South Africa

29 March 2021: Hyenas, human exceptionalism and hubris

The late Australian philosopher and ecofeminist Val Plumwood was attacked and almost killed by a saltwater crocodile in 1985. The fact she survived three ‘deathrolls’ is down to her sheer determination to escape and a good amount of luck. Severely injured, one leg was exposed to the bone, she somehow managed to walk and finally crawl to the nearest ranger station, some three kilometres away.

In her essay ‘Prey to a crocodile’, Plumwood writes that during the attack ‘I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside”, as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.

‘ … It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat.’

Saltwater crocodile. Courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unkown.

Human exceptionalism is the belief that we as individuals and as a species are separate and superior to all other life on earth. It is a belief innate in almost each and every human, especially those belonging to so-called developed societies, that stems from our almost complete domination of the planet’s landscapes and ecologies. We are the world’s most numerous large animal, and our technology has enabled us to travel from the deepest abyss to the surface of the moon. Some aspects of our technology are overwhelmingly prolific and invasive: plastic, for example, is now found from the highest point to the lowest point on Earth’s surface and throughout our own food chain.

Human exceptionalism partly stems from the way we historically treat the animals and plants with which we share the planet. They are the resources we need to survive and thrive, and we reshape entire ecosystems to sustain industries that provide those resources in the cheapest, most efficient and in the greatest amount possible. This has been at the expense of vast swathes of rainforest, wetlands and temperate forests, environments essential to the health of life on earth.

But as Val Plumwood discovered, it doesn’t take much to reduce a single human being from a member of the planet’s dominant animal to just another source of food.

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In 2020, in the middle of South Africa’s first and strongest COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a short story called ‘Speaker’ for a competition run by Sapiens Plurum, an organisation created to ‘inspire (humans) to aspire beyond what was humanly possible.‘

The competition’s theme was ‘how can technology increase empathy and connection?’ They wanted authors to imagine ways technology can improve how we relate to each other and bring us closer, even across species.

The idea for ‘Speaker’ came from one of those moments of serendipity – or perhaps synchronicity is a better term – when two ideas fuse to create a third idea. The first idea was based on the development of protein microchips, a scientific endeavour that had its research heyday in the 80s; one objective of the research was finding a way to help people suffering from brain injury to regain full health. The second idea is a personal fantasy, really to one day communicate with one of our hominin cousins, such as Homo neanderthalensis or H. ergaster. The fusion of these two ideas created the third idea: using linked protein microchips for communication between two modern species, Home sapiens and, in this case, Crocuta crocuta – the spotted hyena[i].

The story won the competition, and subsequently Sapiens Plurum asked Slate Magazine to consider publishing it. Slate agreed, and in January published it in Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, New America (a Washington-based think tank), and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination.[ii] Specifically, my story was part of series sponsored by the Learning Futures initiative out of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU.

Stories appearing in Future Tense have a ‘response essay’ written by someone who is an expert in the field or issue covered by the story. In my case, I was fortunate to have Iveta Silova, an expert in global futures and learning, write the response in a piece called ‘If Nonhumans Can Speak, Will Humans Learn to Listen?’

As an extra bonus, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College then arranged for an online discussion between Iveta, Punya Mishra, a professor and Associate Dean of Scholarship and Innovation at the college, and myself, on the creation of ‘Speaker’ and the issues covered by it and Iveta’s response. That discussion was recorded and subsequently uploaded to YouTube.

The discussion’s central issue turned out to be about human exceptionalism. As Iveta explains in her essay:

‘Today … we are forced to acknowledge that we are not so special after all. On the one hand, we wonder and worry whether artificial intelligence will become conscious, leading us down a dystopian spiral of human irrelevance. On the other hand, we see a major shift in scientific thinking about plant intelligence and animal consciousness, suggesting that the difference between human and nonhuman species is just a matter of degree, not of kind. Meanwhile, our hyperseparation from the natural world is threatening every species on Earth—including humans.’

Iveta goes on to write that ‘Overcoming the modernist assumption of human exceptionalism and reconfiguring our relationship with a more-than-human world is a complex and long-term project.’

In ‘Speaker’, linking humans with different species is an attempt to overcome human exceptionalism, but the exercise itself is fraught with difficulties, especially the hurdles imposed by our own innate prejudices and assumptions about what it means to be human in a world that seems to be so completely dominated by humans.

