his week, I’m going to take a break from talking about what should change. Instead, I’m going to discuss something I think is wonderful and should stay just as it is. If any of you watched the last episode of David Attenborough’s magnificent series Africa, you’ll remember that the star of the last ten minutes was a blind baby rhino. Some of the final shots were of the octogenarian down on his hands and knees making cooing noises at the sightless animal who had followed them as they were leaving. He goes on to explain his sincere hope that the little fellow will get a cataract operation to restore his sight. You can watch the clip here.
Now, it might just be the heartstring-yanking violins sliding away in the background, but scenes like this touch me very deeply. In fact, all examples where humans look after animals whose survival cannot possibly aid them - ‘pets’, as we like to call them - fill me with a joy like no other. Let me see if I can explain a little of why that is.
In my (admittedly very limited) understanding of current scientific explorations of the origins of human altruism, it seems our instincts of protection have been developed to ensure our species’ survival. Natural selection depends on certain types of genes surviving. The theory goes that those creatures genetically predisposed to look after their close relatives in the species had, all told, more of a chance of continuing the reign of their genes. Survival of the tribe at large ensures survival of the local gene pool.
Some might say this theory is callous in that it essentially distils human altruism down to genetic ‘selfishness’; only in a very vague sense is this true. In reality, genes cannot be selfish any more than atoms can, and it doesn’t undermine the way that altruism makes us feel and behave. It does explain, however, why we are anxious to keep our families safe. Sadly, it also sheds light on why we can sometimes feel detached about the plight of those the other side of the planet - for helping those far away cannot possibly aid our own survival (at least not during the term of our lives).
But nature likes to err on the side of caution. Our instincts have evolved to overshoot. Even though we know that it is very unlikely that there is a bear in that dark cave, better for survival’s sake to be scared of the dark and avoid that one bear in a million than to stride unafraid inside and be mauled once in a blue moon. The same seems to be the case for our altruism. We do feel great anguish for those in foreign countries who are starving or oppressed, especially when they are presented to us on film as real people with whom we can connect. Granted, our pathos might not be as strong as the love for our families, but still we club together in the billions to come to the aid of those who cannot possibly shape our genes’ career. There is something intensely beautiful about this behaviour.
The same, it seems to me, goes for animals. What possible good could it do David Attenborough’s genes to comfort that little rhino and work for its wellbeing? One surefire way of assuring security for our genes is wealth. And yet we pour countless gazillions of currency into the livelihoods of cats and dogs and budgerigars, not because they can directly benefit us (as farm animals do), but simply because our instinct for altruism has wildly overshot its mark. I suppose pets do benefit us, in a way: they give us comfort and relieve stress, which is doubtless good for our genes in the long run. But there is still an indescribable poetry in a family adopting an abandoned kitten for nothing other than the desire to keep it safe and happy. I’m pretty sure someone even built an axle of wheels for their cat who was without back legs due to an accident…
Programmes like Africa are essential because they foster that inherent kindness in us, those impulses to love and protect that call bands of kids off the coast of Madagascar to help baby green turtles make their journey across the beach to the sea. In a world so dominated by the instinct to look after Number One, it is magical to see, as I did today, a family walking from a vet clinic carrying a forlorn pooch with a bandaged leg. In that small moment, all was right with the world. ∎