Sunday, 20 May 2018

Consider the duck - a philosophical musing


Although the bridge is still out of action I still go and have a drink down the mill, read a book and watch the world go by. Last week I watched a Heron hunting and this week a lone male Mallard caught my eye. He was comfortably paddling amongst the reeds oblivious to those of us on the terrace sipping drinks or finishing of a platter of breakfast.

Mallard Drake (c) M. Smith


He swam slowly, almost leisurely between the vegetation pausing to dip his head down to sample the food below. Finding a good spot he would upend in the traditional fashion un self consciously showing everyone his white rear end as his neck delved below.

As I watched his antics I consider how his life varied from mine and what that meant. I placed myself in his webbed feet. Were our roles reversed my life would revolve around basically food and sex, not bad you might say but dig a little deeper. Most of his day would be taken up foraging for food just to make it to another day. During my degree I explored Optimal Foraging Theory; this is the delicate balance species have to make between expending energy in gaining energy. It is no good expending 300 calories of effort to get only 200 calories of reward. In the wild this seemingly complicated mathematical analysis is innate, get it wrong and you die, get it right and for time being you get to live. It is a concept now being exploited in computer games, the survivor genre is often accompanied by zombies or the apocalypse as in State of Decay 2 or Metal Gear Survive but the ingredients are the same, get food, water, medicine first or you won’t survive long enough to turn back the zombie horde or to build the best outpost.

Balancing life and death decisions on this level is something we are remote from. Consider the duck again; he will forage for as long as he is able. He must find a suitably safe roosting spot and in the long term find a mate with which to procreate. The basics of being an organism, I, however, had just paid for someone to give me a cola and if I so wished would have brought me food. In 5 minutes my sustenance needs were met, I had a home for shelter and even more food and drink waiting for me there and I was able to spend the next hour just sat reading a book. Okay the money I used had to be earned and I spend 5 out of 7 days achieving that but what leisure time did the duck have and what did it do with it?

The critical point for mankind was the development of farming, the minute we could produce more food than we needed daily we became something new. Free time was invented when we did not need to spend all day hunting and gathering when we could build houses and walled towns to protect ourselves. Free time is what allowed the development of civilisation. That free time allowed for hobbies, tools and weapons didn’t need to be merely functional; they could be intricate and beautiful. Time spent drawing, painting; singing no longer interfered with the basics of staying alive. Art for art’s sake, for pleasure, was possible. Humankind was able to begin its dominance over the world. But let us not forget that we are still one species amongst many, that our roots are the same as a dog or monkey.

Do animals do things for pleasure? This is a more complex issue than I wish to address today but let’s look at an animal further along the scale, say a cat. Domestic cats have their meals provided and have a shelter so what do they do with their spare time. Well, like all good followers of optimal foraging theory they conserve energy, they sleep, but they also go out and hold territories, they don’t need them but they still do it. They hunt, they don’t need to but they still do. They play, they don’t need to hone their skills to hunt, but they still play. Are these innate hold over’s from a pre-domestication time. Has the passage of time not been long enough for basic urges to be overcome as they seem to have been in man or perhaps the cat has chosen to do these things with its free time? Are we then in thousands of year’s time to see the art and civilisation of animals we have raised up or as David Brin may have put it – uplifted?


And yet the duck keep paddling about until I have finished my drink and I have decided to go home and make myself a sandwich.