Human Beings as Underdogs?


I love to find well-written but contrarian articles because they help you grow. When you look at how we think about human beings’ relationship to the earth, we typically find one of two streams of thought. One is that we are god’s gift to the earth, meant to rule it by design. The other thought is that we are a curse or a virus, bent upon destroying everything and then ourselves. The first thought, which is definitely uplifting, originates from religion. The second one, which is depressing, originates from science. (No wonder religion is still so popular despite being constantly under attack by science!)

So it is refreshing to see a well-written and contrarian thought that’s based on science (possibly with just a touch of poetry) that’s also uplifting.

I came across this passage in an obscure book called “Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science” written by John Dobson. I looked for this book because I saw references to it in multiple unrelated places so it piqued my curiosity. Some of the science in it is a little outdated by now, but his attempt to build a bridge between western science and eastern philosophy has since permeated scientific and philosophical thought, though of course not universally accepted, since then. The passage interesting, contrarian, and actually uplifting in its own right.

Anyway, here is the passage:

We are primates, brachiating primates, come from the
greenroofed jungle by way of a sojourn in the Indian Ocean and the
warm, sunny beaches of East Africa. The salt tears which we shed
are the tears of a sea-going primate. The hands with which we do the
worship are the hands of a jungle ape, reshaped by swimming in the
sea. And our brain, our precious brain, the only brain on the face of
this planet which allows the perceiver behind it to see through this
apparition, is the brain of an ancient misfit, driven from one
environment to the next so many times by the genetic hardware of
better-adapted species that the software behind his eyes allows him
now, at last, to see through the whole charade.

For hundreds of millions of years you have been bullied and
pushed around, driven from the ocean to the rivers, from the rivers
to the shallows, from the shallows to the swamps, and out on land.
Always the species who were better adapted to the older
environment stayed in the older environment. The faster fishes
stayed in the sea. You are not descended from them. You are
descended from a long line of misfits who were bullied and driven
out. Always it was “Shape up or ship out!” and you got out.

You were driven ashore on stumpy fins in the Devonian swamps,
and you were driven underground in the Paleocene grass, and you
were driven from the grass into the trees, by other descendants of
those stumpy fins. And every change entailed millions of years of
discomfort while you painfully built in your new genetic
adjustments, not so much by the survival of those who succeeded as
by the early demise of those who failed. The dinosaurs, with scaly
feet, drove some of you underground. Those who couldn’t adjust are
gone. There in their burrows, in the sunny grass, the rodents, furry
mammals much like you, but better adapted to the grass than you,
drove you to the trees. Those who couldn’t adjust went down.

There in the trees, through long and painful genetic
readjustments you learned to swing from branch to branch. Those
who failed were eaten by cats. Then, after many more millions of
years, just when your arms could reach from side to side, came the
dwindling of the forests by drought, twelve million years of drought.
Those who were better at swinging than you drove you to the
ground, and you fled to the sea. You had four hands and no feet, and
the grass was now no place for you. There were packhunting dogs
and great, stalking cats. Those who didn’t make it to the beach are

In the safety of the terrifying breakers you were cradled in the
sea, with hands instead of paddles and hands instead of feet, and
there were millions of cold, wet, salty years before you even had the
tears to cry. You were small and you were timid when you came
from the green-roofed jungle with eyes accustomed to the dark, and
there were millions of years of blinding brightness on the sunlit
waves and beaches before you had the frown of your bewilderment,
the furrowed brow of the thinker, and you wondered what it’s all

The long pursuit has made you thoughtful. Every new
adjustment entailed a genetic enlargement of the brain. It is the
brain of a misfit, driven hither and yon to the refuge of new
environments by those better adapted to the old. It is the brain of a
shiftless outcast, living always in the discomfort of genetic
maladjustment. It is the product of hundreds of millions of years of
distress, the product of the vicissitudes of countless misfortunes
encountered along the seemingly endless reaches of the immense
journey. And your present form is not the end. The journey lies as
far ahead as behind. No, not so far, for now, for the first time, you
can look behind to see how you have come. And now, for the first
time, you can guess ahead to see how you should go.

In all that three hundred million years a creature descended
from that lumbering, Devonian fish with simple lungs and bubbles
in his brain. In all that length of time no creature thought that any
creature would ever think to figure it out, to unscramble and
decipher the account. You are the first species that ever investigated
its own genetic past. You are the only creatures who are not fish who
ever knew that they are not fish but that their ancestors were. You
are the first creatures who ever lived on land but who knew that
their ancestors lived in the sea.

