I more or less recently finished rereading a book called ‘the song of the Dodo’ (in Dutch translation though) by David Quammen, a very readable popular-scientific book about island biogeography and extinction among other subjects. It also touches on related topics like evolution on islands, the size a national park needs to have to keep a viable population of an endangered species, and the way Charles Darwin might have been evil towards Alfred Wallace, who was developing the same ideas he became famous for, at the same time as he was writing ‘on the origin of species’… It was probably the first book about evolution I read that did not just sound convincing, but also intrigued me in the subject when I was a lot younger… It is also a very interesting read, well-written, with both a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes and thorough scientific information.
One term that he uses that I find very interesting is ‘ecological naivete’: an animal evolved in a place without natural enemies, like on a remote island, will not have the concept of ‘enemy’ even if one comes along. It will look ‘tame’ to humans, but also will not run away from introduced predators (until it’s too late that is). So a Galapagos iguana or giant tortoise will not even bother if a human being approaches it, and a dodo on Mauritius didn’t run away from a hungry Dutch settler with an axe, but maybe just ran towards it to say ‘hi’… The few specimens of a species that do learn to get away from predators and keep their young away from them might be the only ones that remain to start a new line of the species more adapted to the new situation with predators in it, but such a thing rarely seems to happen, and a lot of ecologically naive species on all kinds of islands have been exterminated when a predator, like the common house cat had been released.
This is because it’s ancestors have never had any form of natural selection on how to react when a predator comes around. Here on the continent there is a heavy selection by predators, and only those animals who can stay out of the mouth of a predator long enough to make and raise babies will be able to reproduce… And the predators are being selected in the same way, if they are not able to catch enough prey they will not stay alive either. It is sort of an arms race… [I don’t want to start a discussion here if ecological naivety is cultural (learned from parents and other older animals) or genetically inborn, it’s not my field of expertise, and most probably a combination of the 2 anyway, and it would lead us far astray…]
What’s so interesting about this term is that it can be used to describe something that at first sight seems absolutely unrelated: the way some Westerners seem to be attracted to ‘the spiritual’ without hesitation, in any form that will present itself to them, without even being careful about ‘the invisible world’. (I’m not in the first place speaking about God here, more about the invisible part of our world)
We as Western moderns do live in a world with a seemingly complete absence the supernatural, and we do everything to keep up this illusion that it doesn’t exist in no way at all… People are conditioned to see the world this way, have learned to not bother about those superstitions. But is this reductionist naturalist world the real world, or is it just what we want to see? Isn’t a life of materialism and naturalism, like a lot of us have in the ‘civilized’ part of the world (especially academic circles…) the privilege of ivory-tower Westerners, more like a form of wishful thinking than ‘the only rational way to view reality’ as some claim it to be.
From a few things that I’ve experienced, and a lot of things that I’ve heard from different sources around the world, the influence of the supernatural is not always as easy to put away as ‘superstition’ as it is here and as we would conveniently be able to do. People in a lot of countries do even live in fear of it, sometimes out of real superstition probably, but sometimes not without a good reason nonetheless…
I agree that it’s in a way very convenient to have a world that is completely ‘rational’ and that can be described solely through ‘the laws of nature’ as modern science defines them. But do we have such a world? We have at least been living like we have in only a material world, for a few hundredths of years. Since the enlightenment we’ve been denying the supernatural here in the West, telling ourselves it does not exist… Which also means that we generally stopped almost all of our contact with it, and we got completely our of touch with it… We built up a world in which it has no place and is not supposed to exist!
And still it did not go away, and it won’t… No matter how much we cry to the sky that it’s empty, the world is and has always been more than just ‘natural’ in the modern sense. Things I’ve experienced myself, as well as heard from witnesses do convince me that there is something, whatever it is…
Nothing convinces me that all the explanations given about them are true though… Neither the demonologies of certain charismatic Christians that I’ve met nor the weird worldviews of new-agers and neo-pagean hippies seem really satisfying in describing and explaining all of ‘the invisible world’, which is as the words say invisible and not quite as easy to investigate as the natural world.
This is in itself no reason to not believe in it, except if we’re blinded by human chauvinism ‘If I can’t investigate and explain it it isn’t there’ is more like what we call ‘ostrich politics’ over here. Think about the proverbial ostrich hiding his head in the sand when something undesired comes his way. It will not at all stop the lion that wants to attack it Our ideas of what should and can exist and what not based on a particular worldview do not have any effect on the world, but they will have a lot of influence on how we perceive it…
Back to the ecological naivete and how it fits in our story: just as with our dodo saying hi to the Axe-wielding Dutchman, some modern Westerners are completely ecologically naive when they encounter the supernatural.. The supernatural is so unknown, that some just want to have tea with every spirit that shows up. But this can be quite dangerous. Not every Spirit is safe. Not every spiritual experience is positive.
(I do have a dystopian picture in my head now in a world where the same is happening with the natural world, and some people who think ‘animal is good’ that are accidentally where there are still animals, trying to pet a giant crocodile as much as a baby deer…)
I get a creepy feeling when I see what some people write about psychonautical experiences for example. Why would anyone think it’s safe to use drugs to go into other dimensions or the spirit world just without any form of guidance? A shaman in a tribe has to learn a lot of things and be initiated before they can do such things in a supposedly ‘safe’ way, and not without a reason.
The invisible world has the disadvantage that it is invisible, like I already said with a terrible pleonasm, and that we don’t know much about it, and so can easily project our theories onto it… But if there’s something there that’s dangerous, it will not play according to our rules, just as the things in the natural world do follow their own rules…
Hippies, new agers, ‘spiritual types’ and certain Christians all seem to share in this ‘we are safe, we know what we’re doing’ sometimes with the Spiritual world. Thinking that something is harmless just because it’s ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ is as stupid as thinking that something is harmless because it’s natural (sorry to destroy one of your arguments, you Cannabis-freaks…), or did you not hear of the venom of snakes, the poison of the deathly nightshade, the claws of wolves, etc.???
So that’s what I meant: modern man, coming from a place shielded from everything spiritual, tends to be completely ecologically naive when catapulted into a world that still has that connection with the supernatural… I just give this as a warning, do with it whatever you want…