Biophilia: A History of Abuse

We have no ideas. (You will notice that I am using the royal plural: not so much out of arrogance as out of sheer necessity, since there is no pronoun for this sort of subjectivity, nor has there ever been. You may think of it as a metaphorical or an allegorical plural, if that will help you come to terms with it.) So it can’t have been our idea to develop those delicate monkeys on the savannas of East Africa, to train them to stand upright so that they might spot the lions better over the tall grass. We had not grown bored, we did not feel the need for a New Frontier, and we were certainly not itching for progress. Admittedly, the little fellows were not without charm, and even wit. In fact they quickly became the darlings of the East African scene! Everybody loved them: and what a flavor! But then suddenly they weren’t playing along with us anymore. We can still recall the day that dinofelis, a rather portly primitive leopard who had developed quite a taste for the Australopithecus, complained to us that his prey had become denatured, that the creatures were defending themselves with fortifications of sharpened sticks and volleys of stones, and thus imperiling the survival of the entire dinofelis dynasty. They are up to something we cannot comprehend, they wailed, something unforeseen. For you see, we ourselves have no unions, no guaranteed employment, no police to crack down on unlicensed trade, so we were defenseless against this new and unlawful competition. We had underestimated the cute little bipeds. And while dinofelis was singing his song of woe at all the most fashionable watering holes, it had already grown too late.

Now, as you know very well, the little guys didn’t stop at putting old Dino out of business: they went on to take over the whole company. We looked the other way for one moment (a little matter of a lousy four million years) and boom, they had decoded their own genome and were getting ready to start running the whole show. Well, we wish them much joy at it. We have nothing against them, we don’t hold any grudges. Let them play with their genes, let them do their arts & crafts with elephant’s trunks and saber-teeth, let them open their Jurassic Parks.

That’s right. You do your own thing, baby. You’ve opened up your own little shop and you don’t need us anymore, not even the calories you used to derive from a diet of us, and which you can now produce a thousand times more efficiently with your own genetically altered vegetables and meat. If you get bored you can listen to Mozart, discuss the ethics of globalization or go snowboarding. You have your own world, your cities and your air-conditioned rooms. You’ve even developed a tame, pocket-sized dinofelis to lie purring on your lap and comfort away the fear its ancient ancestor snarled into you. And you know what? If it makes you happy it’s okay with us.

But here’s what does get us: it’s a certain attitude that’s been detectable of late. We may have no ideas, but believe it or not, we do have our self-respect. We’re not sore losers (to borrow your military metaphor), but we do not like being laughed at. And if there’s one thing we hate, it’s those safaris of yours. Those solemn parades through your national parks, those saccharine survival maneuvers in the wilderness, the desert, the jungle, what-have-you. Now, we understand that you don’t want to settle every square inch of the planet with your own kind: absolute narcissism is absolutely stultifying, after all. You can continue to enjoy your nature preserves for all we care. It’s not the cause itself that interests us. Whether we have to live without the rhinoceros, the giant hamster rat, or some worthy old ameba, once responsible for earth-shaking bouts of diarrhea back when your species was still in diapers, it’s all of a piece to us, really, now that we have definitively lost the race. (We’ve even heard that you are planning on making yourselves indefinitely sustainable, to which we say: ) So you see, there we are: we’re taking it like a man, as it were, hardly sniffing at our own defeat, and what do we have to contend with? The conqueror wants our pity! And why? For having beaten us!

That’s right: constant yammering and whining, about how sorry you are, how much you love us, how much you want to protect us (of all the nerve!), how much you want to save this or that species from extinction – and of course it’s always some cute, cuddly little furry species, and never virus or bacteria, the most successful of all life forms and the real feather in our cap. How you feel responsible for us, how you want to act as our advocate, how much you care about our diversity. (Oh right, and how about old Dino, or those tubercles, for that matter?)

So there we are. Bloody but unbowed, losers fair and square, we’ve retired to our corners to lick our wounds when along comes some so-called naturalist with a sponge and a bottle of mercurochrome and wants to bend our ear about the dreadful loss that he’s sustained! Can you imagine how it feels to have jeep-loads of peeping Toms and Tinas riding all over the savanna, photographing your most intimate family moments, their hearts positively bleeding at the sight of a limping gazelle, their bladders practically bursting at the spectacle of a clumsy little darling elephant baby? Isn’t this an obscenity to rival pornography: indeed, to outdo it? (And note in passing that the hypocritical concept of biophilia, as the inborn affinity human beings have for other forms of life, does not originate with us, but was coined by the natural scientist E.O. Wilson in his book of the same name, published by Harvard University Press in 1984.)

