Solidarity, macaques and seedbanks

Have been pondering solidarity of late – between individuals, species, generations. Have no profound thoughts to offer, just a couple of things dredged up from the memory banks and re-found via google.

Number one is the macaque who wouldn’t eat if it meant an electric shock was delivered to another macaque.

In the annals of primate ethics, there are some accounts that have the ring of parable. In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so – 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others.

(That’s an excerpt of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan‘s “Shadow of our Forgotten Ancestors” taken from here, with emphasis added.)

Hmmm. Compare with the Milgram experiment and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study much? Gee, can anyone think of a reason why our lords and masters might be interested in inculcating selfish conformity and an ideology of devil-take-the-hindmost rather encouraging our other equally “natural” instincts of stand-up independence and solidarity? Gee, lemme ponder that.

Secondly, though, is the Russian scientists who starved to death while guarding potato seeds during World War Two.

Gary Nabhan’s Where our food comes from goes on to describe how the staff at St Isaac Square continued to look after the seeds, barricaded inside the building to prevent hungry people in the streets outside from plundering the genebank. The potatoes, stored of course as tubers rather than seeds, were in a basement room where a small stove fed with anything that would burn kept them from freezing.

Numb with cold and stricken with hunger, the staff took shifts caretaking the seeds around the clock. Nine of Vavilov’s most dedicated coworkers slowly starved to death or died of disease rather than eat the seeds that were under their care.

When summer came, the staff planted cabbages and potatoes in the churchyard of St Isaac’s Cathedral and in the fields back at Pavlovsk, standing guard 24 hours a day to protect the potatoes from their hungry fellow citizens. Rats, whose population was no longer controlled by the cats, which had been eaten the previous winter, were a problem too. Vadim Lekhnovich, who survived, was asked was it hard not to eat some of the plants they were growing and guarding.

“It was hard to walk. It was unbearably hard to get up every morning, to move your hands and feet. … But it was not in the least difficult to refrain from eating up the collection. For it was impossible [to think of] eating it up. For what was involved was the cause of your life, the cause of your comrades’ lives.”

So, the same species can have specimens so terrible that they will perform torture in the name of “science” and specimens who will torture themselves to death in the name of “science” and posterity, in solidarity with generations yet unborn.
We contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes. We can choose to celebrate and nurture and grow towards either of the possibilities above. But silence helps the former become more likely.


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in a little self-knowledge, activism, death, fear, natural world and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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