CULTURE OF SERRANA
by Chris Wayan, 2004
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THE EFFECTS OF MULTISPECISM
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:
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.
- 1: INTELLIGENCE
- 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.)
- 2: HUMANITY
- ...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.
- 3: MONOSPECISM
- 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.
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?
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:
As population pressure pushes civilization into marginal environments, the settlers will be the species best adapted for deserts, cold forests, tundra etc, and thus probably better adapted than humans are; but they still won't necessarily flourish there. On Serrana, desert tribes of raptors may survive where others can't, but this purest of raptor habitats isn't prime habitat! Individual raptors do better in greener country--anyone would. On such barren fringes people WILL be driven to alter the land--but it won't be a core value of the civilization.
This has costs as well as benefits. For example, Serrana has a region called Thron, a vast temperate forest east of the North Aburros Sea. Humans would clear the forest, farm, and create a land rather like Europe. But despite six intelligent species, the Serranian multiculture has been slow to settle here, because none of its individual species feel comfortable in cool, dense forests--too cold for squid and hexapi, too claustrophobic for taurlopes and Planians. Mammoths prefer tundra and steppe, though small tribes do wander the forests, breaking trails other species can follow. Only a previously rare subspecies of raptor with heavy rainproof feathers has settled the forest extensively, and only in the last thousand years. While they're cross-fertile with normal raptors, the two races' beauty standards differ so much there's little mixing--the slender subspecies thinks Thronians look like mops. A seventh species may be in the making, much as the Planians split off from the taurlopes. Still, that split was prehistoric; as technology improves, trade and travel grow easier. With increased contact, the races may re-unify. Beauty standards change, after all.
Whether or not the raptors speciate, the point to notice is that Serranians are adapting themselves to live in the dark forest understory. Chop down the trees, let in the sun, and farm the understory? They never even thought of it.
Similarly, it's possible to imagine one species ruling all the rest--for a while. I'm just skeptical that conquest would be stable in a large, multispecies environment. In the long run, bullies become an impediment and other species will unite and rebel. I'm proposing a broad principle here--let's call it
The 1-2-3 Rule:
It's revealing that the most relevant Terran model came so late in our history--the leaders of the American revolution invented separation of powers to protect against tyranny and maintain dynamic stability--and the minimum number of power bases they deemed stable was three (or four, counting the press). Is the real Darwin revisionist not Kropotkin but... Jefferson?
The 1-2-3 Rule may not be testable in our lifetimes. But for now, at least consider my main point: that human analogies of race and class don't fit the roles in a multispecies society at all well; nor does gender. A society with six "sexes" is nothing like one with only two. Oddly enough, the best way for us to intuit how Serranian people may see other species is... pets. We find their differences fun. Imagine pets who really contribute to your civilization, pets worth talking to! Yes, there will be those who dislike other races, or mistrust them, but in a Darwinian competition between neophobic and neophilic societies, who always wins? Simply because it works best, the cooperative model emerges and spreads, sooner (on Serrana) or later (on Terra).
Our human monoculture, isolated and unstable, tending to collapse into predator-prey relationships and split along race, class, and gender lines, has difficulty even imagining a Serranian-type multiculture, except as fairytales. But that's not their problem--it's ours. Emphatically ours.
Perhaps, I think, our biggest problem of all.
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