I don’t have a picture of a wild pig so here you’ve got a picture of a cute dog.
It’s almost midday. A group of men arrives to the settlement carrying a wild pig dripping in blood. A few children welcome them amazed by the large hunt. Deeper into the settlement a woman prepares the fire. They know: Today it’s a feast day.
We often think about ourselves, humans, as aggressive, natural killers. You only have to look around and see the world. Some people would also consider that killing other animals is just a survival impulse. However, there are other noteworthy opinions. Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman argued in his book Man the Hunted that early humans evolved not as hunters but as preys of many predators. They studied the Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 5 million and 2.5 million years ago and is one of the better-known early human species. It seems that they were small and strong like any other primates and that they mainly ate fruit and nuts. The point here is that they not only didn’t eat meat but that they were not even dentally prepared to eat it. They didn’t have sharp shearing blades necessary to retain and cut such foods, so why would they hunt? Sussman and Hart’s anthropological studies show that it was not possible for early humans to consume meat until fire was controlled and cooking was possible, which it is dated to have happened only 800,000 years ago. “In fact, some archaeologists and paleontologists don’t think we had a modern, systematic method of hunting until as recently as 60,000 years ago” said Sussman in an interview with Niel Schoenherr for the Source. It doesn’t really seem fair to say that hunting is a part of human nature. So, how did we became hunters after living so long as prey?
As Ker Than very well explains in his article for LiveScience: “The theory of evolution by natural selection, first formulated in Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859, is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring.”
In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins explains very well what it means to be born a prey in a world where the only thing it matters is survival. Because I don’t think I would put it in better words, here is a piece of it:
*The currency used in the casino of evolution is survival, strictly gene survival, but for many purposes individual survival is a reasonable approximation. If you go down to the water-hole to drink, you increase your risk of being eaten by predators who make their living lurking for prey by water-holes. If you do not go down to the water-hole you will eventually die of thirst. There are risks whichever way you turn, and you must take the decision that maximizes the long term survival chances of your genes. Perhaps the best policy is to postpone drinking until you are very thirsty, then go and have a good long drink to last you a long time. That way you reduce the number of separate visits to the water-hole, but you have to spend a long time with your head down when you finally do drink. Alternatively the best gamble might be to drink little and often, snatching quick gulps of water while running past the water-hole. Which is the best gambling strategy depends on all sorts of complex things, not least the hunting habit of the predator, which itself is evolved to be maximally efficient from their point of view. Some form of weighing up of the odds has to be done. But of course we do not have to think of animals as making the calculations consciously. All we have to believe is that those individuals whose genes build brains in such a way that they tend to gamble correctly are as a direct result more likely to survive, and therefore to propagate those same genes.
Now we know that, the same way other animals do, we survive through gambling. But, why is the human being so good at it? You are better at gambling when you are able, in a certain way, to predict the future. Animals are not born with this quality and humans, in general, aren’t natural clairvoyants. We are all born knowing nothing and then we learn. So the most common way for an animal to foresee the future is through their own experiences. An individual has to try a strategy which then will be revealed as good or bad or, as better or worse than the previous try. This way the individual, through gambling, will create a better strategy. But what happens when an individual has the capacity to simulate the future in a safe environment before trying it in real life? That would make prey much more challenging for a hunter. Simulation, or better known as imagination, is a very human quality and the key to our survival. We build a possible scenario in our mind and we play the game over and over until we find a strategy safe enough for us to try. That’s what has actually made us stronger and more adaptable.
Most humans nowadays still don’t hunt and they can even live barely eating any meat. Our creative modern life allows us to produce plant-based substitutes and get them anywhere around the world in a matter of hours. Surely humanity has had rough times getting food and we had to resort to hunting. But, given our current situation where excessive meat production is threatening our species and ecosystem, it would make much more sense to find a brand new way of feeding ourselves that doesn’t imply killing or violence in any way. After all we already conquered the food chain. It is our turn to give something back to Nature using those amazing abilities to imagine that Nature gave to us in the first place.
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