The tale of a whale
The ability to transform brutal exploitation into a learning situation presupposes a certain humility. And it may be well worth it, since humankind has, in its hubris, set off unmanageable, large-scale changes in its environment. Faced with an out-of-control universe, man might be well advised to glean the evolutionary wisdom of species more alert and supple than themselves, says RANJIT HOSKOTE.
Roaming the high seas.
FOR the last three years, the auspicious occasion of Makara Sankranti which marks the beginning of the sun's northward journey, and its entry into the constellation of makara, the mythic sea-creature has put me in mind of quite another mythic creature, quite another legend. This is an urban legend, one of those signs that assume the status of wonders in a metropolitan consciousness that must balance between crippling anxiety and consoling superstition. Call it the tale of the great fish of Mumbai.
If Turner, the celebrated 19th Century painter of dramatic seascapes, had walked past the Cuffe Parade seafront in Mumbai on a cold morning in March 1999, he might have found the raw materials for a masterpiece of Romantic art, complete with the themes of elemental conflict, tragic violence and unearned suffering. That was the day when the fishermen of Macchimar Nagar dragged a giant whale shark ashore.
The continuing struggle between humans and their fellow animals has led to a variety of imbalances in the marine ecology, including the destruction of traditional breeding grounds, over-fishing and extinction.
But rarely has it been dramatised for the metropolis of Mumbai in so extreme a form as it was in the prolonged death agony of this great fish, which had strayed into Mumbai's coastal waters from its home in the deep tropical seas. As the whale shark ended its days on the front pages of the city's newspapers, many readers were seized by the awareness that it was, despite its gigantic proportions, a harmless creature that feeds only on plankton. Despite the terror associated with the monsters of the deep a terror reinforced by such images as those of the legendary makara, the Biblical Leviathan, Melville's Moby Dick and the killer shark of that original frightfest, Jaws the more sensitive among us were revolted by the spectacle. Inevitably, it was the theme of unearned suffering that captured the ethical imagination. Like a character in a Jataka story, the gentle fish was seen to have been martyred to human greed, struggling for its life while a gleeful crowd waited for it to die, so that they could get on with the task of cutting it up and putting it to commercial use.
But can the koli fisherpeople of Macchimar Nagar really be blamed? The fisherman's mode of livelihood is a survival from the hunter-gatherer economy, and violence is integral to it. What the whale shark episode brought into focus, however temporarily, was the need for a debate about the appropriate relationship between humankind and the other species with which it shares this planet.
There are at least three schools of thought contending for primacy in this debate. First, there is the `tough luck' argument of the unsentimental evolutionist, who claims that there is neither progress nor regression in history, but only the constant adaptation of individual organisms and entire species to changes in their environment. Species take their chances as they come, their survival predicated on their strategic flexibility. In this account, there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences. An evolutionist would point out, for instance, that 99 per cent of the billions of species that have come into being since the beginning of multi-cellular life on earth are now extinct.
On the other hand, we have the ethical argument that a higher evolution of consciousness is possible to humankind. On this view, we perfect ourselves by accepting moral responsibility for our actions and conducting our relationships with other organisms accordingly. Deploring the resistance to this idea in his pioneering 1975 book, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, the animal rights activist and philosopher Peter Singer wrote, "We think of lions and wolves as savage because they kill; but they must kill, or starve. Humans kill other animals for sport, to satisfy their curiosity, to beautify their bodies, and to please their palates ... No other animal shows much interest in doing this."
but most species of whales suffer this fate.
From Singer's perspective, it is hypocritical of us to brand Pol Pot as a genocidal killer while maintaining a silence on the whalers and seal-hunters who have pushed these mammals to the brink of extinction. As scholars and activists across cultures from Rudolf Bahro and Joseph Beuys to Vandana Shiva, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha have demonstrated, the genocides enacted upon animal and plant life in the name of progress, sport, fashion and food have led to a significant loss of biodiversity, which in turn leads to a considerable impoverishment of our own lives.
These contrary viewpoints might be said to meet in a third approach, which defines the practice of such observers as the distinguished biochemist Michael Zasloff. "There's so much we don't know about the natural world," says Zasloff in an interview given to National Geographic magazine (February 1999). "And we're destroying large parts of it before we even appreciate our ignorance." Zasloff should know. In 1986, he discovered a previously unknown family of antibiotics, which he named `magainins', in the fluids secreted by the African clawed frog to protect itself from infection.
In 1992, he discovered squalamine a natural steroid that fights cancer by blocking off blood flow to tumours in the liver of the dogfish shark. Further research led this intrepid scientist to the realisation that the chemical structure of squalamine resembles that of certain substances found in the bark of Chonemorpha macrophylla, a climbing plant that grows in the Himalayan foothills. Zasloff's recent projects have included the extraction of an anti-cancer drug from a deep-sea sponge and an analgesic from the venom of a tropical cone snail. As he points out, we have much to learn from the perimeter defences and containment devices that other species have developed against attack.
But the ability to transform brutal exploitation into a learning situation presupposes a certain humility. And the humility may be well worth it, since humankind has, in its hubris, set off unmanageable, large-scale changes in its environment. Faced with an out-of-control universe born of our own stupidity, we might be well advised to glean the evolutionary wisdom of species more alert and supple than themselves. In other words, there's more to whales and sharks than blubber and dorsal fins; and the sooner we acknowledge this, the longer we may last in the evolutionary game of snakes-and-ladders.
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