7 Apr 2013

The heap

The recent video in Jumbie’s  blog The dance of a dung beetle (which I had seen previously) and another recent article on Scientific American were instrumental in me changing my metaphorical reference about the ‘Rock’ to the ‘heap’. I felt a need to give some background to all this. No I have no need to convince anybody of anything.

My fascination with dung beetles began when I was a kid, running around with my mates (aka ‘classmates’) in what was called ‘the savannah’. It was actually what the English might call ‘a park’. My experiences would have been gathered between the ages of about 7 and 12 (thereabout). But also I had come into contact with these creatures when I visited my grandparents in the country (aka countryside, for the understanding of ‘Anglo-Saxons’).

Many a time over those early years, when I was running around in the savannah I would come across puddles of cowpat (aka cow dung). On the Rock it would have been referred to as ‘gobar’. Yes – on the Rock, back then, farmers would allow their animals to get into the ‘the savannah’. So we’d have come across goat poo, duck poo, and chicken poo as well. As a child you got up to all sorts of ‘wickedness’ like poking cowpat with sticks!! I’m not sure now why we did that – it was probably raw curiosity. But I’m imagining that I saw my mates doing it, so I just joined in. Part of the ‘fun’ was seeing what might happen next.

There were two main types of cowpat - the dry variety that was a few days old (dried by the scorching heat of the tropical climate that was usually over 32 C), or the wet variety that might have been dropped only a few hours earlier by a passing cattle. Poking these puddles would have disturbed dung beetles, that might have been in there. Even in the wetter puddles you’d get them. We’d run and laugh if we disturbed dung beetles covered in the wet stuff because we could expect them to fly out and spatter stuff.

I guess as kids we were just so fascinated by what might possess these animals to want to be in piles of poo. To be honest at that early age we didn’t think that they were actually feeding on the stuff. We just didn’t think that deeply about it. But as we got older it would have dawned on us that it was their source of nutrition.

On occasional visits to my grandparents in the country, I’d poke at a huge manure heap, just to see these creatures. The manure heap would be about 5 foot high. Manure was a sought-after thing. People would collect their manure in what was known as pitch-oil tins* (see below). They’d use the manure to fertilise their small backyard gardens where they grew vegetables. On the drier manure heaps I’d notice how the beetles rolled their balls of dung. I would have observed how much energy they put into it. I thought that they enjoyed what they did because they seemed so enthusiastic about it. I’d discover young beetles in there as well. I would have thought about what a life they had. In my simple mind at the time I would have wondered why they did not seek some other kind of food or other place to live.

By the way, as a youngster I was fascinated by all kinds of plant and animal life. I had studied biology intensely in my secondary education leading up to O’level Biology. In retrospect I had been marvelling at how constrained they were compared to our human existence. I can see that more clearly now, what my fascination was about back then (even if back then I could not articulate it).

But the dung beetle is often considered as a ‘low form of life’ by many of us in the human race. Actually it performs a very ‘noble’ task. Few stop to think what would happen if they did not exist at all. Now think – their existence is hard-wired into the evolution of our current existence – the fine balance of our worldly ecology. It is because lots of animals and plants ‘fail’ to have the degrees of  freedom of choice about what they do, that we are afforded our relatively wider ‘freedom of choice’. I may choose to have lobster today and go vegetarian tomorrow. The lowly dung beetle has much less options. Oh well, I too can imagine jokingly that they have debates about what sort of dung is better – I don’t know.

Some things should  emerge from this blog:

  1. That our freedoms of choice and action are products of other systems of life being constrained in their options. In fact some of them have no options. A plant has no option but to remain in the soil. By contrast humans can develop options to leave this planet and venture to other worlds (at least all that is to come).
  2. We have been set free because subsystems of life in our world work together with much less degrees of freedom. It is as though nature (or God or whatever) made all these other forms of life to enable our emergence.
  3. My references to the dung beetle attitude or mentality, is only to cause a reflection upon ourselves. I want only for people to think about how constrained this simple animal is by its prescribed evolutionary role. And then for the humans to appreciate the gift of intelligence they have been given; not only to seek options but to create novel options where none existed in ready-made form.

Yes – I am fully aware that the analogy or metaphor is most unpalatable. However, I see it as potent. I don’t believe I am capable of changing the world on my own. However, if only one other mind out there finds a new perspective my objective has been achieved. No – I did not say my view has to be accepted.

To be able to think, reflect on our past existence, and to modify our futures in novel ways are the things that most distinguish us from all other life on this tiny speck of sand. It would therefore be a terrible shame for us as such a gifted species, to cower to ‘forces’ and submit to influences that push us closer to how the beetles operate.

*Pitch oil tins - as explained by Sir Vidya Naipaul "were originally the tins in which vegetable oil was imported. Normally in Trinidad those tins were used afterwards for storing 'pitch oil', which was the word we used for kerosene.”

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