Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Ferrets, Running Ancestors, and Philosophical Assumptions

Yesterday I wrote about an article showing that ferrets do no produce endocannabinoids when they run and gently mocked the triviality of the finding. Although I posted it, I was not too happy with the quality of my work: it was slightly too heavy handed to let the absurdity speak for itself but not earnest enough to engage with all that irritated.  But I left it because  I am interested in any evidence about how we evolved as runners even if comparisons with the brain function of a small furry creature with little legs can't take us very far.
The reason I like reading about our running ancestors comes from when I first encountered the idea that we were more efficient than many other species over long distances. It was one of those little light bulb moments that made me think more clearly about our nature of animals. Until then I had tended to think we were a bit rubbish: others species were faster, had sharper teeth or claws and were more ferocious or stronger. In a fair fight we would lose but we could over-compensate with the use of cunning and tools.
Finding that ancestors were capable of chasing a gazelle all day until it became immobile was a revelation that made me realise that we were a big beast with physical capabilities to compete. Learning that before the development of spears we used to catch and then strangle the prey was even more astounding. It was clear we are nothing more or less than another species of animal with and evolutionary niche and its own adaptations.
This might not sound like a very unusual insight  (surely everyone knows that!) but it had to combat many teachings I had absorbed from childhood, all based on the underlying assumption of human exceptionalism. Humans were civilised, humans had language, humans had intelligence, humans were distinct from the rest of creation. All of these ideas were part of the ideology I imbued. To this was allied its natural partner the philosophy of dualism, which saw the mind and soul as separate from the body, so that the body's role was that of a vessel. 
It's funny how we have these ideas buried so deeply within us that we hardly notice. When something comes against them we tend to reject it without knowing quite why. That we could have been magnificent animals was such a challenge. That our bodies and mind are indivisible was another. But accept them I did. However once I had done that there was a corollary, a glimmer of a hope that I might have the potential to be a better animal than I thought I was. 
I am no longer convinced about the corollary (I am too far gone) but running is a way of working through these ideas.

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