Excerpt from Diane Ackerman’s essay “The Moon by Whale Light” from the same-titled book (1992).
“Do whales have emotions like ours? I wondered. How intelligent are they? Do they have minds of the sort that would be familiar to us?
After all, mind is such an odd predicament for matter to get into. I often marvel how something like hydrogen, the simplest atom, forged in some early chaos of the universe, could lead to us and the gorgeous fever we call consciousness.
If a mind is just a few pounds of blood, dream, and electric, how does it manage to contemplate itself, worry about its soul, do time-and-motion studies, admire the shy hooves of a goat, know that it will die, enjoy all the grand and lesser mayhems of the heart? What is mind, that one can be out of one’s? How can a neuron feel compassion? What is a self? Why did automatic, hand-me down mammals like our ancestors somehow evolve brains with the ability to consider, imagine, project, compare, abstract, think of the future? If our experience of mind is really just the simmering of an easily alterable chemical stew, then what does it mean to know something, to want something, to be? How do you begin with hydrogen and end upwith prom dresses, jealousy, chamber music? What is music that it can satisfy such a mind, and even perhaps function as language?”
“Suppose human beings evolved two forms of communication,” I said, “one that is direct emotional communication–music–and one that’s analytical and verbal, which we call language.”
I love Diane’s verbal imagery in this book – weaving around the stories of animals that are at once familiar, but upon deeper reflection and closer attention drop away into mystery and wonder once more. I know so very little of my world and the creatures that share this space-time with me – and it’s stories like these that wake me up to the world outside the model in my head.
There is something else here that is worthy of deeper probing for me….something subtle in Ms. Ackerman’s words…a hint at topics worth writing about in the future (always the future sir!). The first is the curious phrasing of human beings “evolving” something. She didn’t write that human beings “developed” or “refined” something but rather “evolved” something. This use of the word “evolved” implies directed action that may also be unconscious depending upon the level at which one observes. Is evolving something that we “do” or that is done “to us” or that acts “upon us”, or is it all of these things? Is “evolved communication” in anyway related to the theory of evolution and the active processes of natural selection – or is “evolved” used more loosely here? This use of “evolved” gives me pause to consider whether natural selection operates differently in the context of human beings than say in the context of ants or lizards? It must – right? How does our own intelligence and our widely influential action feed back into the process. Our footsteps on the web touch everything. Evolution and natural selection are observations and models for our reality. They are words that represent concepts of shaping and influence. Why this path and not that one? What’s the reason? Chance? Directed outcome? Perhaps there is no path at all. Illusion. Emptiness. All very interesting stuff. One of these days…