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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas in Shaolin

This week I spent my first Christmas Day in Shaolin, a.k.a. Staten Island. As we turned off the oceanfront road into my mother's neighbourhood, she stopped the car so I could see the flock of wild turkeys loitering on the sidewalk. For my readers outside NYC, I should point out that Shaolin is indeed one of the city's five boroughs. And there they were: wild turkeys on a New York sidewalk.

My mother claims to have seen flocks as large as thirty or forty crossing the street and tying up traffic. To my surprise, there are apparently wild turkeys all over the city, including one in Battery Park City. (New York Times, November 24, 2006) And not just turkeys: a deer was recently struck and killed by an automobile on Hylan Boulevard, a main street in Shaolin.

As I sat there watching turkeys occupying an urban sidewalk, I thought about how completely we city dwellers have expelled animals from our lives, aside from pets and meat. Don't mistake me for a faux-nostalgically anti-urban or anti-modern sort. No, I'll have none of that. But something deep inside me was stirred by contemplating all the previous generations of our species who lived among the other animals throughout their lives. What have we lost and what have we gained by expelling wild animals from our midst?

Life is more predictable now, that's for sure: no more wild boars charging through our lives or goats eating our crops. We're probably exposed to fewer illnesses now. Does anyone even get cowpox anymore? Yet, if not for cowpox, we might never have overcome smallpox. Perhaps the case for tolerating random dangers is too rarely made.

Although not mammals, turkeys are essentially like us: they are vertebrates with skin and four limbs and similar internal systems. If catastrophic climate change wipes us out, the turkeys are going, too. And yes, that includes the bad-ass turkeys of Shaolin. In fact, all the mammals and birds and fish could potentially die out within a hundred years.

Which leads one to ask, who then shall inherit the earth? There may be readers better prepared to speculate than I, but the spiders and the insects seem like viable candidates to succeed us. If not them, some species will continue evolving for millions of years until they start building rocketships and blogging, or doing whatever the future rulers of the earth will do to entertain themselves.

Spiders, if they survive, seem like a good bet to me. They must already have very sophisticated brains to operate eight limbs. Much of our brain power is devoted to organ function and muscular dexterity. I'm not a brain surgeon, but it probably takes more brain power to move one's arm than to do complex equations or interpret a painting. If we suddenly grew extra limbs (as happened to Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man issue 100), we would not have the cerebral hardware or software to control them. Also, spiders have some kind of intuitive geometry that allows them to build their homes from their own bodies.

Can we call what spiders do math? How would an advanced arachnid cognition understand the physical world? Is math only something that we do? Would evolved spiders create disciplines for their knowledge? What forms of culture and morality would future spiders develop?

Obviously I don't know the answers to these questions, but thinking about them makes me aware of the distinctly human properties and limits of our own thoughts. Evolutionary biologists have speculated that arachnophobia is a holdover of an adaptation from a time when venomous spiders and other creatures posed a more widespread threat to us. Perhaps. Even the words 'creepy' and 'crawly' bother some people.

But ultimately what the Shaolin turkey episode reminds me of this holiday season is the fundamental plasticity of species, all species. Even if homo sapiens outlive global warming, we and everything else on the planet are constantly changing. Even if the spiders never overtake us, let alone the turkeys, the species we are today could be unrecognizably different in as little as, what, fifty thousand years? Even if we survive, we die.

And with that thought I wish you all happy holidays and an exciting new year.


Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Wow. One day after reflecting on wild nature in Staten Island, I find this article at the BBC's website on new cases of rabies there:

Shaolin residents, beware.

9:56 PM, December 27, 2006


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