And you are the first creatures who can look ahead to see where
you are going. You are the first creatures who can understand that
you got into this mess through an uncertainty and cannot possibly
get out by transformation. Uncertainty is overcome by knowledge,
not by transformation. You alone can understand that the journey
has an end, which cannot possibly be reached by journeying.
Yours is the strength of the eternal underdog. You have been
pushed and bullied and driven till you have mastered every
environment on the face of the earth, and have the brain to
comprehend the universe beyond. Out of the endless vicissitudes of
your misfortunes and your failures has come your strength, and
your love for the underdog. Every unbiased observer among you
roots for the underdog.

When you walk in the woods the squirrels don’t bring you their
peanuts, but you carry peanuts for them. The gulls don’t bring you
their lunches, but you throw your lunches to them. And signs are
required at every zoo to keep you from feeding the underdog. Out
of the strength to save yourselves has come the strength to save
others. You are Star Throwers. Hundreds of millions of years of
distress have gone into that strength, and the salt of those eyes.

For hundreds of millions of years you have been bullied by the
superior genetic technologies of better adapted species. You were
hurt by the pincers of crabs, bled by the syringes of insects and
killed by the syringes of snakes. You were scratched and torn by the
talons and beaks of birds, crushed by the hoofs of mammals, tossed
by their antlers and gored by their horns. Losing the sea to the fins
of faster fishes, long ago, and to the flukes of faster mammals, only
yesterday, you came ashore again, only to be slashed by the fangs of
cats, descended by another trail, another trial, from that same
Devonian fish. Into every new habitat you came, you came lately.
Everywhere you looked there was someone ahead of you.
Everything you could do they could do better.

Every vicissitude of your misfortune had robbed you of some
piece of genetic hardware which could have saved you in some
niche, till, by the time you came, a second time, ashore, you had no
fins, you had no flukes, you had no tusks, you had no claws, you had
no hoofs, you had no fur. You were a ne’er-do-well’s ne’er-do-well,
protecting naked babies in the grass.

Without pincers, without syringe, without talons, without beak
and without wings you came ashore, with no trunk, no hoofs, no
fangs and no fur. But something else you had. Behind your furrowed
brow you had a better brain. Every single blow of your misfortune,
which drove you to another niche and robbed you of some piece of
genetic technology, had hammered on its anvil some improvement
in your brain till you had now the gleam of knowledge in your eye.
At the cost of losing every piece of hard-won hardware you have
built the software behind your eyes. You have a brain to wonder and
to understand. And you have breasts to feed the growing brain of
your helpless offspring. And you have tools, and you have words to
tell your offspring how to use them. And you have fire to protect
both your infant and your breasts from the bullying of furry beasts
with fangs and claws and chattering teeth. Only in your nakedness
have your lost your fear of fire, driven by the cold and by your terror
of the hardware of other species. Your every misfortune you have
turned to your account. Through the unfortunate necessity of
prolonged parental care has come the growth of that brain that uses
fire. Only through the prolonging of your youth has come your
wisdom which began in the swamp, long ago, around those bubbles
in your brain. You are the descendants of that air- breathing fish,
and the children of children who never grow up.

Now, for the first time, you have a software technology before
which all the genetic hardware has gone down. Now, with nongenetic
hardware, you out-swim the fish, you out-run the cats, you
out-fly the birds, and you took down from the moon, and you smile.
Just think what went into that smile.

You have been pushed and bullied till you can be pushed and
bullied no more. Every time you went down before the onslaught of
some piece of genetic hardware you have come back with some
unexpected improvement in the software behind your eyes, till now,
with your software technology and the use of non-genetic hardware,
you, the eternal underdog, can bully any species that ever bullied
you. But with your new-won strength has come the frown of your
puzzlement, the salt of your tears, and your smile. Why should dog
eat dog? Why should a species, once bullied, bully back against the
species that bullied it? The furrowed brow has noticed and the salty
eyes are wet. You are the underdog’s underdog, and now that hand,
once fin, once paw, lengthened for swinging in the trees, and
flattened for swimming in the sea, now that hand, grown old,
reaches out to touch, in consolation, those who, in the past, have
bullied it. Was it not their bullying that made you what you are? You
are the Star Thrower, throwing the broken starfish back into the sea.
Save the condor! Save the whales! Save the leopard! Save the shark!
Save that menace of the seas against whose fearful jaws you learned
to clench your fist. You are the only creatures who ever knew that
the rest of the creatures are just like you. You are the only creatures
to have figured it out, that you got into this plight through an
uncertainty and cannot possibly get out through a transformation.
Knowledge is the key.