I have lived as a badger in a hole in a Welsh wood, as an otter in the rivers of Exmoor, an urban fox rummaging through the dustbins of London’s East End, a red deer in the West Highlands of Scotland and on Exmoor, and, most hubristically, a swift, oscillating between Oxford and West Africa. For this I was recently awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for “achievements that make people laugh, and then think”. Why I did this is not an unreasonable question. There are many answers. One is that I wanted to perceive landscapes more accurately.
We have at least five senses. By and large we use only one of them – vision. That’s a shame. We’re missing out on 80% of the available information about the world. I suspect it’s responsible for lots of our uncertainty about the sort of creatures we are, our personal crises, and the frankly psychopathic way in which most of us treat the natural world. If we only perceive 20% of something, we’re unlikely to be able to relate appropriately to it.
In fact, it’s rather worse than this. Vision – the sense by which we’re tyrannised – is intimately related to cognition. Listen to how we speak. “Seeing is believing,” we tell ourselves. If we understand someone, we’ll say, “I see”. This is a consequence of our evolutionary history. We grew up as a species on the plains of East Africa. When we hoisted ourselves for the first time onto our hind legs, some glorious and disastrous things happened.
Most of our senses are embedded in our heads. Those heads were now a long way from the ground. We suddenly lost the perspective that we’d shared with all our evolutionary forebears. We lost our relationship with them and our relationship with the ground. Neither we nor the natural world has ever recovered. The best of us feel bereavement and alienation. Most of us feel colonially superior, and strut around looking literally and metaphorically down on what we were and the place from which we came.
Our new bipedal perspective was useful – as disastrous things so often are. It gave us big vistas. We could see how things that had been hidden in the long grass were connected. In some ways, by seeing the patterns made by the wildebeest as they wandered, we understood the lives of the wildebeest better than they understood themselves. It wasn’t surprising that we crowned ourselves king of creation.
We don’t know whether bipedalism generated our magnificent cognitive software, or whether the software was there waiting to exploit the bipedal information revolution. But there’s no doubt that cognition and bipedalism went well together. Bipedalism meant a shift to visual processing. Our cognition and our vision were partners for a while, and then cognition became the senior partner. We’re now dismally unsensual creatures. Not only do we not smell, touch, hear or taste. We barely see.