Spotted hyena. Courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unknown.

And this is where our hubris kicks in. For the most part life on Earth is dominated by viruses, archaea and bacteria, but we are so coddled by civilisation that even if we understand this intellectually, it is usually impossible to acknowledge it instinctively. The current Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has demonstrated that for all our technological and cultural achievements, our entire civilisation can be put on hold by a virus so small that all the world’s Covid-19 particles can be contained a single soft drink can. It is well to remember that in ancient Greek tragedies, hubris comes before a great fall.

Linked to that hubris is the assumption in the story that given the capacity to link our own minds with those of other animals, we will go ahead and do it. The story doesn’t engage with the ethical issues of communicating in such a way with another species. For example, what repercussions would there be for the recipient species? How do we stop the link resulting in one species overly influencing or even dominating the other? In fact, how would we even begin to estimate what impact there might be? And if the decision was made to go ahead and make the link, how do we deal with the issue of privacy? How do the two linked intelligences stop invading each other’s most private thoughts? Can thoughts be turned on and off like a tap, or would the link open a floodgate that would drown both parties in a wave of facts, emotions and random thoughts?

Perhaps most importantly of all, and in the context of ‘Speaker’ the most relevant, is how do we interpret those thoughts? How do we know for sure that our brains won’t ‘mistranslate’ the thoughts it receives, and vice versa? In the story this is handled with the ‘joking’ subtext, the way Akata and Samora try to find a way around their very different life experiences to reach a common understanding for the concept of humour, something humans but not hyenas possess (at least in the story).

And yet, despite all of these issues, I see linking with another species as a wonderful opportunity and a positive action at so many levels. In her responding essay, Iveta actually quotes Val Plumwood:

‘According to … Val Plumwood, we must reimagine “the world in richer terms that will allow us to find ourselves in dialogue with and limited by other species’ needs, other kinds of minds.” This is, she argues, “a basic survival project in our present context.”’

It’s time for humans to put aside their exceptionalism and hubris. Apart from the damage to the planet such an attitude encourages, it damages us, keeping us artificially apart from the rest of life on earth. We cannot flourish as a species by ignoring the fact that we, like spotted hyenas and saltwater crocodiles and for that matter centipedes and flies, are animals. We aren’t the endpoint of evolution, just one of its offshoots.

[i] An animal seriously misrepresented in human culture. The spotted hyena is an intelligent and extraordinarily social predator that lives in large troops dominated by females. And I do mean ‘predator’; despite its historic image as a scavenger, almost all its food comes from actively hunted prey and not from stealing some other animal’s kills.

[ii] The story can be found here.

14 January 2021: An introduction to Mrs Ples

Mrs Ples is the oldest thing in my house. Although, to be honest she’s just a representation of the original Mrs Ples. And, to be even more honest, my Mrs Ples is only one-third the size of the original.

Mrs Ples has more than one name, and her history is, to say the least, turbulent.

But first, the big reveal. Mrs Ples is the oldest complete skull we have of Australopithecus africanus, a member of the great apes that includes us – the hominims. I bought the replica that now rests proudly on my bookshelf at the Cradle of Humankind in August 2018.

I think she’s beautiful.

And yes, it’s reasonably likely that Mrs Ples is not Mr Ples, although the issue is not yet settled. When the original fleshy envelope holding her passed away, she was middle-aged, not bad going for someone from her time. Standing in her socks she was about the same height as a chimpanzee, and her brain was about the same size as a chimp’s as well.

But, unlike a chimp, she was bipedal. She proudly walked on two legs, occasionally retreating to a tree if something bigger than a hedgehog threatened her.

In her modern incarnation, she entered the world with a bang. Literally. The rock matrix enclosing her skull was blown apart by dynamite. It took a lot of work to get all the pieces together again.

At first, she was Plesianthropus transvaalensis; later, scientists discovered she was actually related to the Taung child, the first early hominin ever found in Africa, and already given the binomen Australopithecus africanus. So she lost her first official title and took up another; in honour of that first name, however, she has since been called Mrs Ples.

Her other name is her catalogue number, in this case STS 5, which indicates the fossil was found at Sterkfontein.

Despite being blown up, misnamed and constantly man-handled by grubby palaeoanthropologists, she is regarded with wonder by those in the know. In fact, when South Africa’s free-to-air broadcasting company aired a show in 2004 called Great South Africans, Mrs Ples made the list.

