Gabriela Cowperthwaite says about her movie, Blackfish, that she wanted to understand how SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau could have been killed “by an animal we consider to be our friend.”
Cowperthwaite taps into the highly conflicted relationship we have with top predators like orcas, tigers, wolves and eagles. On the one hand, we want to dominate them – even hunt them down and kill them as trophies. On the other, we want them to be our friends – almost our equals. So we hold on to the image of “Shamu” enjoying splashing the kids and having someone dance on his nose?
(In Moscow, you can take your children behind the scenes at the Nikulin Circus to pet one of the tigers.)
Just as orcas, tigers and wolves are top predators of their domains, we humans like to imagine ourselves as top predators of the entire world. Except that we have no real idea of what a top predator is. Real top predators occupy a critical place in their ecosystems, preventing other animals from over-breeding and over-grazing, and ensuring the health of the entire environment.
We humans do none of that. Our behavior is very different from a top predator. And there is, in fact, a good reason for that: For millions of years, before we figured out the use of fire and advanced tool-making, our ancestors were a prey species, always on the watch for wild cats and dogs, hyenas, snakes, crocodiles, even birds.
A few years ago, I interviewed Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman, authors of the book Man the Hunted – Primates, Predators and Human Evolution, which challenges the whole notion of “man the hunter”, club in hand, prowling the plains and forests in search of prey.
We are not true predators; we are, rather, a kind of empowered prey species.We did not evolve as predators, and we don’t behave like true predators. We are, rather, a kind of empowered prey species – which might help to explain our irrationally destructive behavior toward other animals and the need to demonstrate our superiority over the rest of nature.
“Shamu” is not our “friend.” And if we really were top predators, we wouldn’t be trying to turn her into our friend. It’s just another part of a totally conflicted and dysfunctional relationship that has us swinging back and forth between trying to kill large animals and trying to befriend them – or train them to befriend us.
Here’s some of the discussion I had with Hart and Sussman:
Michael Mountain: Whenever you hear about someone being attacked by a shark or a mountain lion or whatever, people get very alarmed. We humans kill millions of sharks every year, and often millions of each other. Why do we get so upset at such a deep level when we hear of humans being attacked by other animals?
Robert Sussman: For millions of years [humans were] actually a prey species. It’s as simple as that. We like to think of ourselves as being in control of our environment, completely in control of what we do. Even in wars and murders and car accidents we are in control – we are the ones that do those things.
But when nature impinges on us and we can be completely taken over by an animal, it’s sort of, well, how can men be vulnerable to these things? Nature, just like the tsunami, is a very shocking thing because it’s a natural phenomenon that we cannot control.
M.M.: So you’re saying that we lived for millions of years as a prey species, and we’re still handling things as if we were prey?
Donna Hart: There’s only been a very, very short time when we’ve had some control over our environment, and of course we’re talking then about Western industrial nations. In many parts of the world, there still are a good number of humans preyed upon by large predators.
M.M.: The picture we like to have of ourselves when you go to the movies is of our prehistoric ancestors running around with large clubs attacking the other animals and each other. We obviously like to think of ourselves as having been predators.
R.S.: [According to the fossil evidence] man evolved between five and seven million years ago. He didn’t have any tools until about two million years ago. He didn’t have any tools for hunting until about 600,000 to maybe even 100,000 years ago. “Group living in humans, like other primates, probably evolved because of our propensity to be a prey species.”
So for those 5 million years, he had basically no major tools. He had little teeth, he was a small primate, and there were many, many more predators in the area that he lived than there are now.
One other aspect is that in general, primates like us who are active during the daytime learn in groups. A major reason they live in groups is for protection from predation. So group living in humans, like other primates, probably evolved because of our propensity to be a prey species again. Our cooperation and nurturance and all these things are probably much involved with being a prey species.
M.M.: How is this affecting our behavior today? We like to think of ourselves as the top predator in the world. But if we’re fundamentally a prey species, are we out of whack with ourselves?
D.H.: Neither of us believes there is something inherently aggressive or violent about the human species. We have certainly created a world where we don’t live in the way we evolved, which was in small groups with people who were related to each other and had a deep caring for each other.
R.S.: And if we look at the primates and at most hunting and gathering societies, women are the core of the society. They pass on the knowledge from year to year, and from generation to generation; they know the home regions better; they’re the ones who actually invent and teach the children how to use tools. They are the center and the core of a nurturing family and the social organization. Most male scientists and male evolution specialists try to ignore that!
D.H.: Males in primate societies are often the first line of defense against predators, and they are necessary for that. But they often don’t participate highly in the social structure of the group at all.
M.M.: What do you want people to take away from what you’ve learned?
R.S.: Well, there are lots of books on “man the hunter, man the killer.” There’s even a book called Demonic Male. It sort of claims that we are, by instinct, killers because we are predators and because we hunted. But even predators aren’t by nature “killers” – they don’t usually kill one another. And secondly we really evolved as a cooperative, integrated, dependable, and dependent species on each other. And that’s what we should be.
We should actually learn that we are a cooperative, congenial group of people – of animals.