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I, Dung-Beetle (Revisited

)
Henry Pedersen

I strode into August of 2006 perched atop a camel in the farthest reaches of the Thar desert

of Rajasthan, India. Setting out for two weeks to escape the tourist crowds and heavy monsoons

of Kerala, where I had spent the summer studying Sanskrit, I fancied myself stumbling across

sand dunes like a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, clad in a dhoti and kurta with a turban to top it

all off. I could see myself asking the locals where the nearest watering hole was or what lay over

the next mountain range, spending the nights crouched over a small flame reciting holy passages

from the Brahmasutras or the Koran. By the end of my first sandstorm, however, I realized that I

had gotten myself into something very different than what I had so romantically bargained for.

The thing about a desert is that it is hot. Hot and dry, and windy. My fingers quickly

covered with callouses not from the coarse reins but from the sun's rays; sand hardened my face

despite the designer headscarf so dashingly wrapped about it. Noontime was spent in the “shade”

of a thorn bush, waiting for the sun to loose some of its intensity while I sweat out every drop of

green well water I drank. It began to dawn on me that I was going to experience something far

less enlightening than the cerebral transcendence of those more famous desert-stumblers.

What I got instead was a little bug climbing up my leg while I slept. I had noticed the

dung beetles and their hilarious antics before, but had never taken the time to really watch them

go about their business. After disgustedly removing this one from my blanket, I watched him

head straight for a pile of camel dung, carefully pick out one little ball, roll it backwards across

the dune, and dig it into a little cave. At that time my groggy mind couldn't comprehend the

enormity of his Sisyphean task, only the hilarity that all he was doing, really, was pushing around

shit.

The days gradually passed by, sandstorm blurring into sandstorm, sunset into sunset.
Thoughts of dung beetles were replaced by the brute realities of life in the desert. My own

suffering paled in comparison to that of the unbelievably destitute villages I came to, where the

three hours of rain required to grow crops hadn't come in five years and children chased visitors

not for play but to protect already brackish wells. Here was true life on the edge, the most

extreme struggle for survival I could possibly imagine. And it was while contemplating such an

existence, knowing that I always had a ticket back to my comfortable life, full of air conditioning

and ice cold Pepsi and summers off, that I realized that all we're really doing is pushing around a

big ball of shit.

To even the most speciocentric observer, there can be no major difference between the

evolutionary life narratives of a dung beetle and a human. Of course they vary in the details-- one

is actually surrounding itself with poo for the purpose of eating, attracting mates, and

reproducing, while the other has a (thankfully) wonderful array of alternatives to camel dung-- but

the basic stories are the same. In both cases, the day-to-day challenges of survival are met with a

predictable battery of behaviors and structures whose effectiveness determines the organism's

ultimate reproductive output, the only real measure of success consistent across species in a

Darwinist's materialistic world. It just so happens that the particular behaviors and structures that

have been passed along to us from the drudgery of our ancestors' lives are those that so cruelly

allow us to comprehend this whole pitiful, compost-heap existence- and attempt to separate

ourselves from it.

Perhaps to entertain a potential mate or to educate offspring (both of which increase our

reproductive success), we humans will often go see the animals in the zoo, thereby engaging in a

grade-based perception of nature. In other words, we construct an absolute difference (other than

the electrified fence) between us and the panther: that of the viewer and the viewed. But nature is

not grade-based, but instead diverse, and the differences between humans and any other species
are far more subtle than 5000 Volts. But somehow, especially in scientific literature, there persists

the chicken-and-the-egg notion that, somewhere in the short time since we separated from

chimpanzees, something animal gave birth to something human.

While many wouldn't even begin to doubt the idea of humanity's intrinsic uniqueness, it is

much more difficult to ascertain just what it is that constitutes our defining aspect. Any number of

theories can be put forward, from the grace of God to the grace of art. Each of these fails in at

least one of several ways, however. First, the theory usually rests upon an essential view of

organisms. By creating a criteria for human-ness, it defines a “type” that reflects not a

populational reality but instead the author's values. Second, the theory may require that the

quality be critical to the human condition, which is very difficult but not impossible to prove.

Third, theories of human evolution, as products of contemporary scientific knowledge, must by

nature rest on a partially faulty or biased view of our biological heritage. Finally, the theory will

very often reflect the extreme example of a trend seen elsewhere in nature, and as such require a

distinction of degree rather than of kind.

For example, some would say that humans are human because we are bipedal. Although

this assertion reflects the reality that we are the only extant primate on two legs, it ignores birds,

kangaroos, and dung beetles pushing shit (difference of degree), defines the handicapped out of

humanity (essentialist thinking), posits that without two legs we would not feel human (critical to

the human condition), and reflects a view of evolution that, given the existence of an entire genus

of non-human bipedal apes (Paranthropus), is erroneously hierarchical. Our knowledge of the

emergence of bipedalism illustrates not an absolute, instantaneous triumph, but instead a rather

painful process that several different species dealt with in different ways. The development of our

modern locomotion system in Homo erectus was not a Kodak moment. It was the gradual

perfection of an anatomical system for the highest economy of use.
It should be clear, then, that there are significant limitations to holding bipedalism to be

