How often do human beings come in quantities of one? Certainly a lot of us can feel lonely at times, but we do that even when surrounded by scores of our fellows. Actually being completely alone in today’s world is really not that easy to accomplish. It is almost always the result of conscious choice – and great effort and expense – on the part of the camper, hiker, or cyclist, and usually doesn’t last more than a few hours or days.
At all other times, we come in pairs, threesomes, quintets, hundreds, thousands.
The human animal is tribal, both a herd animal and a pack hunter.
So far, we’ve talked mainly about the advantages of the individual human. Put that individual human in his proper place, though – in the midst of his tribe – and we enter the domain of Man Plus, where a whole new layer of advantages comes into play.
Humans cooperate with each other. Conceiving and refining plans for hunting in a way that no animal could, they combine their intelligence to plan ways to outwit not just individual prey animals but the entire prey animal species. They find ways to conquer the very nature of the animal.
Understanding the basic psychology of the creature, they see the shortcomings of the whole species and use the knowledge to defeat the species for all time. They work together to conquer the nature of the horse, and it becomes a riding animal forever after. They cooperate to conquer the nature of the wild bovine and it becomes a permanent possession, a trouble-free source of meat, milk and leather.
More than intellectual assets are multiplied by cooperation. Every single one of the gifts named so far is multiplied in its effect by men working together. Pyramids, cities, walls a thousand miles long, huge industries of capturing and using animals – or converting their territory into farmland – become possible.
Cooperation and Compassion
Humans have strong feelings for others of their species. Not just for family members, as in most animals – in humans, total strangers reap the benefits of our fellow-feeling. Dynamic lines of passion and compassion flow between us, in a way that mountain lions and bears can never experience … or benefit from. In humans, it can happen that a complete stranger will, without thinking, compassionately put himself in mortal danger to save another. Add in the element of love between the endangered and the rescuer and superhuman efforts become possible, even likely.
If you’re a toothy beastie out there on the edge of the forest, human cooperation and compassion are a huge and dangerous combination. A single child endangered by a predator might result in an open-ended pogrom to eliminate that predator. Not just to kill the one dangerous individual, but to kill every member of the species. Witness the example of California’s Golden Bear, a unique species of grizzly, the last living example of which was cheerfully shot to death in 1922.
Cooperation and Specialization
Every wild animal must be a complete survival mechanism within itself. It must be its own hunter, its own fully-equipped parent, its own nurse. By comparison, even in primitive man there may have been those who knew not a thing about gathering, and who even took pride in the fact. Others may have known nothing about hunting, perhaps even have been forbidden to know and practice the techniques of the kill.
Generally speaking, every adult animal must duplicate the survival efforts of every other. Although some social animals can specialize within their herds or hives (one sex handling the bulk of the hunting as in African lion prides, for instance, or specialized workers handling food gathering or defense as in ants), for the most part each animal has to handle every detail of its own survival.
Humans can specialize in any aspect of survival, while other humans handle everything else. The power of specialization is not so much the particular survival-related field that any one person chooses – it is the fact that an unlimited number of other people are handling each and every other aspect of survival for that person.
There are people on this planet who have never done so much as picked and eaten a wild berry – much less attempted to clothe or defend or otherwise feed themselves. Any animal which attempted such a laid-back lifestyle would be dead within days.
Humans can take specialization even one step further from having a single survival-related specialty: consistently backed up by all these other survival specialists, individual humans can, in fact, choose to specialize in fields totally unrelated to survival – being a spoiled rich brat, a beauty queen, a lawyer or televangelist – or even in fields which are in some ways directly opposed to survival – a bull rider or racecar driver.
Memory and Lore
Humans, especially those native peoples we label “primitives” – who, rather than primitive, happen instead to be extreme sophisticates at relating to and surviving in the ecosystem in which they live – have a highly-developed body of stories, instructions and teachings. As mentioned earlier, this body of information is passed among themselves and down to each new generation, and every human learns to survive and prosper in thousands of varied situations and conditions.
By comparison, every single animal that ever lived had the intellectual and physical assets of one or two, or at most a small herd of, its relatives.
Most animals can pick up so little from any other animal, even their mothers, that they can do little more than learn how to find forage or prey animals, hopefully to survive just long enough to find a safe den and a mate before they die. If everything goes right and they succeed at surviving to adulthood – as the majority of siblings or herdmates probably will not – they still have exactly one chance in a lifetime to make a major mistake.
Sadly, due to the lack of human intellectual and social advantages, the example of their mistake might still be lost forever to their species compatriots – even if the entire herd stands watching every second of their unfortunate end. Humans, on the other hand, will be eagerly passing on the lurid story ten generations later.
Our numbers are huge and growing. Place my mythical Face Eater on a trail and start marching humans towards him to have their heads bitten off one by one. He’d die of exhaustion before one small town’s-worth of men were used up.
Once again visit the metaphorical grizzly’s card game, and we see even more clearly the plight of the beast: the grizzly sits alone on his side of the table with his pair of twos. The human, on the other hand, enjoys the advantage not just of his royal flush, but of a score of helpers and cheerleaders to advise him, as well as to tattle on the grizzly’s hand, to pinch and distract and threaten and shout at the bear as he tries to make his near-hopeless play. And waiting in the wings are seven billion new opponents.
Are we done yet in exploring man’s advantages over our gambling grizzly? Not by – pun intended – a long shot.
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