Monday, November 8, 2010

The Serengeti Lion

I'm reading this book on lions, which I'm not particularly interested in, because I liked the book that the same author wrote about wild sheep and goats, which I am interested in. So my approach to it was pretty open starting out, and then was heavily shaped by this statement in the introduction:

"Man, though phylogenetically a primate, has lived ecologically as a social carnivore for some two million years, and possibly more can be learned about the evolution of his social by studying the lion, the hyena, and the wild dog than by examining some vegetarian monkey."

I'm about three quarters of the way through at this point, and still trying to decide what I think of that. Lions don't seem like very appealing kindred spirits. Mostly, they seem to be constantly snarling at one another. Maybe I need to read a book about wolves or wild animal for which living in groups isn't such an aberration. Then again, judging whether or not I think they're kindred spirits by how appealing they are is kind of missing the point.

One sense that I get is that your typical TV nature program, in describing the majesty of the natural world, may end up making humans look worse than is really justified. It's been a while since I've watched one, but from what I remember animal behavior is generally described as instinct or an adaptation and even the things that may seem cruel or bizarre are all very logical and purposeful. In contrast Schaller describes, for example, the at best incomplete instincts of lionesses to ensure their cubs have adequate food. One lioness brought a gazelle back for her cubs to eat, but then refused to let them have any. Another let them have a little, but took it back after a short amount of time. A third led her cubs to a kill, but then lost them, and chased them away when they found her. Lots of cubs starve before becoming adults, even though it is rare for adult lions to starve to death. I don't think we generally think of animals as being as capable of doing things badly as we are, especially things as fundamental as raising offspring. But maybe they are.

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