How do animals think? Do they feel fear? What can we learn from their behaviour? Why are we so drawn to them? Len Rix investigates the psyche of the wildlife we love.
We go to Africa for a great many reasons, varying with our age and circumstances. For many it is the sunshine and the beaches, perhaps with some brief game viewing, or to flirt with death on foaming rivers and rubber bands attached to dizzily high bridges. For others there are the landscapes in which the eye seems to travel forever; the night skies, starlit from horizon to horizon; encounters with traditional people, to be humbled by their simple dignity, their resilience in the face of hardship and their capacity for spontaneous joy; others again will seek out the strange and wonderful music and the sometimes terrifying mysteries of traditional religious practices. The list goes on…
All these experiences confront us with more vital ways of feeling and being. In our concrete cities, with our low-hanging, blanked-off night skies, our streets flashing with frantic information, any sense of the natural world, and therefore of ourselves, is diminished.
The way we live is far stranger than anything native to Africa. Perhaps it is from this sensory prison that, following some deeply rooted instinct, we turn to the most primal of continents for escape, for a new understanding, both of ourselves and of what it means to be fully human and alive.
For all the above, it is often simply the animals that lure us back. The wildlife, the ‘game’ (including the amazing birds) are what we go for, what we obsessively photograph and what we talk about afterwards.
The thrill of these encounters seems to run deeper than purely visual pleasure. And the pleasures certainly abound: the sight of a gracefully loping giraffe, the rocking, high-heeled strut of an antelope, the self-delighting stretch of a yawning cat, and even the mountainous serenity of elephants, shambling along in their baggy trousers. Plenty there to write home about.
But sometimes it becomes more than just delight. What is it that makes us fumble for words like ‘awesome’ and ‘spiritual’ – hackneyed phrases for emotions that are anything but?
Could it be the stirring of something very ancient, primordial even, some echo of our deep ancestral past? Easy to think so, when you are sitting in company round a campfire under the glittering stars. Nor should the idea seem surprising. We are not alone in storing and responding to patterns of experience laid down in the brain in the remotest of times: think of the wildebeest following their million-year-old route to that suicidal, predator-haunted crossing. When the Zambezi was dammed at Kariba and the waters upstream began to rise, the impala continued to run their ancient pathways regardless, plunging headlong into the swirling flood and perishing in their thousands.
Nor is there anything new about the association of animals with our sense of the spiritual. In myth and folklore worldwide they guide us down the path to enlightenment. The world’s oldest and most universal religion, Shamanism, makes an absolute connection between the human, the animal and the divine. In Bantu societies across the continent regional and tribal groups were associated with specific totem animals, and were the native Americans, who made the distinctive poles. Cro-Magnon Man in southern France, and, until quite recently the San Bushmen in southern Africa, danced themselves into trance and painted their animal guardians on the walls of hollowed-out rocks, as explained so impressively by David Lewis-Williams in his seminal works Believing and Seeing (about the San) and The Mind in the Cave (about the wider tradition).
What is striking about the San paintings is the direct connection they make between the shaman-artist and the sacred animal. The eland (in southern Europe it is a horse or a bison), conjured up on the visual membrane that the painted wall has become, is often depicted in the same state of trance. A stream of blood flows from its nose, the legs are crossed and the head haloed by star-like or zigzag shapes, the so-called entoptic images that flash before our eyes whenever we enter this condition. As an example of mystical communion it is absolute.
Compared with this, the cossetted game-viewing experience of the Western visitor might seem shallow; a touristic indulgence, perhaps involving waiter-service and the serving of champagne. But what happens when the same tourist comes face to face with his quarry? These encounters can be life-changing: ask anyone who has looked into the eyes of a gorilla. It is more than a disturbing inter-species exchange. Something in there challenges our sense of our own humanity, our sense of who and what we are.
To experience these moments of shared consciousness with creatures so very different, and, we imagine, so much more sensually alive, than ourselves, is a privilege. But what do we really know, rather than merely surmise, about how they experience the world?
That they are intelligent is beyond question, far more so than was once thought. Researchers in the seventies were amazed when chimpanzees were filmed using sticks to probe for honey. Now every new documentary film seems to produce evidence of tool-using behaviour at far lower levels, currently down to fish and molluscs.
Perhaps it began with symbiosis, the sort of mutual backscratch arrangement arrived at between the oxpecker and the buffalo, followed by the emergence of hunting in teams: wild dogs and lions set the standard for Afrophiles. But when you hear parrots and kookaburras uttering plausible human speech, and observe the problem-solving skills of garden squirrels and housebreaking macaques, the scope for further discovery seems limitless.
And they feel. They are sociable. Even cold-blooded manta rays isolated across vast tracks of ocean maintain a complex social life, and not only for dating purposes. Elephants mourn, and show what genuinely seems to be reverence for the bones of their dead. So where does the real difference between us and the animals lie?
One answer may lie in brain hemisphere separation. At some point in evolution the functions of the cerebrum were split and assigned to different sides of the organ. A feeding guinea fowl will squint its right eye down at the morsel in question, accessing the left hemisphere, the one adapted to linear, sequential thought and precise manipulation; the other eye, beaming images into the more fluid and receptive right side, scans the surroundings for anything new and unexpected, including of course predators. In humans, this is the side associated – often too schematically – with imagination, creativity and seeing the fuller picture.
The writer Iain McGilchrist has traced the entire development of Western civilisation in terms of alternating periods of left and right hemisphere dominance, the right being the ‘Master’ and the left its jumped-up busybody ‘Emissary’. Currently we are in the grip of the left: mathematics, logic, computing, reading and print now shape, and in many ways cripple – our modern consciousness. Not so in the animal kingdom. Wisely, they never learned to read.
One result is that their immediate physical awareness is significantly sharper than ours, more receptive and more total. In the natural world social communication is primarily through body language, the reading of which humans, especially clever, bookish ones, are rather poor at. We have all marvelled at impala sauntering casually just yards from resting lions. At a glance they have decoded the signs and know they are safe, at least for the time being, while you and I are already halfway up the nearest tree.
It seems probable that most of their moment-to-moment awareness occurs in the right hemisphere. This is where information from the skin and other external receptors first arrives, passing through the limbic system, where it is assigned greater or lesser significance, and the flight-and-flight response is triggered.
One great advantage of this configuration is that it frees them from the tyranny of obsession with the past and the future. For them life exists in an intensely vivid moment, a pulsating present, in which, to quote the poet Ted Hughes, there are ‘no indolent procrastinations and no yawning stares’. This has one huge advantage. In the words of another poet, W.B. Yeats: “Nor dread nor hope attend/A dying animal…Man has created death.” Life is what is now; the rest is mere abstraction.
This might sound rather theoretical, until we think of the many practices we have devised down the ages to admit ourselves to the same happy state: Zen Buddhism, for example, seeking the post-verbal enlightenment of satori, or the current interest in mindfulness, designed to liberate the larger consciousness from the self-important and often self-destructive verbalising of the left hemisphere. Both sides are of course necessary. What is needed is balance.
So wild animals do have something important to teach us after all. Perhaps it is simply, how to be.