Monday, May 17, 2010

Douglas Adams: Parrots, the universe and everything

By Luke D.

Imagine a puddle. "This puddle wakes up one morning and thinks: 'This is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact it fits me so neatly. I mean really precise isn't it? It must have been made to have me in it.' And the sun rises and it's continuing to narrate this story about how this hole must have been made to have him in it. And as the sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking- and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it's still thinking- it's still trapped in this idea that- that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us, we will continue to destroy it in the way that we have been destroying it, because we think that we can do no harm."

This is a quote from one of the greatest creative comedic minds that has ever existed, the late Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams is widely known as a comedic science fiction writer. His novel Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the best-loved books of all time. But he was also a massive environmental activist and an enthusiast for wildlife and the natural world. In his 'Ted Talk', he tells us about his adventures when he and zoologist Mark Carwardine were asked by the BBC to go to Madagascar to search for an endangered species of lemur called an Aye-Aye. This one task would lead to a series of adventures dealing with endangered species all across the globe. This journey showed him how wonderful our planet is, why it should be protected and what we've done to it so far. Adams employs his excellent story-telling skills and wit to tell of this grand journey in a style that could be best described as David Attenborough meets Monty Python.

First he tells us of the original destination, Madagascar. And, although he didn't encounter any lemurs that liked to "move it, move it" he and Mark Carwardine did come across the creature they went down there to find, the Aye-Aye, which at the time was believed to be part of a species that had dwindled to fifteen. The Aye-Aye is a nocturnal species of lemur with massive ears, coarse shaggy black fur, particularly long fingers and wild eyes that always look as if they are staring off into space. The Aye-Aye fills the evolutionary niche of a woodpecker in Madagascar as it uses its skeletally long fingers to burrow under the bark of trees to get at insects.

Adams recalls how he and Carwardine traveled in a severely dysfunctional boat to a small rainforest island off Madagascar's coast to find this creature. There they spent a few days huddled underneath their tents in the rain (hence the term, rainforest). It only got better after they found a deserted game keeper's cabin. Adams hilariously tells of how when they opened the door they heard a horrifying crunching sound. When they turned on the lights they beheld a dinner party of spiders, each munching a half-eaten bug, politely looking up to see what was the matter. Of course, as soon as they turned the light off again, the crunching reprised. That was their shelter.

It was only after a few days of this that Adams decided to go for a late night "wander around". Sure enough, as he looked up in the trees, he saw an Aye-Aye making its way down a branch, staring at him. For ten seconds. Then it went back up the tree, into the darkness. A whole journey involving planes, low-quality boats, trekking through the rainforest, getting soaked and spending an evening with gigantic spiders, just for ten seconds with an Aye-Aye. Worth it? Douglas Adams certainly thought so and he explains why. Lemurs used to be the most intelligent and advanced animal on Earth and were very modest about it, being so gentle and quiet. However, this changed when another type of primate, known as monkeys came about. Monkeys were fascinated with twigs and what they could do with them - from sticking them in the ground and digging with them, to stabbing and lifting a piece of fruit. And, of course, they used them to hit other animals. Unfortunately for the lemur, monkeys were more advanced and more competitive then they were. If it hadn't been for the shifting of the continents that resulted in Madagascar being isolated, lemurs would have gone extinct all over the world. Madagascar was the only place on Earth where lemurs didn't have to worry about being ousted by the twig-loving monkeys.until, as Adams calls it "twig technology" advanced to the point where boats and planes could bring the monkey's descendents across the sea. And here was Adams, a monkey descendent, documenting the endangered descendent of the lemurs that were upstaged by the monkeys. According to him, that moment when he realized how deep our roots on this planet are, was completely worth the journey.

It was also after that, when Douglas Adams decided he wanted to make this trip a little longer; to see more of the vanishing species of our world while he still could. Luckily, Mark Carwardine was up for it too.

After telling of their interesting encounter with an Australian expert on venomous animals, before they went to Komodo (to see, surprisingly, Komodo dragons), Adams moves on to a species of parrot they visited, called a Kakapo, a soft, fluffy, round bird.

