Narcissus’ Plight

When the dodo disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a dodo. When the passenger pigeon disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a pigeon. When the frogs disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a frog. When the Great Auk disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t an auk. When the bats disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a bat. When the Chinese River Dolphin disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a dolphin. When the black rhinoceros disappeared, I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a rhinoceros. But when the humans began to disappear, then it was too late.

– after Martin Niemöller[1]

Most people are familiar with the ancient Greek tale of Narcissus, which tells of a beautiful youth who falls in love with his image when he sees it reflected on the surface of the water and later dies from despair because, depending on the version, he is never able to find someone who is as beautiful as himself, or he is never able to find the image, since it was only a reflection and not real.

In the fairy tale of Snow White, there is a Queen who spends so much time staring at her reflection in a magical mirror – before the invention of photography and when mirrors were a luxury, meaning that very few people had seen their own image, and certainly not as often as many of us look at it today – that she becomes infatuated with herself and wants to be proclaimed the most beautiful woman in the land. She is roused to homicidal fury by an innocent young girl whose only offense is being judged by the magical mirror to be fairer than her.

In Jerry Mander’s insightful book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, the author presents what he regards as the many dangerous effects of the medium of television. However, there is one important danger that he overlooked. If, while watching television, one were to switch from one channel to another, one would find that, on almost every single channel, there appears on the television screen either the image of a human being, a large urban agglomeration where many humans live, or one of humanity’s many inventions, edifices, or sterile creations. Even when there appear images of Nature, these images are invariably accompanied by the voice of a human narrator that tells the viewer how one should regard and interpret them.[2] This extremely narcissistic obsession with ourselves, which obsession has been exacerbated by the development of modern communication technologies, has had a number of harmful and dangerous consequences.[3]

Because we humans spend so much time staring at images of members of our own species, we have literally become infatuated – and so have fallen in love – with ourselves, whether with ourselves personally or with other members of our species. The result of this unhealthy infatuation is that many of us believe that only we human beings matter. Moreover, because of our species’ astonishing ingenuity, the evidences of which we see on television screens and in our daily lives, we believe that we can find a solution for every single problem that arises, including the numerous problems that are caused by our many foolish collective actions. But like Narcissus, we are in danger of collectively committing suicide because of this dangerous obsession with ourselves, and the accompanying overestimation of our intelligence and abilities.

Most of us know individuals who have a very high opinion of themselves. They are generally vain, selfish, egotistical, thoughtless, inconsiderate, angered by what they perceive to be slights, and believe that they are smarter, more attractive, and more capable than everyone else, whom they often regard with disdain or as inferior and insignificant to themselves. Collectively, in our behaviour towards other organisms, the human race is behaving in the same manner as these vain and egotistical individuals. And it arises from the same cause, the fact that we have an exaggerated opinion of our species’ importance.

Collectively, we are behaving no differently from the jealous and egotistical Queen in the story of Snow White, in our preoccupation with ourselves and our indifference, frequently to the point of hostility, towards many other life forms on the planet, doing as we please with or to them, while we are indifferent to the many harmful effects that our actions have on them. For, like the young and innocent Snow White, the rest of Nature is guilty of no wrongdoing;[4] and like Snow White, the great majority of Nature is not capable of defending itself from our frequent homicidal ravages in the name of human progress.

The common desire to preserve something only because it has some practical value to humanity, or because it appeals to us for some reason, is still not able to advance beyond the immoderate selfishness that characterizes modern human beings. In this regard, many of us behave like young children who naively believe that the world exists solely to satisfy their needs and desires. For this attitude implies that the vast part of Life that has no practical value to humanity is not worth preserving. For example, we should not preserve the Amazon forest in its natural state because it may contain medicines that will one day cure us of certain diseases. After all, the last thing that the world needs is a medicine that will enable even more of those selfish, destructive, and polluting humans to live longer and longer lives. We should preserve these natural habitats because they exist, are alive, and are able to support a wondrous variety of living creatures that we clever but in reality very foolish humans would never be able to bring back to life if they were to disappear from the Earth.

Even collectors illustrate this widespread human selfishness, since they prefer to have a dead specimen in their collection rather than allow it to live and thereby possibly reproduce and contribute to the propagation of its kind. These selfish collectors actually prefer a dead creature to a living one because the first is in their possession while the second is not. This mania for possessing dead specimens is especially egregious in the case of endangered species, which become even more prized and hunted because of their rarity.

