Today, we survive our foolishness. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
When I was still very young, and
struggling to understand the world I lived in, my
father read Kipling's
Jungle Stories to me. I can hear him now,
reading to me about the noble Bagheera, the Black
Panther who was called The Cat Who Walked
Alone. Kipling also told about the Bandar-log
monkeys. Bagheera was a solitary meat-eating
warrior, but the Bandar-log ran together,
chattering foolishly, eating anything. The panther
Bagheera condemned the monkeys:
They have no law. ... They have no speech of
their own, but use stolen words ... They are
without leaders. ... the falling of a nut turns
their mind to laughter ...
I listened the way any child listens
when he's taught prejudice. I listened with supressed
doubts. Years later a friend from India told me that
19th-century English had called the Indians "bandar
log." It literally means "monkey folk."
Bagheera was king in Kipling's Darwinian jungle. It
was a jungle with no place for the nattering weak.
Now meet contemporary biologist Lewis Thomas,
walking through the Tucson Zoo.
He watches otters diving, leaping. They flirt with
him. His heart reaches out to them. He wishes he
could simply forget his technical knowledge of
these animals. Suddenly his mind has room only for
elation, for the joy of their perfect movement.
Suddenly he craves the friendship of otters.
They've awakened something light years beyond
Darwin. He calls it altruism, but I think what he's
really talking about is community. The message of
Kipling and Darwin, Thomas says, is,
Be individuals, solitary and selfish. Altruism
[is a] jargon word for what used to be called love.
[It's] worse than weakness, it is a sin, a
violation of nature. Be separate. Do not be a
The biological truth is quite different.
Altruism -- what I would call community -- he says,
is "our most primitive attribute." It is "out of
reach, beyond our control."
Thomas leads us through mechanisms of human and
animal survival. Our ecosystem is open-ended.
Interdependence is the rule, not the oddity. The
real Bagheera depends on the monkey folk. His
dependence is subtle, but it's there and it's
Of course we are foolish monkey folk. We assail our
environmment. We alter it. But, Thomas says, we
have means for surviving ourselves. For our
imperfect communality produces a glory equal to the
ballet of otters. Out of it come Bach and Newton.
In the end our seeming foolishness will save us. It
musters the collective strength of all life on
earth. Biologists now see that no one rules the
jungle -- not Bagheera, not the bandar-log, not the
English. Communal altruism is leaderless.
That's a hard message for me to hear, raised as I
was on the myth of the tiger who walks alone. But
altruism and interdependence is the difficult
lesson that you and I most need to learn.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kipling, R., The Jungle Book. The Second
Jungle Book, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.,
Thomas, L., The Medusa and the Snail: More
Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Bantam
See also Episodes 699,
700, and 707 for more on this notion, and
for commentary on the additional sources:
Lovelock, J.E., Gaia: A New Look at Life on
Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987
(an updated reprinting of a 1979 book.)
Joseph, L.E., Gaia: The Growth of an
Idea. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Gould, S.J., The Individual in Darwin's
World. Edinburgh: Waverly Graphics Ltd.,
Thomas looks at our fear of our own foolishness and
he turns to the Medieval nun, Julian of Norwich.
She too contemplated human weakness. She saw it
with perfectly clarity. And in the face of it, she
But all shall be well and all shall be
From the November, 1896,
and all manner of thing shall be well.
The symbiosis of panther and monkey seemed to
be on people's minds in the late 19th century.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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