I came across an article this week about prairie dogs, those cuddly, white-tailed darlings of the Great Plains. Turns out they’re not so cuddly after all. In fact, they’re the Islamic State of rodents. They scrounge for food, dig burrows in the earth, and, when they have nothing better to do, hunt squirrels with a vengeance. When they catch them, they shake them violently by the scruff of the neck, crushing the squirrels’ fragile vertebrae. Then, presumably, they go back to playing those Disney cartoon characters that you see off the interstate.
Prairie dogs aren’t carnivores. So, why do they do this? They do it because of scarce resources, which is something you learn about in Econ 101. Prairie dogs and ground squirrels live off the same grasses and seeds. So, the competition can get fierce. By killing off the squirrels, prairie dogs are more likely to have larger litters that live longer, thus helping the species survive. Darwin 1, Squirrels 0.
It’s about competition, which is that nasty thing we humans like to fixate on, moralizing in high-toned fashion how it is a scourge that must be rooted out of society by putting everyone on a level playing field. Literally. So, all the players get a Little League trophy for “participation,” we do away with single-sex social clubs (e.g., Harvard), and our political talk centers around social engineering and the new world order. The past has to be obliterated. This will be done with video games and coloring books for adults.
The field of psychiatry learned long ago that if you repress hostility, you may create bizarre anxieties and behaviors–neuroses–to compensate. This is often done unconsciously. How do we repress hostility? By distancing ourselves from our baser instincts and pretending that we are all squirrel and no prairie dog. This is dangerous, because we might project our hostility onto other things and people, especially if we take on the attitude of a victim.
Recognizing and admitting that we are part prairie dog can go a long way toward defusing the hostility. It’s a way of holding up a mirror to our sinister selves. In addition, we ought to question the frontier logic that has driven us throughout history. What logic is that? The logic of cause and effect, which is the basis of modern economic theory and natural science. It claims that there is only so much grassland in our corner of the prairie. If you take some, there will be less for me and vice versa. So we must annihilate one another as a way to reduce the surplus population, to put a Dickensian spin on it.
There is another way, though, one that has taken shape in counter movements since the Industrial Revolution. It is based not on causal logic but relational logic. In situations of scarcity, it looks for alternatives to mutual annihilation. It is a logic of love in which the basic act is to give, not to take. This logic, rather than being naive, makes the most sense given not only dwindling resources but limited space. The world is getting smaller, and that’s not just on the 4 train, which means we have to get into the habit of cooperating, not annihilating.
We have an opportunity not just to save ourselves and the future but to prove that we are not animals after all. Well, at least not prairie dogs. We might aspire to be more like gorillas. The story of the child who fell into the gorilla exhibit in Chicago and was saved by a female gorilla should be a lesson for all of us about compassion and love.
In the meantime, I might write to the mayor to suggest that they introduce prairie dogs into the subway system to kill the rats. Sure, it sounds violent, but spend some time on the subways and you’ll see what I mean.
Hey, it’s a jungle out there.
Photos by John Hoogland, University of Maryland. Note to self: tu ne cede malis, sed contra audientor ito/yield not to ills but go forth all the bolder (Aeneid VI, 95).