutionary success only if he had evolved into an environment characterized by the presence of large bodies of lukewarm chicken-noodle soup and the absence of predators any larger and more ferocious than a tabby cat.

The reason for the success of the central idea of the two movies mentioned above [Splash and Greystoke] is that we sense that our civilization is nothing but a fig leaf over our basic inferiority. We envy the wild. It is better than we are. And so we romanticize it, anthropomorphize it, and look the other way while civilization destroys it. Both of these movies have happy endings. The Earl of Greystoke strips off his clothes and goes back to hoot around in the jungle with the apes and does not die of malaria or bilharzia. Allen Bauer joins Madison in her underwater abode and does not succumb to anoxia or hypothermia. Both, of course, are fictions. In real life, both Tarzan and Madison would have wound up on the dissecting table, victims of man's envy of the wild world that rejected him as misbegotten.

Gareth Penn turns his attention to the cinema in this issue.  We should note that he has sent this editor a lexicon of chimpanzee words developed by Edgar Rice Burroughs for Tarzan.  Perhaps he will review Greystoke for us, in the native tongue.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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