Not bad for someone who’s been dead for at least 2.1 million years.

Sadly, Mrs Ples was among the last of her kind. Soon after she was extinguished, so was her species. A sister species, A. sediba, lived in southeast Africa for a while longer, but it too eventually disappeared, probably the last of the australopithecines.

And for those who want to know what she looks like … here she is …

30 March 2020: Walls

I live in a compound in the Johannesburg district of Fourways, a favourite location for expats, the white middle class and the growing black and coloured middle class. Our compound is surrounded by a 2.5-metre wall topped with a ring of metal spikes and electric fencing. Our townhouse abuts the north wall. East of our house, and still in the compound, is a children’s playground and a tennis court; before the current lockdown, most weekdays I heard small children laughing and shouting in the playground, supervised by parents and nannies. I like that about where I live: it’s a community, with all age groups.DSC07154

When I call it a compound, I’m sometimes corrected by locals. ‘It’s a complex, not a compound,’ someone will say. Or, ‘It’s a gated community.’

I get that. ‘Compound’ sounds like a kind of prison, except in this case it’s built to keep people out, not keep people in. Having said that, there are times when it feels like we are being kept in, especially early in the morning when I look out north and east and see glimpses of what appears a less restrained city draped across the Gauteng landscape.[i]

But whether you call them compounds, complexes or gated communities, they are small villages separated from the rest of Johannesburg by walls and wires and gates and guards. These compounds have, as Lynsey Chutel wrote in Quartz Africa, ‘created pockets of development – ranging from middle class suburbia to opulence – walled off from South Africa’s socio-economic reality.’

Compounds are not as old as apartheid, and nor is it true to say they are the spatial descendants of apartheid geography[ii], but as Chutel points out there is a direct link in the mentality behind the construction of compounds and their popularity as places to live in cities such as Johannesburg: ‘The prevalence of gated communities may also reveal what South Africans think constitutes middle class life. As it did under apartheid, it often means avoiding the poor unless they are servants, nannies or gardeners.’

As more and more black and coloured South Africans join the country’s middle class, compounds like the one I live in can be seen as the expression of economic rather than racial division, where the better off are made to feel more secure by being separated from the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed. The fact that a large number of well-off South Africans are white can blur the distinction[iii], but compounds are ultimately the concrete expression of an economic divide, and an expression of what I think is the single biggest stumbling block to a more united, more progressive and ultimately wealthier society: the unwillingness to tear down the walls. I don’t see this simply a physical problem, but more importantly, a deeply psychological one.

When I lived in Phuket, one of the things that struck me about Thai society was how the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl. A drive along Thepkrasatree Road would have us passing a palatial estate sandwiched between a two-bedroom concrete box and a refugee camp filled with tin shacks, all of them spouting television aerials and satellite dishes. It wasn’t that the family living in the palatial estate liked living next to a refugee camp, or for that matter that the refugees in the camp liked being constantly reminded of how little they owned, but that there were no 2.5 metre walls and electric fences reinforcing the division. The rich, the aspiring middle class and the desperately poor tolerated each other.

Thai society isn’t without its problems, including crime and violence, but the different classes seem more willing to share common ground, and more than willing to accept the poor becoming middle class and the middle class becoming rich. In Phuket, unlike Johannesburg, divisions aren’t fanned by a history of oppression on one side and fearful insecurity on the other.

Compounds are most common in Gauteng Province, especially its two main cities: Johannesburg and Pretoria. Divisions certainly exist in cities like Cape Town, but I didn’t see many examples of whole communities being fenced off from the world outside.DSC07729

What strikes me most about South Africa and its people is its sheer potential. South Africans I have met are hardworking, smart, confident and optimistic at heart. The country has natural resources aplenty and for its size a large but not excessive population for Africa (around 60 million people in a state somewhat larger than New South Wales). The people genuinely value democracy, freedom, education, initiative and creativity. It seems to me that all the important elements of a successful society are in place; the fact that it is not yet a successful society speaks to its recent history and the scars it’s left behind.

