Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Not All Martyrs Are Human
Reflections on Nature’s Saints

Is the martyr’s sacrifice an instinct of Nature? Is an individual’s choice to risk and often meet death in order to benefit the larger social group not only allowed for but, at certain points in the flux of time and circumstance, required behavior for the survival of a species?

On Sunday, Oct. 4, something I saw in a segment of 60 Minutes, the CBS newsmagazine, leads me to think this could be so.

The segment is entitled “The Great Migration: An Epic Journey.” (You can watch it here.) It’s a cautionary environmental piece about the annual migration of masses of African wildebeest—a species of antelope—as they follow the seasonal availability of grazing land from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park into the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and back again.

Time was when such migrations could be seen flowing across most of the continents of the Earth, Africa included. But with the ascendancy of human beings on the planet most of the great migratory populations—North America’s buffalo, for instance—hover upon extinction. The 350-mile migration of the African wildebeest is the only one of its kind left, according to the information provided by correspondent Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes.

The segment focuses on the impact of expanding human activity in this area, “one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife habitats on Earth,” Pelley narrates. Because humans are clear-cutting forests for fuel and agricultural expansion, water levels in the Mara River, “which cuts right through the migration route” of the wildebeest, are dangerously low. If the Mara dries up, scientists predict, the wildebeest population will collapse, ending the Great Migration and severely endangering all the related wildlife whose survival depends upon it.

Among those potentially endangered creatures are the crocodiles who inhabit the Mara River, which the wildebeest must cross. Easily the most dramatic and disturbing scene in the 60-Minutes segment begins as the wildebeest gather on the banks of the Mara, hesitating to go further because crocodiles, their most deadly natural enemy, are gathering in the water in expectation of an all-you-can eat feast.

After a time, with seemingly thousands of wildebeest stalled on the plain as the crocodiles cruise languidly up and down the river, their knobby heads and watchful eyes just breaking the water’s surface (like a scene out of Peter Pan), two wildebeest suddenly make a run for it across the shallow rapids, arriving safely on the other side just ahead of the crocodiles gathering after them in pursuit.

Then four or five wildebeest follow the first two, plunging into the water right in front of the crocodiles. One of them is taken, drawing as many as five crocs to the scene who pile onto the “chosen one,” seizing it in their fearsome jaws and devouring it alive.

With the crocodiles thus diverted, hundreds of wildebeest cross the river safely at a point upstream from the gruesome scene. The migration goes forward. One herd member is lost, but hundreds of others are able to continue on.

To me, this had the appearance of a preconceived strategy. A few among the wildebeest accepted the risk of self-sacrifice for the good of the herd. Did they draw lots? Was there a discussion in the wildebeest tongue? What process did they go through to designate which of their numbers would undertake a mission which was sure to be fatal to at least one of them?

In any case, since this behavior is clearly natural to wildebeest, might it follow that it must also be part of the natural order of things, possibly a regularly occurring phenomenon throughout Nature? Is it conceivable that martyrdom is a defensive tool which Nature provides for the protection of species? And that when a martyr is required, those who are made of “the right stuff” for the task, whether non-human or human, will step up to take it on?

In our Christian culture—no use denying that Euro-American culture is dominated by Christianity—there’s a lot of guilt permeating the centuries over the issue of martyrdom. Because Jesus sacrificed himself to the crocodiles of his time, because a long roster of saints copied his example in his name, because in our own time Gandhi and King, Malcolm X, the Kennedys, and numerous lesser luminaries got themselves maimed or killed in the course of their service, enabling us to cross the river and continue with our lives, many of us are left with the mistaken assumption that we should be like them, as if martyrdom were not simply one of many natural states but somehow a superior role to which we all should aspire, or, failing that, at least do homage—even to the extent of worshipping—those who play that part.

But what I saw on 60 Minutes offers an alternative view, suggesting that the martyrs, however much we may honor them, are no more heroes, saints, or gods than the rest of us. Rather, they are individuals who embody a naturally occurring function of Nature and who, at the appropriate time, are tasked with self-sacrifice so the well being of the group to which they belong may sustain itself.

Obviously, very few are called to that role—one, for instance, out of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wildebeest. The rest of us are meant to carry on. Together, we satisfy the greater need of the Life Force to continue creating expressions of itself in all its infinite variety.

It’s comforting to the human ego to think we are special, like no other species on Earth, and therefore qualified—divinely appointed, as some believe—to rule over everyone else. But increasingly we’re learning from researchers that other creatures share those behaviors which we’ve always assumed set us apart, even as we share with them many of their characteristics, often less than admirable in our own minds. One of the most cherished illusions of exceptionalism may well be our assumption that no other species produces the high-mindedness of sacrificial saints who die so the rest of us may live.

But the 60-Minutes segment on the wildebeest migration suggests to me that acts of martyrdom are built into Nature as a natural response to crisis. They are not anomalies, separate from Nature, obeying a supernatural God as the rest of us, of inferior mettle, are unable or unwilling to do. We are mistaken to feel inadequate in their presence. They are a function of Nature, activated when a population’s survival is stressed to a certain critical point by a predatory threat. Their function is to satisfy the predator so the rest of us can fulfill our natural function—to survive and continue the cycle of Life.

If I am correct in this observation, we may find in the example of the fallen wildebeest martyr on 60 Minutes evidence of the unity of human spiritual belief and natural law, of the inseparable identity of God and Nature. We live in a web of life inconceivably complex, perhaps ultimately incomprehensible to the human mind. But recognizing the commonality we share with other life forms, not superficially but at the deepest levels—each, for instance, with our own martyrs and saviors—offers a glimpse, however fleeting, of the bond of common creaturehood which unites us on Earth during the brief time we share together here.

Despite the peculiarity of our positions in a world where we all eat one another to survive, it’s increasingly clear to me that we humans have much more in common with other life forms than we have at variance, and much more than we currently are willing to admit in the arrogance of our cultural consensus regarding human supremacy.

In that context I’m reminded of one of my old hippy mantras, revealed to me by the dogs who accompanied several of us on our journeys back and forth across the country in the 1960s.

“All animals are people, and all people are animals.”

As I thought then, there may be no higher truth than this.


At 1:15 PM , Anonymous anya said...

Well done Delaney!

At 8:29 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

He may be said to have sacrificed himself to the crocodiles of his time, but perhaps all we are doing is justifying our willingness to stand by and do nothing: We are forgiven forever if we believe in Him! We gain freedom from self-condemnation.


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