In his book The Ascent of Man, the Polish mathematician and historian of science Jacob Bronowski ponders how mankind is different from animals in that he alone takes great delight in his skills and abilities. He asks us to compare the striking, but superficial, similarity in the actions and physiological states of an athlete and a gazelle upon hearing a starter-pistol shot, and then points out how they are, in fact, profoundly different: the gazelle is experiencing fear and is fleeing for its life, while the runner feels only exaltation and is exploring the very limits of his strength and athleticism. Bronowski summarizes the argument:

“… the athlete is an adult whose behaviour is not driven by his immediate environment, as animal actions are. In themselves, his actions make no practical sense at all, they are an exercise that is not directed to the present. The athlete’s mind is fixed ahead of him, building up his skill; and he vaults in imagination into the future.”

Keep that idea for a moment and consider cases of extreme adaptations of an organism to a narrow niche in its environment, for example, the koala and its diet of eucalyptus leaves, the panda and bamboo forests, and myriad insects and reptiles inhabiting hot deserts. A question arises naturally, why do not the organisms leave this niche, with its attendant costs, and move into a more temperate habitat? Why do they instead take such pains to develop coping mechanisms and specialized stomachs, enzymes, and other digestive tricks? The desert dwellers could simply move into humid rainforests a few thousand kilometres away, where there is food and water aplenty, rather than spend millennia evolving intricate water-conserving strategies …

Now, tying the two ideas above together, is it possible that other creatures too, and not just man, are perpetually in a state of exaltation in their own abilities, specializations, and skills? Perhaps the desert-inhabiting insect remains in its harshly arid environment not because it cannot find its way to the nearest oasis and take up abode there, but because it too, like the athlete, loves the challenge and is exploring its own limits. Perhaps the koala delights in the challenge of developing antidote enzymes to counter the poisonous eucalyptus. Thinking along these lines, to truly understand nature, we may need to stop seeing creatures as always in a state of desperation, in frantic competition with rivals, in perpetual fear of and flight from predation, and recognize in it instead a sense of exultation in its own capabilities, a kindred feeling of joie de vivre


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