I have to stress that these are impressions on my part, and I’m an interloper. I come from a wealthy, predominantly white middle-class background from a land far, far away. I am a member of the most privileged class of human beings that has ever lived. I have no right to give advice to anyone who lives here, to all those who have struggled through decades of repression and fear, let alone to the new generations that came after the end of apartheid – the ‘Born Frees’. I also know how hard it is to talk about a society as rich and complex as South Africa’s without making generalisations, some of which are unfair to all those who struggle every day against any division, racial or economic.

But I cannot help feeling that greater progress in South Africa cannot be made until there is genuine social and economic freedom for everyone, and I cannot help feeling that will not occur until the walls come down.

[i] The thing you notice most of all about Johannesburg is all the trees. For a city that has grown in South Africa’s Highveld, dry rolling plains that resemble the dry rolling plains around Canberra and Yass, there’s an awful lot of perpendicular vegetation. It’s sometimes claimed that Johannesburg is home to the world’s largest artificially created forest, and I can believe it. A lot of the trees are introduced – eucalypts, lillipillies, jacarandas – but the city still manages to look very African, as if at any moment the traffic weaving along the streets inside the forest could be replaced by herds of wildebeest.

[ii] Where ‘apartheid willfully set out to beggar the Black community for the benefit of the White.’ https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/johannesburg-segregated-city

[iii] https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-04-00-figures-suggest-sa-has-the-highest-concentration-of-wealth-in-the-hands-of-a-few/, and see https://businesstech.co.za/news/wealth/133164/south-africas-skewed-income-distribution-when-measured-by-race/

10 January 2019: A tale of unrequited love

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Southern masked weaver in our back yard, Johannesburg

What follows is a tragedy. Admittedly, a minor tragedy in the scheme of things, but one that played out in front of AJ, our daughter and myself at our home in Johannesburg just after Christmas. It involves a hardworking bird called a southern masked weaver and its failed attempt to win a mate.

Weaver birds, as their name suggests, weave intricate nests. They are a family of birds mostly native to sub-Saharan Africa, with some species living in tropical Asia.

According to Weaver Watch, one of their number, the red-billed weaver or red-billed quelea, ‘ …is one of the most abundant bird species in the world and its post-breeding population has been estimated to be 1.5 billion birds, leading to its nickname “Africa’s feathered locust”’. Since it readily eats crops, this makes the red-billed quelea a serious threat to subsistence farmers.dsc01471 (2)

Most weaves, however, are harmless. They are beautiful birds, small and compact, and during mating season (September to January) the males are brightly coloured, brilliant architects and hardworking builders.

Since arriving in South Africa six months ago, AJ and I have admired weavers and the intricate nests they make, and were planning to build a feeder and bird bath to attract to them to our home. Then to our surprise, on Boxing Day, AJ and daughter (visiting from Australia over Christmas) noticed a southern masked weaver starting a nest hanging from a branch about halfway up the jacaranda in our backyard.

In fact, by the time we noticed its existence the nest had already been started: the first central ring of long fronds had been weaved together, and an inner lining of fern (or possibly jacaranda) leaves laced in to help make the nest more comfortable.

As we watched over the next two days, the weaver worked virtually non-stop on building the new home. Its skill, agility and determination were remarkable, and the product of its labour a thing of beauty. I wouldn’t be surprised if our distant ancestors learned to weave from watching these little birds at work.dsc01478 (2)When the male has finished building the nest, a female flies in to assess its suitability. While the male of the species is a brilliant architect and hardworking builder, the female is a severe critic and, occasionally, expert demolisher. If she doesn’t like the nest, she will often tear it to pieces; the male will then start again, or choose another location to build a completely new one.

Three days after first noticing the nest in our jacaranda, we left home for most of the day. When we returned, the nest was gone, its ruins laying on the lawn below the tree. At the time AJ theorised it was a young male, new at the game, and a female had let it know in no uncertain terms that its efforts weren’t good enough. But then we remembered that there had been a brief but violent storm while we were out, and it seems likely this was what brought down the nest.dsc01537 (2)

Sadly, we didn’t end up with a happy couple residing in our backyard and raising a new brood of southern masked weavers. On the plus side, male weavers usually build a series of nests; we can only hope our male successfully found at least one female willing to put up with his efforts and share with him a clutch of eggs.

15 September 2018: The not-so-big (but still mightily impressive) ten

Last weekend, AJ and I went camping at Pilanesberg National Park. Well, I say camping. Our tent had a refrigerator in it. And a kettle. And power points for our mobile phones.

