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by Chris Wayan, 2004

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Well... let's start with the opposite--the effects of a unispecies society like ours. In agriculture or forestry, monoculture is a risky strategy with heavy costs to the land. Why assume the human monoculture is any different? Some truisms about our culture:

We take such quirks, and dozens more, for granted--the nature of civilization. But at least three factors shape our particular civilization, and only the first is universal:
Does intelligence have a character, divorced from species? We won't know what traits are universal to all thinking creatures until we find (or acknowledge, here on Earth) other intelligent species. But there's evidence for a character: other intelligent species on Earth recognize curiosity, flexibility and innovation, empathy and communication, awareness of a past and future, as valuable, as akin to their own gifts, even across wide species-gaps. Consider how wild ravens will cooperate with wolves and trust human researchers who've proven themselves harmless. Or dolphins' treatment of humans as peers. Or the recent human attitude-changes toward whales, elephants and wolves--even a species as self-centered as our own immediately feels a certain kinship with any creature showing intelligence. I'm arguing that's not a human trait but an intelligent one, common to (at the least) wolves, ravens, humans and cetaceans. (This isn't rhetoric, but a theory with predictions. For example, human treatment of parrots, ravens, apes, bears and hippos should improve sharply as recent research on their high intelligence is more broadly known.)
...that is, our species-character, from the obvious (four-limbed vertebrate, omnivores, mammals) down to quirks we take for granted (immobile ears, fear of heights, liking shorelines but disliking rain). I say species character not primate character because some of these traits aren't obvious consequences of EITHER intelligence OR our primate lineage--we're bald, bipedal, semi-aquatic, non-arboreal. Until this decade, many anthropologists called such quirks side effects of our rise to intelligence, but really--a love of swimming? Hey, fish is brain food! Baldness? Well, sparks set all the furry prehumans on fire! Sure I'm oversimplifying, but such "explanations" do feel contrived. The riddles are so numerous I'm skeptical that they're all just symptoms of cleverness. If gorillas or bonobos ever evolve a civilization (oh, God, not chimps! Not chimps!), I bet it'll have its own character; and I'd bet even more that non-primate peoples around the universe have very different species-traits.
That is, our civilization involves exactly one intelligent species. As Jared Diamond has pointed out, advanced civilizations require a large number of domesticable species--for food, fiber, labor, communication and transport. But on Earth, we can't or won't communicate with the other species we suspect are intelligent (elephants and cetaceans). Only elephants contribute to our civilization--as slaves. They don't benefit from it--quite the opposite. Even the next tier of intelligent animals--apes, wolves, ravens and parrots--are peripheral to our great leap forward. Maybe our local patch of ground has a shortage of suitable candidates (Diamond's argument about crop-species, extended to planetary scale), or maybe it's our rotten personalities. Can't tell from a sample of one! But notice, we never tried to breed dogs smarter than their wolf ancestors, or breed a class of ape fruitpickers so we could practice silviculture in rainforests, or raise parrots who fully understood human speech, as a messenger guild--let alone treat any of these species as friends and citizens in an egalitarian multispecies civilization. In the clearest case, rather than try to learn elephant language or develop a two-way pidgin, we enslave wild elephants and teach them a handful of commands. I fear what evidence we have suggests we're just unimaginative control freaks... but regardless of the reasons, we're going it alone. What characteristics of our civilization are the result of that solitude? We won't know until we meet true multispecies cultures. Aside from thought-experiments, all we can do is compare bright nonhuman symbiotes (like ravens guiding wolves to prey) and multiracial, multicultural human societies having many domesticated animals, to isolated tribes with few domesticable animals. While the comparison is indirect, it's suggestive. A species or human tribe that goes it alone suffers a competitive disadvantage.
In sum: not all our civilization's character comes from technology or intelligence itself. Much arises from our particular species, and still more arises from its isolation.

Consider our nasty little habit of deforestation. It's become a cliche that city parks reflect our ideal landscape, the one we evolved in--a savanna. A savanna just after the rains! Scattered trees, yet green grass, yet sun not rain--a rare combination in nature! A land with enough rain to keep its grass green all year is soon a forest not a savanna. Basically our parks mimic a perpetual African spring. Depictions of Paradise, too, always have trees, but not dense forest. Savannas with open groves comfort us for quite logical reasons. An open forest has an understory supporting food animals, berry bushes, greens. Lush grass means recent rain, so there's drinking water, but now it's sunny, the rains are over. Not all creatures mind the rain, but we do. So we love a landscape with open meadows because it implies a sunny but fruitful season ahead. Other species evolving on savanna (like the taurlopes shown below at the New Grass Ball) will share our tastes--but what of nonsavanna species?

Two taurlopes dancing at a spring festival. A tiger-striped girl and leopard-spotted woman dance in foreground. They look like lightly built, deerlike centaurs with somewhat equine heads. Background: multispecies crowd on a savanna plain, with snowy peaks on horizon.
Are you sure we "clear" forests (notice the language we use for it!) for purely economic reasons--out of a hunger for building materials and fuel? Yet in deserts and prairies, we practice forestation. Villages and roads across steppes and prairies are always marked by clumps of trees. Again, we feel more comfortable with trees around--but not too many. Desertification? Yes, many ancient societies overgrazed or salt-poisoned their soils; but that was hardly their intent. Their images of Paradise are gardens with a rich varied understory and some trees--but not dense forest.

Now consider an arboreal people altering their landscape. Small clearings may add variety to the food sources available. But clearings big enough to break the canopy will feel inconvenient, even annoying--to cross them you have to drop to ground level and climb back up. Maybe they'll even look dangerous--no escape routes from predators out on the perilous prairie. If such a people domesticates plants, you can bet they'll be fruit trees, vines, epiphytes, or parasites--something up in the canopy. They'll alter their forests, perhaps radically, but--"clear" them? Why?

Can our arboreal people swim? Most apes can't--we're an oddity there--and in crocodile country they have good reason to fear the water. Ape populations don't hug shorelines like humanity. Sure, coastal climates are milder on average, and IF your species fishes and builds boats, coastal cities make economic sense--but how much of our hydrophilia is emotional bias? Go to a beach, sit down, and count the number of people staring inland. Zero, huh? A much more varied landscape, more interesting by any objective standard, but every ape on the beach is gawking at the waves, hypnotized. And water's not alone. Don't get me started on fire...

How do we solve problems? Perhaps we write about it, in linear fashion, or draw a flow diagram, in two dimensions. Arboreal people are going to visualize situations as three-dimensional spaces with branches of possibility. Problems may appear as gaps to be leapt--or perhaps as predators or territorial critters to be avoided. How will this color their problem-solving? We don't know.

Notice these tree-folk aren't necessarily primates. I'm arguing that their habitat itself, a forest canopy, shapes the mind, purely aside from bodily form and lineage. They could be tree-crabs or air-breathing squid. We can still predict a bit of how differently they'd see the world--how they'd think.

Now, our arboreal people are still a monoculture. A multispecies culture will have some unique characteristics regardless of its constituent species:

Map of Serrana, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
TOUR SERRANA! Click a region for a detailed ground-level tour: Aburros Sea - Woble Range - Yanneba Basin and Plano - Mosnoll and Eronit Basins - The Tsud Desert - Eamet Ocean and South Pole - Leas, Niirg, and Narek: The Lesser Seas - The Rakach Plateau and the Northlands

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