The wild nature of Us

It has been brought to my attention by several people over the past seven-or-so years that the consideration of modern humans as ‘wild’ animals is not ubiquitous amongst ‘learned’ individuals. The answer to this – whether or not humans can be considered truly ‘wild’ animals – appears to me to be an obvious one, and I herein provide the reasoning underpinning my stance on the issue. First, however, it is important to address what one actually means by ‘wild’. Merriam-Webster defines it thus: “living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame or domesticated.” However, to remove all ambiguity, a more precise definition is required. For humans as a species to be considered wild they must possess the same natural history characteristics shared by all other wild animals, and possessed in their entirety by no domesticated stock, namely: freedom of choice; risk of death – by disease, accident, or at the hands of another organism; freedom of mate choice; responsibility for one’s acquisition of vital resources.

Perhaps the most common argument proffered in support of the ‘domestic human’ position is this: “the extent to which humans can – and do – alter their habitat means they are disconnected from the wilderness, thus cannot be considered ‘wild’.” That this argument is invariably presented at some point during the discussion indicates the proponent has not given the subject much thought. It is undeniable that humans have altered the world around them on a scale unrivalled by any other species, but the habit of altering one’s immediate surroundings to become more conducive to survival and efficient living is not limited to humans. Though it is true we do not stumble across chimney-topped cabins built by mice, the construction of a ‘home’ of one sort or another is a widespread behaviour observed in numerous animal groups, from insects to birds to snails. Perhaps the most notable non-human ‘home’ is that of the beaver. The lodge and associated dam constructed by a family of beavers can in no way be considered a simple manipulation of the environment; the dam – built from mud, stone, and severed branches – serves to flood the immediate upstream area, allowing the beavers easier access to food and providing protection from predators such as wolves. The lodge is equally impressive, a large mass of impregnable timber and mud that rises from the water, the interior of which is accessible only through underwater entrances. Inside the lodge there are typically two dens, one for drying off upon entrance, and a second for living in – separate ‘rooms’ for different purposes!

Architectural wonder is not limited to mammals, or even vertebrates. Certain species of termites have even evolved to grow and maintain ‘home comforts’ within their nests; some species create nests that are constructed in such a way to maintain a constant temperature optimal for cultivating a fungus food source within the nest. The wondrous feats of civil engineering achieved by such lowly creatures as beavers, with their partitioned living-quarters in their vastly modified environments, and termites, with their fungal refrigerators, highlights the weakness of the argument that the human home forms an unnatural barrier between them and the ‘wild’. The ‘home’ is a creation that has provided protection from predators and from the elements, provided a food-store and a place to rear young, since before the evolution of mammals, let alone the advent of civilised man. That the human home appears so much more complex – with its electricity, hot water, and excess – than the seemingly primitive creations of ‘lesser’ animals is subjective. Beavers use timber, mud and stone to build a lodge, as this is their currency; they build with their forepaws and teeth as those are their primary utensils, bestowed upon them through natural selection. In a completely analogous manner, humans use their currency – money and industrially-harvested natural resources – to produce homes designed and built using our primary tools: intelligence and dexterity.

The ‘extended phenotype’ of humans extends beyond the four walls of the home, to infrastructure and technology. Though our tendency to transform wherever we inhabit to improve our living standards seems counterintuitive to being ‘wild’, if one retains the idea of our evolutionarily-produced tools and abstract ecological currency, it becomes clear that our advances in these areas are a natural consequence of our intelligence and analogous to ecological innovations of other species. Birds use thermal currents in the atmosphere to improve journey efficiency; humans use cars, boats and aircraft. Spiders build intricate webs to improve foraging efficiency; humans use weapons. Termites grow and harvest fungi; humans use agriculture. The parallels are endless and highlight one fact: humans are the ‘Jack of all trades’, and exhibit ecological innovations already widespread in nature. Yes, our footprint on the planet is large, but so is that of plants. The oxygen you breathe is a product of simple processes conducted inside plant cells, and has been instrumental in altering the planet to such an extent to facilitate the evolution of an entire Kingdom of organisms, including us. All organisms exert a footprint on the Earth. Some are imperceptible, some instrumental, all are advantageous to the individual producing the footprint. The human footprint is nothing peculiar and, when viewed in a biological context, reinforces the argument that humans are still inescapably ‘wild’.

