The Race of Life: The Tortoise and the Hare Revisited

I suppose that most people are familiar with the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the mythical race that was alleged to have occurred between these two very different creatures, the one slow and steady, and the other quick and impulsive. We are told that it was not the swifter of these two animals that won the race, but the one that diligently ran, or rather crawled, to the finish line. If we are wise enough to see it, there is an important lesson to be learned from this ancient fable about humanity’s present frenetic course on the Earth.

Most of us human beings are filled with the conceit of our species’ greater intelligence and dominance over all other living creatures. This conceit makes us believe that we are superior to them in many ways. Granted, our intelligence has enabled us during the last few centuries – a period of time, let us remember, that is utterly insignificant in evolutionary terms or when compared to the vastly greater age of the Earth – to dominate over other creatures, while we have spread like an invasive and poisonous weed over all the Earth’s habitable land. For wherever modern human beings have taken up residence and begun constructing their unnatural habitations made of glass, concrete, metal, and treated wood, while releasing into the land, water, and air their artificially-produced and frequently poisonous chemicals, most other forms of life have been significantly diminished, including to the point of extinction.

But there is a very simple fact about survival that, despite our vaunted intelligence, most of us have completely failed to grasp. We think that we are superior to the dinosaurs because they are extinct while we are not. And yet, the catastrophic event that is believed to have eliminated them, a large meteor that collided with the Earth, would almost certainly have eliminated us as well, even if we were equipped with all the scientific knowledge and technological wizardry that our species has developed during the past few centuries. Second and more importantly, the fact that we happen to be alive at this particular moment in time is nothing more than a historical accident. In other words, that we happen to be alive now while so many other species have become extinct – an estimated 99 percent or more of all the species that have ever existed on the Earth – is no proof of our superior evolutionary fitness.

Every species that presently exists on the Earth, or will exist in the future, will one day become extinct. This is not mere conjecture, for it is a very basic fact of the Universe. Long before the Sun, which is the source of all life on Earth, ceases to shine, it will first cool down and gradually cease radiating enough energy in the form of light and heat to sustain life on Earth. At that point, average terrestrial temperatures will plunge below the freezing point of water, which is the basis of pretty nearly all terrestrial and aquatic life forms. When that happens, it will mean the end of almost all life forms, in particular those that are more complex.

Given this fact – that the terrestrial extinction rate will one day be 100 percent, when there will be no more life on Earth – the only meaningful comparison of evolutionary success is not which species happens to exist at any particular time, but how long that species existed. In other words, not survival but longevity is the only meaningful measure of evolutionary success. By this measure, the evolutionary success of humans is pitifully brief when compared to the most successful organisms like bacteria, which have endured for billions of years, a record of longevity that we humans, with all our so-called superior intelligence, will never come close to equalling. Even those stupid dinosaurs, whom we ridicule for having small brains encased in their monstrously large bodies, were, by this measure of evolutionary success, far more successful than we have been, since, as a group, they managed to survive for more than a hundred million years, and some species survived for many tens of millions of years. From an evolutionary perspective, dinosaurs were much more successful than we humans will likely be.

It would be useful, therefore, as a necessary check to human vanity and arrogance, if someone were to produce a chart listing, from longest to shortest, how long various species of organisms have survived on the Earth. And then we will see where exactly we stand in terms of evolutionary success, for the humbling truth is that we will appear near the bottom of this list, separated from the most successful species by hundreds of millions or even billions of years – time frames that are unimaginable to our puny and limited understandings.

