Yesterday I stopped by Westercon for the quick whirlwind tour. It being Thursday, the programming was fairly light and I occasionally got the feeling that I was the only person there who wasn’t on a panel, but I’m working through one of the most bizarrely busy weeks ever so yesterday was my one chance to check it out.
I think what most surprised me was the dragon panel, which I went into as kind of placeholder since there wasn’t much else in the timeslot, but turned into a really interesting discussion of the philosophical and psychological role of dragons in human literature. Which, probably inevitably, led to the guy who claims that humans aren’t really Earth’s apex predator, because we got to the top of the food chain by “cheating.”
This idea keeps popping up, and it never makes any sense. The fallacy is pretty basic: You can’t cheat when there are no rules.
From an evolutionary standpoint, all that matters is that an animal survives long enough to reproduce. And every animal has its own survival tactic: Some are big, some are strong, some are fast, some taste bad, some are poisonous, some look like others that are poisonous, and humans are smart. Fairness doesn’t enter into it: Every species developed its particular set of traits because it worked for them, and humans’ ingenuity evolved just like every other animal’s skills. Unless you think that our awesome brain power is the result of divine intervention, which is a totally different discussion.
I think where this all comes from is the fact that humans are in the apparently unique position of being able to leave evolution behind. We’ve decided that applying concepts like survival of the fittest to human populations is morally reprehensible, and we have the medical technology to ensure that almost everyone can live to adulthood. And we can control our environment and even guide the evolution of other species in ways that nature would never have allowed.
This still doesn’t count ‘t as cheating, but it’s fair to say that we’ve changed the game. For the first time in the history of the world, we know that our environment is being actively influenced by an intelligent force — us — rather than an ice age or asteroid impact or tectonics or what have you. This means, on the one hand, that we as a species have an unprecedented amount of responsibility when it comes to dealing with the ecosystem, since we’re helping to create it instead of just living in it.
On the other hand, you can overstate how much control humans have, too. Because nature hasn’t gone anywhere, and the radical changes we’re making to the environment are being reflected in some radical stuff coming back to bite us, from superbugs that resist antibiotics to hurricanes and tornadoes and droughts and giant wildfires.
The most interesting idea I took from the dragon panel is the idea that dragons are sort of a personification of nature’s ability to strike back, and that for all our knowledge and ability, the world isn’t just our playground. It’s a valuable idea to keep in mind, as long as you remember the context.