Much of what I studied as a philosophy student is now murky. I’ve retained a lot of men’s names, many of them come uncoupled from the contributions which made worth knowing. I’ve got a tacklebox of academic terminology and a little tangled Latin. I’ve also got some half-remembered logical proofs, which cannot quite be persuaded into the full light of my awareness, and instead plod around the low plains of my brain as quadrupedal skeletons, perpetually in the semi-darkness after sunset, on a slow migration to nowhere.
I am home from South Africa today, just returned from a safari. The safari was the very generous gift a friend, for whom I served as a bridesmaid in a Johannesburg wedding ceremony. Sixteen of us, hailing from a half a dozen countries, traveled in two vans to arrive at the gate of the Nkomazi Game Reserve. We were loaded onto a pair of powerful all-terrain vehicle and taken to the lodge for an evening meal by firelight. I stayed up late with the Welsh couple and the South African groom, all of whom held their liquor more gracefully than I could.
In the morning, we woke at 5:30 and administered whatever hangover curatives were prescribed by our respective cultural traditions. Marmite for some. Juice for others. Eggs for most.
Many safari tourists are eager to check off the Big 5: to see the large, fierce African animals most difficult to hunt. Lions, black rhinos, leopards, Cape buffalos and elephant.
I’m not a naturalist at heart. My heart is more sensitive to dry humor and iced whiskey and a certain brand of angst that has had all the adolescent topnotes boiled off. But many times, I found my hand shooting out of its own accord—often rudely close to the face of my neighbor—to point at whatever wonder trampled past. Paul, our guide, pulled our vehicle alongside a pair of lionesses and their cubs as they feasted on a warthog, whose bones we heard cracking. We saw white rhinos (who walk and eat while sleeping), distant baboons, elephants, impala, and the secretarybird—so named because she appears as if she is carrying pens speared through her hair (and in that way, resembles this blogger). The enthusiasms evoked on safari are of a gradeschool, uncomplicated variety. I think I shouted Look! a dozen times after I promised myself that I would stop shouting Look! to people who were present for the express purpose of looking.
I peppered Paul with questions in a forced whisper. Is it high iron content that makes the earth so red? Manganese. If two different kinds of zebras mate, are their offspring infertile? Yes. And stripeless. Do people always go this nuts on the first day then chill out on the second ride? You have no idea.
On a walk Paul explained that termites build mounds of the red earth, some of which are feet high, emerging above the dry grasses. The mounds can be 160 years old and the termites that live in them don’t eat wood. Instead, they subsist on fungi gardens that they cultivate underground. The termites are meticulous in tending their estates; they regulate the temperature of the fungi by constantly opening and closing countless little ducts that vent at the surface of the mound. This method (copied by human builders for passive cooling and heating systems) maintains a steady temperature of 28-32 degrees Celsius.
Dominant lions walk the perimeter of their territory every 14 days, marking ground and reaffirming their pride’s claim to the land and the prey living on it.
Some fruit, such as that from the marula tree, can ferment in animals’ stomachs. Even elephants stagger, completely drunk, after eating it.
A female dung beetle passed us, rolling her little ball of dung down a long path a few inches wide. The male followed. Paul said sometimes the males simply ride on the dung ball while the female laboriously rolls it to the patch soft earth she has in mind. There he will fertilize the egg she has buried within the dung and the whole package will be deposited underground. One year later a new dung beetle will emerge—unless it has been first discovered by a honey badger. [Three full minutes of digression were necessary here to impersonate the flamboyantly gay voice-over of the viral Youtube sensation. Paul had not seen it but solemnly swore to look it up back at the lodge.]
It’s tempting to anthropomorphize the players in the natural world, to make villains of the predators and heroes of the grazing beasts. But to do so reduces the safari to a cartoon. Nature is beautiful. Nature is brutal. Nature is not at all compelled to reconcile beauty and brutality.
The lions at Nkomazi game reserve kill for pleasure, which violated some aphorism I’d heard years ago from a hippie about humans being the only creature to kill without need. I was enthralled to learn that, when you get close enough, the lions look you in the eyes. I asked Paul, How do they know that we’re not just one big beast? Seemed to me we might as well be perceived as an elephant with wheels, rather than 9 individuals in a canopied vehicle. Motion can single you out, Paul explained, but the position of a man’s eyes on his head identify him as a predator. At first glance, every creature could tell that much about us.
What is it for a lion to know something? What does it feel like for termites to know that the mound has become too warm? How does the beetle know to push her ball of dung when the casual observer might think, “Christ, you’re killing yourself for that thing--just bury it here.”
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. What’s knowable? When can we say we’re doing it—in what circumstances can we be certain we really know something? The classical answer comes from Plato. He said that knowledge is a justified, true, belief. To know something, all three conditions must be satisfied: the statement must be true, the knower must have good reason to accept it, and the knower must be persuaded by those good reasons to believe it.
We usually account for animal behavior with just one word: “Instinct.” Whereas knowledge involves a consciousness and a state of mind, the way we talk about instinct implies that it drives behavior without necessarily involving consciousness or decision-making.
But can a lion be aware that I am a predator without being conscious that he is aware of it? Hasn't he arrived at a sort of knowing via an alternate route—bypassing the whole Platonic triple threat? If we insist that he is only acting toward me as a predator (and that he does not know it), we have reduced him to an automaton. Easy enough to do theoretically. Unless you happen to be looking at a lion who is looking you in the eyes.
On safari, I kept thinking, I’m an animal. I have instincts. Am I always aware of their influence on my behavior? On my thoughts?
When I see women flirt at bars and at concerts, they often turn a bit sideways, seldom facing their partner squarely. I do that too. Maybe we’re presenting ourselves at the angle that best showcases our reproductive parts, I can’t say. But I know to do that in some sense, don’t I? Could be socialized, could be instinctual, but either way, I certainly didn’t come about this behavioral knowledge by way of a “justified, true, belief.”
The Platonic test seems well suited to abstracted and theoretical knowledge, The Earth is ever spinning on its axis. Great, I’ve got a bunch of numbers to justify it. It’s true, so believe it. But the same test doesn’t seem to account for our behavioral knowledge quite as gracefully. And if our definition of knowledge encompasses only Knowing That and not Knowing How, then it seems as if perhaps we have an insufficient definition of knowledge—one that favors the Knowers That. (Like, say, Plato.)
Worms. Cans and cans. All of them open. Determinism, elitism, teleological quandaries, etc. Do the worms know the can is open? Can they know of the can? I have no idea. But on returning to the opulence of the safari dining tent—white linen, the whole shebang—I suspected that our account of knowledge predictably favored the way that humans experience knowledge. And that perhaps a continuum might exist between pure instinct and pure knowledge. But soon, like the elephants, I had drunk enough marula liquer to extinguish my interest in such things. Of necessity, my focus narrowed to include only the long stumble to a safe place to rest until morning.