The Kakapo is also a flightless bird. There are many of these in New Zealand; the reason being, that since the extinction of dinosaurs, it's believed that there are no naturally occurring land predators on this island. Mammals (except for bats) couldn't get to it because of its location in the sea, and birds, being able to fly could. Without any predators around to hunt them, some species of birds lost the need to fly and through this, New Zealand became populated which such flightless birds as the now extinct Moa, the popular and well-loved Kiwi, the bizarre Takahē and, of course, the Kakapo.

This lack of natural predators also explains the seemingly ludicrous and almost ineffective mating habits of the Kakapo. The mating ritual of the Kakapo consists firstly of the male finding a nice hilltop overlooking the valleys and forests of the island, making a loud, low-frequency booming nose from a thoracic sac. Adams compares it to the first few bars of the album "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd. He also points out that, even though this noise is potent and loud, one can't tell where it's coming from. And if there is a female out there, she may not hear the noise. If she hears it, she may not like it, and even if she likes it, she may not be able to find what's making it. And assuming that happens, she'll only be in the mood to mate with the male if a certain type of tree is in fruit at the time. "Now we've all had relationships like that", points out Adams. This may be an absurd way to reproduce but, as Adams tells us, if you live in an environment where you don't have to worry about predators and it's also a small environment, like an island (such as, say New Zealand) you don't want to reproduce too much. That will just lead to over population. The Kakapo's mating habits are in fact, perfectly in tune with the environment it evolved in.

Unfortunately, these birds don't live in that environment anymore. That environment has changed from the one they evolved into the environment humans created when they landed there. When human beings settled in New Zealand, they brought with them a menagerie of dogs, cats, pigs, stoats and weasels. These animals eat bird eggs and young. And on an island where some birds can't nest in the trees, these introduced species had a buffet laid out before them. It would appear that the Kakapo's had gone from a lifestyle of "Hakuna Matata" to one of "Run to the hills! Run for your lives!" However, sadly the Kakapo didn't have enough time to adjust to these new changes and only continued to mate in its signature, slow style. The little birds don't have it in them to worry and it's put their species in grave danger. Because of mankind's destructive inconsiderateness, New Zealand may just end up doing a reenactment of Monty Python's Dead Parrot Skit. It illustrates just how inconsiderate our species can be when it comes to the needs of those we share the world with.

This brings Adams on to the next creature. Sadly, it is now believed to be functionally extinct. At the time that Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine had visited it, it was only just hanging on. This creature is the Baiji or Yangtze River Dolphin from the Yangtze River in China, the only place in the world it could be found.

The Baiji was a pale, almost blind creature. The reason its eyesight was so poor was due to the fact that the Yangtze River is full of mud, dirt and silt, making it impossible to see anything in it. The Baiji, like most marine animals, made use of sonar and after losing most of its eyes function, it relied on sonar to navigate itself around. The sonar of the Baiji was incredible sensitive and precise. Until humans came up with an invention by the name of the diesel engine. Because of the noise pollution that mankind's inventions put in the habitat of the Baiji, the poor dolphins found themselves trapped in a chaotic world. Their sonar (which was like the Baiji's eyes practically) was rendered useless as the world around them filled with other sounds. This resulted in them becoming so confused and disoriented that they would often collide with boats and their propellers and get trapped in fishing nets. In addition to pollution and habitat loss, this destroyed almost all of the Baiji's population. At the time that Adams was visiting this part of the world, there were only two hundred left, all of them in the same river.

Adams uses this situation to explain that even though we live in the same world as animals, most of the time we live in different universes. "You create your own universe from what you do with the sensory data coming in". This shows that even though we may sometimes be creating a world of comfort for ourselves, in the process we may just be making another species life a complete hell.

