Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Violent Vegetarians

Not long ago, I read an article which applied the term “herbivore” to contemporary great-powers (such as the European Union or Japan) that eschew militarism for diplomacy. This was contrasted to the “carnivorous” actions of the United States or Putin’s Russia. 

It betrays an ignorance of animal ethology, because actual herbivores are hardly unaggressive. In fact, foraging species are amongst the conspicuously belligerent of all

Tusk, tusk

The name given to a person who dominates through violence or (more usually) intimidation — “bully” — comes from the colloquialism for the male bovine, the bull, an entirely herbivorous animal that is also perhaps the most aggressive of domesticated fauna. 

The term “eight-hundred pound gorilla” has also been used metaphorically in the realm of geopolitics — mostly in reference to the behaviour of the United States during the Cold War and after. It even has its own Wikipedia entry, described “an American English expression for a person or organization so powerful that it can act without regard to the rights of others or the law.” 

The web-page also states that it is hyperbole, since gorillas weigh no more than six-hundred pounds (the average weight being just 400 lb). 

Be that as it may, gorillas are perhaps the only primate which are not in any way carnivorous. They are, on the other hand, very territorial, ready to use their might to discourage other gorillas from encroachment. 

Since the male gorilla at least, did not acquire its imposing physique as a result of predation, natural selection favoured those primates that could literally throw their weight around with others of their kind (and any other kind, as well), in order to secure resources and reproductive opportunities. 

The robust anatomy characteristic not only of bulls and gorillas, but of other truculent beasts such as elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotami, are a biological fact of these species being herbivores. 

Predatory species are characteristically more lithe in constitution, as with canines, felines, and Homo sapiens, again as a result of the evolutionary need to move quickly to catch prey. Of course, the less-dominant herbivores require leaner frames in order to outrun predators, and the carnivorous ursine is typically of bulkier shape. 

Even so, intraspecific violence seems more common between herbivores than among carnivores, paradoxically because predators are more naturally equipped to kill. To avoid extinction, carnivores had to evolve inhibitions on the use of teeth, claws and other deadly organs against others of their own kind (since doing so would, in turn, reduce the size of the population available to reproduce). 

There was, on the other hand, little evolutionary need for herbivores to disinherit interspecific aggression, simply because such activity was not so lethal among them. Foragers have evolved bodily strength and bulk, so as to defend against carnivores, as well as territorial intrusion from their own kind. 

But since participants in herbivorous aggression are relatively matched in physical terms, fighting rarely ends in death (unless by “accident”). Carnivores’ need to discern kin from quarry in the pursuit of aggression, paradoxically encourages sympathetic behaviour. 

Many predator species are solitary, but some of the most complex animal societies exist among carnivores. Orca-dolphin pods, for example, can include up to one-hundred individuals, the largest of any mammal sea-creatures. 

Wolves of the sea.

On land, wolf-packs are characterized by social complexity approaching that of primate species. This is why canines and human-primates at least, have been able to coexist for such a long period (as far back as thirty-five thousand years, by some estimates). 

Human beings are, too, highly social but also very aggressive. Homo sapiens use violence not only against all other species: they engage in interspecific aggression on a scale not witnessed in the animal kingdom. 

Unlike with other predators, human violence is usually carried out by artificial means — spears, arrows, knives, and in recent times, firearms and bombs. I think it was Konrad Lorenz who pointed out that weaponry imposes psychological distance from victims, so that it becomes that much easier for an aggressor to inflict harm. 

However, traditional weapons such as knives or swords are more intimately murderous than guns or bombs. It has more to do the fact that, whether edge or projectile in nature, weapons are artefacts. Not evolving organically, humans could not evolve natural inhibitions for the deadly extensions of their own, usually harmless, faculties. The brakes that are placed on aggressive use of weapons, are sociocultural — as are, in fact, the liberties that are placed on the use of the same.

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