In the Race of Life, there is no finish line, since time does not stop. Although there are only losers and temporary winners in this race, overall some are much more successful than others. By this criterion, which is the only one that matters in the long run, since nothing lasts forever, human beings will be one of the greatest and most pitiful losers in the history of the Earth. The faster we go, the more and more likely it is that we will lose this race by our completely irrational collective behaviour. In the never-ending Race of Life, the only thing that matters is the survival of the species to which one belongs – everything else is secondary; and the only way to accomplish this is by slowing down our increasingly frenzied lives. Many of us have become trapped in the model of running frantically in circles and have no idea how to get off the constantly spinning merry-go-round that we call progress, whether it is cultural, scientific, or technological. The model of rapid, frenetic change – change just for the sake of changing things – is not a model that is conducive to long-term survival, for it can very easily happen, as is amply demonstrated by our species’ recent history, that we no longer control these forces and processes which we have unleashed, but instead we become the slaves of these forces. This pernicious human habit is completely at odds with Nature, for species that survive for a long time are generally stable and unchanging, or only change slowly, while species that change rapidly, that is, mutate at high rates, are unstable and more likely to disappear.

Given the way we are presently behaving, consuming the Earth’s resources as if they were limitless, while we very foolishly upset the checks and balances that have gradually developed during the Earth’s very long history before we became so destructively and dangerously dominant, after we have caused the extinction of countless other species, the time remaining to us before we too become extinct is not long. How long, you ask? In my opinion, the time that is left to our extremely stupid, arrogant, and wantonly destructive species before we become extinct can be measured in a matter of centuries. Most certainly we will not last another thousand – or even five hundred – years at the frantic pace that we are living, while we literally devour the Earth, both its living creatures and its non-living resources, to satisfy our insatiable and mostly artificial appetites, while our numbers continue to explode unchecked.

Here, then, is the lesson to be learned from Aesop’s fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare – and it is a very important lesson, for nothing less than the survival of the human race depends on our understanding it: human beings, with their constant, never-ending changes – what we are pleased to call our marvelous inventions and discoveries – are not behaving like the slow and steady tortoise that wins the Race of Life; instead, we are behaving exactly like the quick but impulsive hare than ends up losing the Race of Life. It is all those other organisms, more brutish and less intelligent than we are, that behave like the tortoise, slowly making their way to the finish line of survival, which in reality is not a line but a never-ending continuum, since although particular individuals and particular life forms may die and disappear, Life itself continues unabated.

What is more, we are behaving like a hare that is the size of a modern supertanker, larger than any creature ever to exist on the Earth, which wantonly tramples everything in its path because of its indifference and its colossal clumsiness. What we call technological progress is in reality an infernal machine of devastation that destroys, alters, mars, and pollutes, at a faster and faster rate, the very Nature on which all Life, including our own peculiar and degenerate form of it, depends for its survival. For this clumsiness that has proven to be so destructive is not physical, as is the case with large, powerful creatures, but rather technological – the man-made creations and productions that lack the extraordinary elegance, efficiency, grace, and beauty of the natural living machines that we call plants and animals, who coexist in a shifting and changing but nevertheless eternal harmony. We, because we are finite, limited, and in reality very foolish creatures, cannot see that beneath the seemingly unending conflict of life and death that we daily witness on all scales, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, lies an eternal, balanced, and immensely powerful life force which constantly changes, sometimes waxing and sometimes waning, but never dies out.

Fortunately for the planet, no matter how great our destruction and how unlimited our collective human folly, when there are no more human beings on the Earth – a truly glorious day of salvation and liberation from human tyranny and oppression that will come very quickly if we stupid humans do not change our ways – this life force will begin the task of healing itself from the countless destructive actions that are due to human arrogance and selfishness, and multiply once again its innumerable and magnificent particular manifestations. And whether there are any creatures left to appreciate all this glorious beauty, abundance, and complexity is wholly immaterial, for Nature does not need such sentient creatures to sing its praises, especially if all they are capable of doing is disrespecting, destroying, contaminating, wounding, and weakening it. Far better that there be no such appreciative creatures when they are not capable of living in harmony with Nature and with all its many magnificent forms – forms that are far more wonderful than anything that we vainglorious human creatures are capable of creating, which non-living human creations we prefer, in our colossal ignorance and stupidity, to the wondrous creations of Nature.