The next most-common, and equally erroneous, argument goes: “humans have jobs, and money, and buy food from supermarkets, and go to nightclubs to consume alcohol. Such frivolities and removal from the process of gathering one’s food cannot be considered ‘wild’ behaviour.” However, when viewed from an evolutionary perspective, this argument appears rather asinine. As has already been discussed, all organisms depend on a specific ‘currency’ to aid in their quest to fulfil their maximum potential reproductive success. Typically, this currency is food and other natural resources such as suitable habitat in which to rear young efficiently – also known as a territory, home range, or even a ‘home’. As humans have mastered the techniques of agriculture, food storage and safe homes, a more abstract currency has been developed to maintain the requirement of individual effort to acquire important resources: money. Although no system is perfect, the human currency system tends to reward more ‘successful’ individuals – in terms of job positions, level of education, and even physical appearance – with more money than less successful individuals. Thus, more culturally successful people have more currency (money), to invest in good food, safe homes and other resources (cars, gifts), signalling their reproductive quality to a potential mate.

As with the role of currency in human society, nightclubs and other social gathering have their purpose firmly rooted in the evolutionary goal of reproductive success. Research has suggested the behaviour of male humans in bars and nightclubs is similar to that of lekking birds. As in avian leks, male humans appear to distribute themselves in establishments in a way to optimise their visibility to potential mates. Further, reproductively fitter males – i.e. individuals with greater physical appearance and/or monetary wealth – occupy the most conspicuous, and therefore most optimal, areas of a club or bar. The physical quality of a male to a female can be, and has been, examined thoroughly. For example, individual females vary their taste in men during the menstrual cycle; ovulating females are attracted to ‘masculine’ men, while menstruating females are increasingly attracted to more ‘feminine’ men. This is likely due to the signalling quality of different male physiques – more masculine men are likely to provide fitter offspring, so should be mated with during ovulation, whereas more feminine men are likely to form a strong bond with the female, thus it is beneficial to begin a relationship with feminine men outside of ovulation, to allow a bond to form prior to pregnancy. The two strategies offer differing advantages and disadvantages; feminine men may not provide offspring to the same quality of progeny born to masculine men, but are more likely to provide the female with resources and parental investment for a greater period of time, increasing the potential successful development of the offspring. Conversely, a masculine man is likely to provide a higher quality offspring, so the loss of parental investment experienced by his desertion is offset by the quality and potential survivability of fitter offspring. That such complex mating strategies still exist in human societies, however subtle and imperceptible they appear to the individual at the time, indicates free mate choice is still an integral component of human society and, ultimately, evolutionary biology.

Though the existence of ‘free-will’ is currently subject to much debate between philosophers and scientists alike, that we as humans are free to make choices is undeniable; an individual is free to do as they wish, to travel where they wish, to behave as they wish, and is constrained only by their wealth and knowledge of the effects of their behaviour on their future reproductive success. For example, an individual knows one is free to murder, yet is also aware of the negative impact of imprisonment has on one’s future reproductive fitness. That we face retrospective punishment for certain actions is not a strictly human and non-wild concept, and ‘cheats’ in all animal societies are punished by other individuals; chimpanzees are beaten for failure to adhere to group conventions, while a lion will be chased from a meal for not waiting its turn in line. Further, all individual humans are susceptible to death. Murder is not rare, and is even frequent in some human communities, from inner-city USA to rural Africa. Despite the best efforts of medicine, humans are killed by viruses, bacteria, disease, and by accident, at a still substantial rate. They are not shielded from death any more than a rabbit in an area devoid of stoats; there still remains a myriad ways to die other than by stoat.

It is clearly undeniable that humans meet each of the criteria for a species to be considered ‘wild’, thus we should be duly recognised as such, rather than the veritable Homo domesticus we usually consider ourselves to be.

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About rikkigumbs

A postgraduate student in Ethology, with an interest in Life, The Universe and Everything.
This entry was posted in animal behaviour, evolution, Humans and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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