Darwin wrote about the survival of the fittest and made it a general axiom of modern thinking applicable to everything from sports teams and biological species to economic and political theories. Among animals, the weaker indeed tend to perish, while at the top of the food chain, the fittest survive without any need to aim higher. What would be the incentive to change or advance if they are already the winners in the natural order? The tiger is nature’s consummate predator. And to what the tiger is on land, the great white shark is comparable in the ocean. They are the best at what they do, and the best normally do not need to get better. There is no degree beyond perfection.

In contrast, consider the puny, shivering, naked creature that Desmond Morris called “the naked ape” in his famous book. In nature, we cannot fly like eagles, run like cheetahs or swim like sharks. Elephants are mightier, camels are hardier and horses are stronger. To make matters worse, human offspring are pathetically helpless far longer than those of other creatures. A colt can stand immediately and run with the herd within an hour. Humans have a double handicap: not only do we lack great physical strength, but also protective, guiding instincts to help us survive. As our brains got bigger, our instincts shriveled to vestigial remnants like legs on a snake. Once nature abandoned us to fend for ourselves, we had to learn, or relearn, nearly everything. And it takes many years of an average human lifetime to learn what we need to know.

No wonder for ages we feared and envied stronger, swifter creatures and tried to imitate them. With masks, totems, rituals, yells and disguises that concealed our humanity, we claimed kinship to the jaguar and declared allegiance to the bear tribe or serpent clan. In ancient religions, our ancestors depicted the gods with animal and bird features. We preserve a reminder of our prehistoric fear and awe in the names we give our sports teams: tigers, lions, panthers, eagles, longhorns, gators and ducks. Ducks? How did they make the list? Eventually, humans make jokes of everything.

The point of these comparisons is that if a case can be made for the strongest and survival of the fittest in nature, an argument — perhaps even a stronger one — can be made for the advancement of the ill-adapted, the unstable, and the unsuited, in short, the human species. In stages, we humans learned to do technically what we could not do naturally. For ages, humans were the quarry of beasts. But being brainy creatures, they learned to cope and to conquer not as the strongest of animals — but as technological humans. From natural misfits, we became the mightiest of nature’s creatures. In scientific language humans are called “homo sapiens.” But probably a better description would be “homo technicus,” technical mankind. For technology, not strength or speed, is what put us over the top.

Harold Raley is a professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Email haroldraley49@gmail.com.

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