Monday, February 11, 2008

Last Chance to See

This was long overdue, reading Douglas Adams’ Last chance to see and not having any impact on the way you perceive life in general, is like being autistic and trying to have a hyper imaginative conversation about courtship, relationships and the meaning of love. It definitely sends a quite provocative message in its own Douglas Adamsian way that we [humans] aren’t what we think we are.

                Last chance to see (LCTS), refers aptly to the last chance Douglas Adams and Mike Carwardine received to go on an exploration of some of the rarest of the rare species of fauna inhabiting the planet. It doesn’t come with a surprise that some of these extinctions are a direct result of human intervention and some of them have occurred naturally. But more or less, it can be easily concluded that even the natural extinctions are not as natural as they are claimed to be.

                Adams talks of convergent evolution, which entails that animals living across continents might develop similar physiological characteristics due to similarity of the terrain and habitat. He cites an example of a certain species of Lemur (from Madagascar) called aye-aye and the possums found in New Guinea. It seems remarkable that we humans evolve in more or less the same way, not physiologically but culturally. There hasn’t been major physiological evolution in the human race apart from differences in facial construction and skin pigmentation, but our cultures can vastly determine how convergent evolution takes place. Food habits, aversion to certain food groups, behavioural patterns, et al. all depend on the availability of the resource and the opportunity of getting to it.

                But being human also comes with its share of arrogance. With an out of proportion intellect and the black swan of survivorship, most of us have come to believe that we are meant to inherit the planet. We display a complete lack of awe towards the nature which makes us turn it into bio degradable waste/food/industrial and housing complexes, in short using it for the betterment of our own species. This sort of prejudice only harms the ecosystem in more ways than we can sum up.

                LTCS really opens up many diverse reactions to our lethargy and some people’s (conservationists’) efforts to protect our nature. Lethargy is as easy as throwing a plastic bag in the river and conservation is as difficult as channelizing your entire life to protect wildlife and spend an insurmountable amount of time in squeezing out the last penny to fund the project whilst forgetting your own material needs.

                We face such a rude shock when we can’t even accurately predict how many different types of plants and animals exist on our planet, let alone spend a second of our day in thinking of protecting them. In the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy Douglas Adams jokes about humans being the third most intelligent species on the planet, after mice and dolphins (for reasons which you MUST READ H2G2 to understand), are we really? Comes a question to my mind.

                Carl Sagan, in his immensely awesome book, Pale Blue Dot, talks about the insignificance of our planet when scaled down to compare with a universal view. He talks about Voyager 1 & 2 (space exploration probes sent by NASA), “The Voyagers were guaranteed to work only until the Saturn encounter. I thought it might be a good idea, just after Saturn, to have them take one last glance homeward. From Saturn, I knew the Earth would appear too small for Voyager to make out any detail. Our planet would be just a point of light, a lonely pixel, hardly distinguishable from the many other points of light Voyager could see, nearby planets and far-off suns. But precise because of the obscurity of our world thus revealed, such picture might be worth having.” Thus the title of his book, the pale blue dot, which adorns its cover page. This is the exact point Douglas Adams makes in Hitchhikers guide about how insignificant are we and how we should protect what we have. Last Chance to See is about Douglas Adams on a trip across the globe to chart the exotically rare species which in a way corresponds to Arthur Dent’s journey in hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, across the whole universe. The sort of naivety Arthur shows towards the universal cultures (because he is human and still doesn’t have the technology to travel interstellar distances) can be seen in our approach towards our own bio diversity.


                Just as Carl Sagan says, “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.


                It applies verbatim to Douglas Adam’s journey across the globe. To complicate things even further, we hardly know what our relationship is with all this nature thingy we are so reluctant to protect. We don’t know what the long term effects are of extinction of these species or what their roles could’ve been in their habitat in relation to our existence. Like Mike Cawardine says, “they could go extinct even before experts know enough to save them.”


                This amazing excerpt by Adams, just after he had visited a Komodo Dragon’s lunch session (as an exhibition), really helps us understand the meaning of all this diversity with a sarcastic take on creationism, “For all my rational Western intellect and education, I was for the moment overwhelmed by a primitive sense of living in a world ordered by a malign and perverted god, and it coloured my view of everything that afternoon - even the coconuts. The villagers sold us some and split them open for us. They are almost perfectly designed. You first make a hole and drink the milk, and then you split open the nut with a machete and slice off a segment of the shell, which forms a perfect implement for scooping out the coconut flesh inside. What makes you wonder about the nature of this god character is that he creates something that is so perfectly designed to be of benefit to human beings and then hangs it twenty feet above their heads on a tree with no branches.

Here's a good trick, let's see how they cope with this. Oh, look! They've managed to find a way of climbing the tree. I didn't think they'd be able to do that. All right, let's see them get the thing open. Hmm, so they've found out how to temper steel now, have they? OK, no more Mr Nice Guy. Next time they go up that tree I'll have a dragon waiting for them at the bottom.

I can only think that the business with the apple must have upset him more than I realised.

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