Or consider something truly dreadful: scuba-diving. There you go, jetting all over the world, wreaking havoc with your own personal eco-balance for generations to come, and suddenly you’re dissolving into crocodile tears over every stingray, every turtle, every shark (not exactly the brightest among us, by the way). They have a word for such behavior: it’s abuse, sadism, triumphalism masquerading as sentimentality. Its extreme form can be witnessed in the Red Sea, where you’ve got one of our comrades hooked on some special little treat you’ve devised, and thus unable to get any farther than one particular reef. Have you had a gander lately at the look of defeat around his junkie’s maw? At the glassy cast of his eyeballs?

That’s right, you’ve won. Now have the decency to let us die out in peace. What’s the percentage in it for us if we have to go mental in a zoo? What do we get out of the WWF, or the Save the Storks foundation, when it’s your high-tension power lines that are making our lives hell in the first place? But it isn’t even the jeeps and the breathing tanks that we mind so much, actually, it’s the phony emotions behind them. Have you never seen the look of pure disgust on the face of a lion or a gnu, recorded for posterity by your neighbor’s video-camera? And something else: this sort of psychic torture isn’t only bad for us, it’s bad for you, too. It’s ruining you, it’s endangering your very civilization (that thing you do, you know), for which we have actually developed the utmost respect.

For this civilization of yours (if it ever gets properly off the ground) is not a genetic organism: it is a social construct, founded upon principles like equality, tolerance, solidarity, responsibility, and so on. The way we see it, you are working towards a world in which no one will have to be afraid any longer, in which everyone will be able to live for as long as he or she likes, or at least for as long as his or her genetic engineering allows. You will enjoy those unions, those guarantees of employment we’ve been making fun of, and you will live in what one of your social engineers once called communism (and that was before the naturalists went and messed up the whole movement with their syrupy palaver and their bogus red socks). You will create a world worthy of the name artificial, where you will play by your rules, and not by ours. You will correct the mistakes you made in those early days, before the game had been decided in your favor, and you will create a sustainable, ecological, social environment.

We truly envy you that. And we hope that you will be contented at last. But for heaven’s sake, get rid of all those lousy rubber trees cluttering up your houses, those sorry-ass articles of bad faith. Don’t be littering your cities with bushes and parks and trees, have the courage of your convictions and be proud of your world at long last, a world of Athenian marble and Parisian paving stones and Roman roads. Yours is an urban world, where what counts is communication, the exchange of ideas and cooperation, not ruddy green swards. Do you know why all those great city parks were created in the nineteenth century anyway? To keep the uppity plebes strolling around in circles rather than taking up arms against the bourgeoisie! Victory gardens, hiking, flower boxes: it’s all so much reactionary delaying tactics. The thatched cottage with a garden around it is the very breeding ground of petty bourgeois fascism, and it’s an ecological catastrophe to boot. The green suburb is an anti-social nightmare, not to mention the reason for the enormous squandering of energy that keeps you waging your Asian campaigns. And not only is your newly discovered love of the wilderness a source of embarrassment for us, it is a mere excuse, a detour, a diversion that could seriously cost the ecosphere its life (and that’s something we’re both interested in, believe you me). It isn’t environmentalism that will save the world, it’s social cooperation. Isn’t it interesting that the whole dinosaur boom came at precisely the moment when you were suffering some of your greatest setbacks, the era of neo-liberalism? Back to the old gene pool, back to the old rules of the survival of the fittest, every man for himself, global competition, the rain forest as a model for politics! We were ashamed to watch. Those very same rules that had led to our defeat were now being used to block the path of a totally new and promising sort of civilization. That is why we say to you: don’t be sucked in by all the Green smoke and mirrors. Don’t retreat back to our ways, because we’re nowheresville! There’s nothing you can learn from us. We’ve had our day and we don’t feel a single regret. We were all like saurian and megatherian, man. We had our fun and now it’s done, and look out baby because it’s your turn.

And now that we’ve said our piece, maybe we can come to an agreement. We lost, you won, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be enemies. You won! Now face it, and finish your project without constantly coming and crying on our shoulders. All right, fine, keep your house plants and your goldfish and your lapdogs. A couple of trees won’t completely ruin the effect on your boulevards. If you really insist you can even set aside a few reserves for us. But please, leave us alone! Don’t try to love us, not to mention take our picture. Think of us as distant uncles and aunts. We’ll be around for a while yet, and we’ll keep up with your doings with interest. We won’t give you any advice, but you will hear from us now and then. And if you should fail, don’t take it too hard. We know how to get monkeys up on their hind legs and peeping out over the tall grass of the savanna. It was fun before, it’ll be fun again. What are four million years between friends anyway?

Published 2 May 2002
Original in English

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