Five fables for these times

by Mike Bendzela

CompareAnts versus Termites

Some ants (Formicidae) living under a certain wood stump were incapable of realizing that they didn't know anything. Their antennae were exquisitely tuned to find the airs of their own colony agreeable. The edicts that wafted down from their Queen filled them with an illusion of knowledge and reason. This motivated them to action, which felt to them just like free will.

The termites (Isoptera) in a mound nearby had developed a disposition almost identical to that of the ants: They imagined that the notions radiating from Royal Headquarters issued from their own heads, and they fancied themselves informed about the world.

It was revealed to the ants that the rotten stump under which they nested was the Holy Motherland. But this same stump had been vouchsafed to the termites instead as a delectable corpse. For the ants it was an abomination to think of their home being consumed; whereas for the termites it was a sacrilege to waste a corpse! After all, this stump was a gift from On High. They both believed this. So when a troop of termites arrived at the stump to consume what was rightfully theirs, the ants were waiting for them — with opened mandibles that snapped like traps.

The sense of belonging involves elevating group appetite over reason.

Monitor Lizard contra Cobra

Some monitor lizards (Varanus) that were opposed to the increasing presence of cobras (Ophiophagus) in their midst, held a public meeting to air their concerns. One outspoken lizard said to those gathered, “Fellow Lizards! The cobras are evil. They intend to surround us, defeat us, and take our land. But they won’t stop there; we all know how snakes are. If we don’t do something quickly, they will swallow all our young!” Inflamed by this speech, the lizards quickly mobilized. They sought out the snakes, surrounded them, and defeated them. But for reasons no one has been able to fathom, the triumphant lizards then devoured every snake egg they could find.

Depraved acts are committed in the name of preventing depravity.

Tetrapods

A tetrapod follows the tide out in a Late Devonian estuary, scrambling past the remains of bivalves and trilobites lying on the sand, to seek out a distant relative, the last of the Tiktaalik-Ichthyostega line. Scanning the retreating waters for a while, the tetrapod is at last deeply stirred upon seeing its relative's scaly body undulating out of the surf. Its beady eyes stare straight up out of its head, and its limbs look only half-formed.

“It's like you're from another world!” the tetrapod says.

“Not so.” The creature hauls itself out of the water. “We are much alike. We have a backbone, and a tail that sways as we ambulate. We walk on all fours. Feel my arm–it has the same bones as yours. The bones of your own articulated hand lie hidden here in my fin–“1

A commotion from behind interrupts their accord: A troop of tetrapods fans out onto the tidal basin, hissing, “Go away!” They rally around, turning and swatting their tails at the sea creature, driving the beady eyes back beneath the waves. They admonish the tetrapod, “Have nothing to do with the worm-eaters!”

An intractable consistency across types is the tendency to exaggerate differences to the point of permanently obscuring our common design.

1″[T]he earliest creature to have the bones of our upper arm, our forearm, even our wrist and palm, also had scales and fin webbing. That creature was a fish.” Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish (New York: Random House, 2009) p. 41. Also: “…we may … venture to believe that the several bones in the limbs of the monkey, horse, and bat, were originally developed, on the principle of utility, probably through the reduction of more numerous bones in the fin of some ancient fish-like progenitor of the whole class.” Darwin, Origin of Species, p. 252.

Ruminants

A clutch of ruminants, all horns and hide, flee the big carnivore. The genus doesn't matter, it's a template followed across the continents. The ruminants clump and scatter, bolt and zigzag, the carnivore chugging along behind, rippling like a seal in a fast current, paws barely treading ground. The ruminants rumble like distant thunder, a stampede engendered by the carnivore's jaws. They churn up a cloud that makes navigation impossible and streak blindly across the plains, like meteors, a spectacle staged on behalf of their own necks.

With fear as driver, the campaign seems to run itself.

Parrots

A typhoon stranded some budgies (Melopsittacus) on an island occupied by mynah birds (Gracula). After some acclimation to the new place, the vagrant budgies determined to settle in as best they could. They realized they would have to coexist with the mynahs, but who would rule? And what would this rule be? It was agreed that elections would be held with thoughtful campaigns preceding them.

At the budgies' insistence, a troubling issue first needed to be resolved: traditionally the mynahs had always held that the ovum existed posterior to the hen, and consensus about this had been maintained seemingly forever. But the budgies believed that the ovum instead preceded the hen, and amongst them, too, the uniformity of opinion was strong.

The budgies passed a resolution declaring the egg supreme and disseminated it to the mynahs to contemplate. The mynahs accused the budgies of merely parroting an ideology, and they thoroughly rejected the budgies' proposal. The budgies, incensed as a body, charged the mynahs with putting party politics ahead of scientific truth and with stalling accord on the issue. Speech after budgie speech reiterated this charge. The mynahs burst into spontaneous chants of protest; and disgusted with the budgies' transparent propaganda, they fell on their necks and drove them from the island.

In politics, knowledge about an issue is beside the point.

* * *

Mike Bendzela grew up in Ohio and currently teaches English at the University of Southern Maine. He is also a seasonal apple and vegetable grower and an Old Time musician. These fables are from a book-length manuscript, Fit for Darwin: Evolutionary Fables and Other Emblematic Tales.

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