Adams then recalls how he became very interested in what it sounded like in the Yangtze River. Because they didn't have a water proof recorder, the projects audio expert told them they would need a condom to record the sound underneath the Yangtze. They didn't have any. According to Adams, "It wasn't that kind of trip". They spent awhile searching the stores of the area for such an item to the point where Adams had to draw a diagram of a condom for a shop clerk. When this failed as well, Adams preformed what he called "a delicate little mime". This did the trick. The shop clerk didn't have any but gave him the address to a place that did and told him to ask for "rubber over". However when he did so, the clerks at that shop needed him to do the "mime" to get the idea. But when they handed him what appeared to be a pack of condoms, Adams opened it to find a few birth control pills. "Right idea, wrong method" said Mark Carwardine. This brought about quite a few pedestrians who were interested in what was going on. One of them spoke a little English. When Adams and Carwardine had explained to him that they wanted to buy condoms and asked him if he could explain that to the shop owners, he picked up the rejected pack of birth control pills and said "Not want rubber over! This better!" "No!" said Carwardine, "We definitely want rubber overs!" "Why? This better!" "You tell him" said Carwardine to Adams. "To record dolphins!" However, by this point the man was backing away in fear. Fortunately, before he disappeared into the crowd he told the shop owner what they needed hastily. She shrugged, put away the pills and got out a pack of condoms. A few days later they were able to hear what the dolphins in the Yangtze had been hearing for the past few decades. He does an impression and it isn't pretty. Loud and distorted. Almost painful in fact. He then tells us how much empathy he felt for the poor animals and how sadly, it's almost inevitable that the Baiji is headed toward extinction.

This leads to the last part of his speech. He starts off by saying, "It's peculiar that we live in a time that's such an extraordinary renaissance when we understand the value of information and we've discovered that information is the most valuable resource we have.We have come to an understanding of the way in which life has actually emerged. We have seen with our own eyes how simplicity gives rise to complexity. But at the same time we've discovered that we are destroying it at a rate that has no president in history unless you go back to the point that we were hit by an asteroid."

There is a terribly irony in this. At the point that our species can fully understand and enjoy the richness and beauty of life on our planet, we are destroying it at a horribly rapid rate. And for what? Fire wood? Parking lots? Where is the morality in that?

Adams then tells us of the depressing and almost embarrassing fact that for some reason, a part of the human mind tells us this is all meant to happen. In a way, he points out, we're like the Kakapo. Stuck in a cycle of activities that may have been successful and rewarding in the past. We've become so comfortable in this spot, to change our ways goes against our nature. At this point in our history, humans think they don't have to evolve to suit their environment.they think they can always change their environment to suit them. This is both arrogant and untrue. As a species, we need to wake up and see our effect on the planet and those we share it with. What makes us think that it's all especially for us and only us? Adams looks back into our prehistoric past for the answer. He tells us to imagine an early man observing the world around him. The mountains are awesome because they have caves the man can sleep in. The forest is awesome because it has berries and nuts to feed him. And the mammoths are awesome because their meat is edible and tasty, their fur is warm and makes good coats and you can use their bones to catch other mammoths! And this primitive man thinks to himself "why, this world fits me so must have been made especially for me!"

Perhaps that's where the inconsiderate consumerism of our species started.

Adams refers back to his infamous puddle metaphor that was mentioned earlier and then moves on to just how special our planet is. When one considers how specific the nurturing conditions of our planet nurturing are, it makes one wonder. why are we so inclined to show such disrespect to such a precious gem of life? Any planet in this universe that can create any living thing is magnificent, beautiful and something that should be looked after.

Of course, as Adams points out, the world has been through this before. The K-T extinction event that destroyed the dinosaurs wiped out almost 80 per cent of all life on the planet and long before that, the Permian extinction event wiped out nearly 95 per cent of all life. This is a natural thing. If the dinosaurs had never died out, humanity and most other species of today wouldn't exist. The Earth is no stranger to massive extinctions. What we have to be concerned about, however, is if what we are doing to the planet now will leave it in a state that can support us. And trust me, killing off millions of other species, clearing forests and allowing the ice caps to melt won't leave us with a habitable home.

We should be grateful that Douglas Adams gave this talk. This presentation was recorded only a few days before his death. The insight and wisdom it offers could do our species and the planet we live on a great deal of good.

This is a brilliant video! Douglas Adams had a fantastic mind for both understanding information and presenting it in an entertaining way. His great sense of storytelling, sprinkled with fascinating information and hilarious humor, captures the audience and compels them to listen. This video may not be for everyone. The humor can at some points be a little over the top, and some may not appreciate the length of the video. But if you can sit through the full hour and a half and are a fan of surreal British humor, you'll love this! I Highly recommend this video.

No comments:

Post a Comment