Because of our extremely unhealthy infatuation with ourselves, the human species is in danger of suffering the same fate as Narcissus, who, as punishment for his refusal to love anyone else, was made to fall in love with his image, and thereby died as a result. The inventions of photography, television, cinema, and the Internet have rendered us increasingly the slaves to, and the servile worshippers of, the Cult of Humanity. More and more, we worship those individuals, whether they are athletes, actors, musicians, or others, who are able to gain our adulation. The very grave danger of this collective obsession with ourselves is that it completely distorts our sense of the place we occupy in the Universe in general and in Nature in particular.[5]

The Olympics are a prime example of this unhealthy obsession with our kind. We glorify those athletes who are able to win the prize for swiftness, agility, skill, strength, endurance, and so on, as if their accomplishments were truly astonishing. And yet, we limit entry to these competitions only to human beings. For the truth is that this species restriction is necessary in order to preserve our smug but completely unjustified sense of superiority over all other animals. There are, for example, any number of different animals that could easily outrun the fastest human being: cheetahs, antelopes, horses, greyhounds, gazelles, leopards, zebras, ostriches, dogs, and even some housecats. Many of us get excited if a human sprinter is able to beat the world record in the 100 m dash by a few hundredths of a second, when the truth is that a cheetah, the fastest land animal in the world, could beat the fastest human being probably by more than five seconds. And even the lowly rabbit or hare could easily outrun the great majority of human beings, since most of us are not very fit, never having had to run to catch our dinner or to save ourselves from a predator. The human world record in the high jump is presently 2.45 m. A typical adult kangaroo could probably jump higher than this, and a jump of 3.2 m has been recorded. Moreover, certain species of kangaroos can run faster than the fastest human being, attaining top speeds of 70 km/h on their two springy, muscular legs.

In the matter of swimming races, our human mediocrity would be even more obvious, for swift fish species like the tuna would literally leave the fastest swimmer in their wake. And even the tiny sardine would be able to swim faster than our best swimmers. Penguins, seals, otters, dolphins, sharks, and even turtles can all swim faster than human beings. As for endurance, human endurance is no match for eels that travel across vast oceans to lay their eggs, or seemingly delicate monarch butterflies that migrate annually from Canada to Mexico, where they spend the winter, and back again.[6]

If we humans had any sense of fairness, Olympic champions would give their medals to a cheetah, kangaroo, or a member of some other animal or fish species that can easily outperform them in the events in which they compete. But of course, their vanity and immodest sense of superiority would prevent them from giving their medals to the true world champions in their disciplines. Moreover, these pragmatic animals place absolutely no value on the trinkets and baubles, gaudy but completely useless things like gold medals, which some humans train and spend many years trying to win. The Olympics are nothing but an orgy of human vanity that reinforces our vain but unjustified sense of superiority over all other living organisms.

So long as other creatures are not allowed to participate in these and other sporting events, the term “world record” is often a lie and therefore should be qualified instead as a “world human record,” which in many cases is a very different thing. The actual world record for the 100 m dash would be held by a cheetah, perhaps followed by a leopard. The world record for the high jump would probably be held by a grey kangaroo, while the swimming world records would be held by a predatory fish like a bluefin tuna or striped marlin; but what is absolutely certain is that they most certainly would not be held by those ridiculously and laughably slow human beings.

In the name of fairness, and in order to deflate humanity’s dangerously oversized ego, I propose, therefore, an interspecies Olympics that is open to all animals, which will pit the best human athletes against the best animal species in a variety of different athletic events. Such an event would show just how inferior we are to numerous other animals. This demonstration of our manifest physical inferiority would serve more than merely to reduce our over-inflated pride, for it might lead us to respect and let live those animals that we are presently decimating from the land, air, and water by our uncontrolled appetites, selfishness, and continually increasing numbers.

There was a time when black people were excluded from participating in sporting events. When they were finally allowed to compete, it was found that they were superior to white people in many sports. And just as the inclusion of black athletes in sporting arenas, teams, and events was an important reason for their increased acceptance and tolerance by white people and others, the inclusion of other animals in sporting events will also serve to increase our respect for them before it is too late – before we have selfishly and thoughtlessly eliminated these wonderful creatures from the face of the Earth, due to our mistaken belief in our species’ superiority over them.

[1] The original quotation is “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

[2] At least these nature programs present other organisms as they really are in their natural habitats. Cartoons and silly movies with talking, humanized animals, many of which are made specifically for impressionable children who don’t know any better, give false or misleading ideas to their viewers about what these creatures are really like, such as that large carnivorous animals like lions and bears are cuddly, cute, or friendly animals, or that snakes are vile, deceiving, and evil creatures.

[3] Roughly speaking, there is a direct relationship between the amount of time and space that humans take up in our artificially-created communications technologies, such as photographs, television, newspapers, movies, magazines, and the Internet, and how much space we humans are taking up in the real world, on the land, water, forests, jungles, deserts, and increasingly even in the skies.

[4] I realize that this statement is wrong, since disease and predation can cause the deaths of many human beings. However, in recent decades, the balance has very clearly tilted in our favour, in the sense that the amount of harm that we do to other living creatures is much greater than the harm that they do to us. For example, the number of sharks and snakes that are killed by humans vastly exceeds the number of humans that are killed by these predatory animals.

[5] The recent popularity of superhero movies, which depict human actors performing superhuman feats such as flying in the air and saving the world, also contributes to these delusions. Even though most viewers know that they are just fantasies, seeing these artificial images strengthens our belief in our species’ manifest superiority, power, importance, abilities, and even invincibility and immortality.

[6] Due to the relatively short lifespan of butterflies, this annual migration actually involves several generations of butterflies, meaning that the butterflies that return are not the ones that left the previous year.