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Extraordinarily rough camping conditions prevailed at Pilanesberg.

Anyway, together with some fellow teachers from AJ’s school we went comfortably camping at a park famous for providing visitors the opportunity to catch sight of the Big Five: Cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos.

While we did manage to see a line of lying lions in the distance – we needed binoculars to find them – for the most part the Big Five managed to elude us.

This is probably because AJ and I decided to forgo the chance of getting up before sunrise and braving subzero temperatures to tour the park in an open truck. Those who did make the effort not only managed to see the Big Five but cheetahs as well. However, they were cold. Very cold. Their fingers snapped off trying to focus their Nikon 70-300 zoom lenses.

We, on the other hand, got up at a civil hour, had a hot breakfast, and entered the park about 9.30 am, courtesy of the generous school librarian and his huge red ute. Although most of the predators and large herbivores had by then decided to migrate to warmer climes, we did see plenty of impressive wildlife, including kudus, wildebeest, zebras and giraffes.

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Grey heron.

And our fingers didn’t drop off focusing our zoom lens. Not just because it was warmer, but because our camera decided to stop working, forcing us to rely on the cameras on our mobile phones.

In fact, we didn’t really have to leave our tent to see some very impressive locals. Our camping site had been colonised by a several groups of impala, vervet monkeys, chacma baboons, banded mongooses, hornbills and helmeted guinea fowls.

The impala were the most impressive of all. They’re magnificently streamlined antelopes with a colour scheme designed by an Italian fashion house. The males sport magnificent horns shaped like ancient Greek lyres. The effect is somewhat spoiled when the males start practicing for the rutting season by pretending to come to blows and blowing through their noses, sounding like a parcel of agitated pigs with head colds.

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Impala cleaning his nose in preparation for a good snort.

The funniest sight is watching the normally docile guinea fowls suddenly scatter, running one way and then the other. AJ said the bird reminded her of a fusty old women from the 19th century picking up her skirts and pelting down the street.

The vervets spend most of their time high in trees or sitting like sandstone statues on the roof line of the campsite’s restaurant. They look down on their fellow primates with aloof disinterest.

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Vervet practising aloofness.

One of the highlights of the expedition was totally unexpected. We came across the ruins of an iron age kraal not far from the park’s entrance. The area’s fenced off, and if the main gate’s red light is flashing – meaning something like a lion or leopard or elephant is also touring the ruins – you’re advised to stay out. On this occasion we were the only visitors.

The kraal was built by the Tswana chief Pilane, hence the name of the park. The ruins are well signed, giving a brief history of the kraal and what the various buildings and spaces were used for. The kraal’s main lookout provided wonderful views of the park. It reminded AJ and me of some of the ancient hill forts on the border of Wales and England we visited in 2010. Although those hill forts weren’t surrounded by thorn trees. I managed to get one long branch wrapped around my left leg. It took some doing to disentangle myself, and the small wounds made by the thorns itched for hours afterwards.

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Warning outside the iron age kraal.

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The kraal itself!

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View from the kraal lookout.

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Thornbush.

A second highlight was the visitor’s centre, where people can eat and drink on a wide deck overlooking the bush. A large salt lick is placed not far from the deck, drawing giraffes, zebra and wildebeest, although when we were there only one giraffe, the biggest, got to enjoy the lick. He’d tolerate other giraffes having a go, but didn’t hesitate kicking any wildebeest who came for their turn. The zebras were pluckier than the wildebeest, but no more successful.

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A giraffe. Not a zebra or wildebeest.

The landscape between Johannesburg and Pilanesberg is eerily familiar. Geographically and botanically it’s very similar to the Southern Tablelands, especially the stretch between Canberra and Yass. It’s not surprising, I suppose: South Africa and Australia were once joined at the hip. The soft landscape is covered in grasses and acacias and other plants adapted to a hot, dry climate. True, South Africa has lions while Australia has sheep, and South African kopjes are rockier than Australian hills, but nonetheless …

The similarity even extends to bushfires. Pilanesberg hosted its own bushfire the week before we arrived, and large parts of the park were black and ash grey, again strangely familiar to anyone from inland New South Wales.

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Bushfire damage.

It’s not like AJ and I are looking for similarities, but perhaps a little homesickness makes you look for them instead of the differences.

In October, we hope to make our way southeast to Durban for a few days, stopping over at the Drakensberg on the way.