| To those who believe that most of Earth’s secrets have been unveiled by science, it should come as some surprise that the evolutionary history of birds is still mired in debate and shrouded in doubt.
Did the ancestors of the 9,000 avian species that dominate our skies use the now extinct, feathered Archaeopteryx as a conduit for survival? Or was it the ancient, blunt faced, egg-stealing Oviraptor to whom this credit should go?
Neither, if the claims of a group of scientists working in China’s Liaoning Province are to be believed. They suggest instead that a feathered, four-winged dinosaur, whose 125 million-year-old fossil was discovered, might be the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. Called Microraptor qui this creature was a metre long and spent its time gliding between trees – a habit that peafowl still practice.
Peafowl take a breath every five wing beats and quickly run out of oxygen. So they prefer to scurry about on the forest floor. Here males risk predation because of the long tail feathers they must lug around.
The evolutionary ‘decision’ to trade style for clumsiness must have been a long time in the making. Whatever the churnings of evolution, the trade between muscular legs in place of stronger wings and lungs certainly worked to the advantage of peafowl, which managed to stay ahead of the survival game, unlike the less fortunate Dodos and Moas.
What a complex gauntlet the genetic codes belonging to creatures of yore had to negotiate. But what picture perfect conclusions nature ultimately fashioned out of them, including Homo sapiens.
Tools, and the artistry of early humans whose awe and respect for nature inspired them to paint on ancient walls and caves, represent the most visible sign of the ascent of thinking man. By the same token, I would imagine, our penchant for meddling with nature must surely be a sign of our rapid descent.
Edward B. Taylor, a 19th Century thinker coined the word ‘animism’. Influenced by theologians of the age who were grappling with ideas and counter ideas centered on evolution and god, Taylor honed in on ‘animism’ (derived from the Latin ‘anima’ or soul) to suggest that dreams, hallucinations and premonitions of death were construed by primitive humans to be the language of gods, ancestors and spirits.
It was believed by primitive societies that spirits that lived on long after the body had wasted away put out such visions. Around now Herbert Spencer wrote that religion was founded on the faith that visions revealed messages from the souls of the dead. But no one could really ‘prove’ anything because humans of the day had not learned to document abstract ideas in a tangible way that would survive the passage of millennia.
Be that as it may, anyone who has visited Paleolithic sits, such as the ones at Bori and Churna in the Satpura National Park surrounds of Madhya Pradesh, must conclude that humans would have gathered in these ancient cathedras to venerate the most visible symbols of nature.
Sir James G. Frazer was one such visitor and he wrote in his Worship of Nature that ‘every tree and flower, every brook and river, every breeze that blew and every cloud that flecked with silvery white the blue expanse of heaven” were conceived as departmental gods.’
In days gone by people were connected with nature. They hunted animals and ate them, but were grateful for the source that sustained them.
And today? The source seems to be recognized as the nearest cash register or bank. That is why animals such as the Button quail and partridges in this image were not killed for bona fide consumption, but for cash. Taylor grappled with gods of the past and tried to unravel the mysteries of religion. He had no way of knowing that the most omnipresent, powerful and monotheistic god of future would turn out to be… money.
This money-is-god attitude is something that we must help our children avoid. And one very good way to do that is to help them fall in love with nature by taking them out into nearby wildernesses. In Kolkata children are lucky because the city has not yet lost all its green patches and even in places like Ballygunge and Tollygunge it is still possible to see civets and a bit further out, jackals too. As I work to dampen the impact of India's planners who are pushing our fragile subcontinent over the brink, I maintain my sanity by speaking with children about nature and how it is their friend and support and will always be on their side.
Allowing children to experience nature, touch mud, not be afraid, is a central strategy that many pediatricians and child psychologists suggest that parents should use to keep their wards healthy in mind and body. In fact some go so far as to suggest that by over-protecting them and refusing to let them discover nature as they grow in our increasingly cemented cities, we are in effect keeping them under protective house arrest. This they suggest could lead to an identifiable disease, referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder, which is capable of impacting the immune system and can also have very damaging psychological effects.
The solution is simple. Keep our cities green, teach our children to respect nature and encourage them to restrict their time with television sets, video games and other electronic distractions. Spend time with them outdoors so that they are able to enjoy the flights of fancy that we enjoyed when we were young.
Credit: Sanctuary Features