Rational Religion

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On the Survival of Cats and Related Mammals


We are a curious, questioning race - traits we share with many of our near and distant relatives.


But we are cursed with foresight and imagination, which puts much of our curiosity and resultant questions on a different plane.


"Curiosity killed the cat," because the instinctive feline urge to explore the environment does not come bundled with a premonitory mental picture of oneself as road pizza.


The urge to explore, itself, is adaptive because it familiarizes the animal with its surroundings, which might contain food sources, routes of escape from predation and other life-enhancing elements.


But most creatures' exploratory strategies are tied directly to their likelihood of being predator or becoming prey.†††† The lion stalks boldly through the landscape, placidly alert for opportunity or competition; the mouse scurries from cover to cover, nervous system on overdrive, ready to respond evasively to the slightest stimulus.


Both of these strategies are subject to failure, but they succeed often enough that there are still lions and many, many mice.†


Young creatures, of course, of most species "have no sense;" which means they have an undeveloped sense of danger.††† If their instincts do not protect them, and their parents or their society do not teach them the perils of the environment, they must either learn the perils by some near brush with catastrophe -- or die.†


As a cat lover I have "owned" literally dozens of the furry creatures in my long life.† I have noted - anecdotally, of course; one does not experiment with such things - that kittens born on the property and properly supervised to adulthood by a wise and long-lived parent tend to survive the vicissitudes of living on a specific well-traveled street corner somewhat better than young cats "adopted" from elsewhere.


Most animals can learn from their environment; what its opportunities and dangers are.† They will thereafter seek or avoid them, as appropriate.†


But it's all after the fact, even that which is "cultural"† - learned from a parent.† I doubt the mother cat "tells" her offspring, "Don't go into the road.† You'll get killed"† - even though mother might "know" this from personal experience of near misses, or having observed a flattened sibling.††† She simply includes this lesson in her program of parental instruction of allowable do's and don'ts.† As it matures, a kitten straying near the well-known path of large, fast-moving objects will be alert to "something" about that path which is perilous.†† Curiosity will still lead the creature to test the boundaries, but heightened senses may save its life.†


Somewhere back down the long trail of evolution, our heightened senses underwent a phase shift.† The frightened kitten, having seen another crushed by a speeding car, probably doesn't make any specific neural connections beyond the smell of death and a perplexing lack of motility in the fallen comrade - all associated with the roar of a motor and the whish of displaced air.†


"Something happened there which wasn't good!"


The street obviously isn't a good place, especially when it is filled with certain sights and sounds.†


But we can see an automobile accident, even on television or in a newspaper still photo, and we can immediately extrapolate to our own experience.†


"My god!† I don't want that to happen to me!"


This ability to personalize observed occurrences, whether positive or negative experiences, may have been the first step toward a human nervous system.† Beyond consciousness, we became aware; prescient.


This gave us, of course, a tremendous adaptive advantage over our fellow-creatures who were merely conscious, and dependent upon direct experiences to learn.† We could "think ahead" of them and intercept or avoid them as the case demanded.†


We could plan strategy for intercepting or avoiding; and this gave us a stimulus to learn to communicate complex ideas to one another for mutual benefit.


One could argue that many animals seem to "plan" their lives as well, and in the ones with cooperative social structures this "planning" is readily observable.†


Most of this interpretation is probably an illusion.† We observe from the viewpoint of our own complex consciousness and make anthropomorphic assumptions.


The wolf pack hunts together, killing animals both too small and elusive and large and well-defended for one wolf to manage by itself.††† Watching wolves hunt a moose, from a helicopter, reveals a cooperative strategy which certainly seems prescient.††† The pack approaches from optimum angles, makes its choice, separates an individual from the herd, worries it into some cul-de-sac in the landscape and makes its kill; or fails because the moose is too fast, tough and smart to be cornered.


But there is probably nothing in any of this behavior, from the wolves' point of view or the moose's, which is much beyond instinctive.† It is simply the result of hundreds of thousands of years of wolf-moose interaction which has made both of them enough better at what they do that both have been able to survive.†


I doubt very much that any wolves lie in their lair strategizing their next moose-hunt; or that moose, munching on their browse, visualize how they might best escape from their location, given a wolf attack.


Human beings have been doing these sorts of things for at least half a million years; and probably talking to each other about them.


The trick is, that once prescience developed - simply as a competitive strategy for predation or protection - it was loose in the population and prospectively out of control.


Other basic "instinctive" elements, such as curiosity and exploration, were still part of the animal's makeup.† Combined with this powerful new tool for "seeing into the future," they enabled our ancestors to explore new worlds of abstraction and imagination which had no physical existence, except as neurochemical patterns in the individual central nervous system.††† Of course, it was possible to talk about these ghostly inventions, with the same symbols and structures we had long used to hunt and protect ourselves.

Metaphysics was born.† And all the trouble started.


Once you can do it at all, seeing just a little ways into a possible future isnít enough.† You want it all!†† And because you can't have it, you start making it up.††