Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 778:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 778.

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 created them.

The Cat Who Walks Alone 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 social animal.
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 absolute.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Kipling, R., The Jungle Book. The Second Jungle Book, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1925.

Thomas, L., The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

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., 1990.

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 confidently said,

But all shall be well and all shall be well
and all manner of thing shall be well.

From the November, 1896, Scribner's Magazine

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. Lienhard.
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