Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Necessity is the Mother of Invention…or Maybe Laziness Is?

In a post some time ago I referenced the book Last Chance To See in which Douglas Adams does some globetrotting with a zoologist named Mark Cawardine hoping for wild sightings of various endangered species.

I loved the book, so my interest was piqued when I found a documentary on Netflix of the same name, with the same zoologist. Only this time, he’s travelling with Stephen Fry. As I find Stephen Fry to be pretty high on the entertainment scale, I watched it.

Normally, I would say books always beat television. There is a level of detail and nuance in books that, despite the visual capacity of television, always seems to be lacking in movies and TV shows. When it comes to learning about certain endangered species, however, there is something about the visual aspect that can’t be replicated with written words. After watching this documentary, I’m convinced I should have become either a zoologist or marine biologist. I’m not really sure what I was thinking with all this engineering and creative writing stuff.

Sadly, there are only six episodes in the documentary. If you were only to watch one, I recommend the last episode, Blue Whales, for shear wow factor, but if you’re more in the mood for a laugh try the second episode which includes a visit to a chimp sanctuary. There’s also the first episode, Farting Amazonian Manatee. But for now let’s talk chimps.

As we all know, thanks to popular culture on the subject, chimps are a lot like humans. In fact, Mark Cawardine admits he’s not particularly enthralled with chimps for this very reason. They can be petty and vindictive, and bully one another just like humans do. Not that other animals are always nice to each other. Far from it. But at least their brutality tends to be rooted in survival instinct rather than malevolence.

Mark seems to change his mind by the end of the episode, though, when the chimps also exhibit some of humanity’s more admirable qualities. They take orphaned chimps into their fold with great affection when the conservationists fear they will be rejected.

Maybe the cognitive ability for the good qualities comes with the capacity for the bad? We’ll leave that philosophical rabbit hole for another day.

Another tidbit of knowledge common to us all, is how ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. A certain tool or task seems impossible, or at least not worth the effort, until there is a need. Then, lo and behold, we build the tool and find the way.

In the book version of Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams has a great monologue regarding the humble beginnings and later advancements made by monkey-kind in ‘twig technology’. Advancements which led to the world we live in today. You can also hear/watch him deliver this speech on YouTube: Parrots the Universe and Everything. The entire presentation is worth your time. Douglas Adam’s at his best.

Back to television’s Last Chance to See. During Mark and Stephen’s visit with the chimps, the rise of twig technology can be seen in its early stages.

Fruit and carrots are being tossed to the chimps. There is much chatter and excitement from the chimps as they scramble to get their treats. Except, they don’t all scramble.

A carrot lands just out of the reach of one, rather large, lounging chimp. He could get up and take all of one step to get the carrot. Leaning over might even do the trick. But does the chimp do either of these things? No. He grabs a twig (already in reach of course) and uses it to retrieve the oh-so-distant carrot.

That’s right. Thanks to the affinity for tools found among primates, this chimp was saved the effort of taking one whole step to reach his food. Chimps really are a lot like humans.

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