the defining aspect of humanity and seeing its emergence as the Promethean moment. But there

are many other qualities that hold that place, not least among them tool use, complex language,

creative art, social complexity, and religion (or philosophy). Each of these theories, though, fails

just as miserably as bipedalism. Tool use rests upon the assumption that a technology 'arms race'

of brain size and facility was the driving force behind human evolution, and that the impressive

abilities of apes and other animals are unrelated to our skills. If language-- if we can agree on just

what constitutes 'language'-- is our defining trait, then what about the changing brain morphology

of our ancestors and the diverse systems of animal communication? Art, an interesting trait

independent of the evolutionary forces hindering other theories, depends not on historical reality

but on the preconceptions of 19th century paleoanthropologists whose racism found support in the

absence of complicated early art forms from anywhere but Europe.

Some broaden their viewpoint from art to culture, claiming that humanity's uniqueness is

found in its remarkably complex social structure. The emergence of behaviorally modern humans

in East Africa around 100,000 years ago is known through an increase in evidence of expanding

social networks, reflected in the intricacies of long-distance trade, labor division, and ritual.

Here, at last, is an aspect of humanity we can truly call our own. Yet those who see uniqueness in

human society show that, in fact, it isn't, simply because they never agree on just what makes us

so special. Some see reproduction as the engine of human social complexity, pointing to

permanent female sexuality (a menstrual rather than estrous cycle), muted within-sex competition,

and extraordinarily complicated mating rituals. But many still support the conflicting “Male

Hunting Hypothesis,” which posits bands of roving hunting men as the driving force behind social

complexity. This long-reigning theory has been critiqued by supporters of the “Grandmother

Hypothesis,” which instead prefers post-menopausal women as the economic and social core of
human groups. Feminists often question the need for violent and capricious men at all,

postulating in the “Male Show-Off Critique” that social complexity increased as men needed to

compete at greater and greater levels to secure mates. This argument is oddly echoed by those

who see the inevitability of patriarchy in the specter of male competition. Marxists held the first

“mode of production” in dialectical materialism to be perfectly collaborative tribal communism,

while Aryan ideology saw a struggle between pure races. The point is that a theory of society tells

us more about the authors than our ancestors; even the most scientifically rigorous studies cannot

apply universally to the human experience. As such, no account of human social complexity can

fill the role as humanity's essentially distinguishing quality.

A final argument may be made for systematic religion or philosophy as humanity's one

defining quality, but it is hopefully apparent by this point that there is too much religious diversity

among the peoples of the earth for this to be considered a truly universal trait. There is

furthermore no need to counter the claims of New Earth creationists or supporters of Intelligent

Design. The importance of myth and religious fable lies in humanizing, rather than defining,

scientific inquiry, especially when the subject is Adam's apple. There is one religious concept,

however, that catches my attention in this discussion of just what makes us human: humility.

One way of viewing any particular religion is as the culturally encoded responses to the

individual perception of infinitude. Whether that infinitude is the omnipotence of the Abrahamic

God, the eternal realities of Hinduism, the voidness of Buddhism, or the ultimate

incomprehensibility of nature, it is a presence that helps us understand just what it means to be an

individual, a mortal, and a human.

Being “human” does not entail any difference in kind from the other manifestations of

nature's impartial genius; our efforts to create such a difference are a predictable response to the

unfathomable swath of reality before us. Indeed, it is only a matter of cognitive degree that
separates the dung beetle knowing dung from sand, a chimpanzee knowing friend from enemy,

and a human knowing itself from the world around it. Each is simply an example of an evolved

behavior or structure that helps the organism survive and reproduce. To understand this simple

fact-- that the only thing unique about humans is that we think we're unique-- is to humble oneself

before one form of infinitude, to understand the underlying similarity of all creation, and,

ultimately, to be human.

I find it fitting that the words “human” and “humility” are, in Indo-European languages,

closely linked. Both stem from the Proto-Indo-European root *dhghem-, meaning “earth.” Their

mythology used it to distinguish those of the sky (ie, Zeus, from PIE *dyeu-, day) from those of

the earth (ie, Homo, from Latin humus, soil), while Latin humilis, low to the ground, came to be

associated with the lack of egoism. So in modern English we are left with two words stemming

from the concept of being of the earth: one used to express the idea of modesty, the other to so

immodestly separate ourselves from the other creatures of the earth.

We arrogantly call ourselves Homo sapiens, the wise human. Yet for all of our clawing for

uniqueness, we consistently fail to find a way to separate ourselves absolutely from the nature that

both gave birth to and sustains us. If we really want to come to terms with ourselves, we simply

must humble ourselves to the realities of our existence. For we, like the most precious dung

beetle, are no more than organisms struggling for a chance to reproduce, rolling around a big ball

of shit generation after generation. Be it in discussions of our evolutionary heritage, our

philosophic nature, or our future on this blue marble, we must remember that we are the one

species whose adaptations give us power over all others. When presented with the wonderful

infinitude of nature, we must recall that we are not its owners, but its representatives. This is a

fact that we as a species must rejoice in. Forget the wise human-- let us instead adopt a mantra

that reminds us of just how special we really are: I, dung beetle.