Today morning, a spell of rain forced me to wait under a tree, close to a football field, where two black (red-naped, for the nitpickers) ibises were scrutinizing the overgrown grass for breakfast.
These large birds attracted my attention, as they were showing a remarkable amount of interest in me. First I thought that it was my irresistible charm oozing past the species-barrier, but closer inspection revealed that they had spotted peristaltic movement of a large earthworm on a concrete slab nearby.
By opting to travel on concrete, earthworm had made a fatal mistake. It was an easy picking for the ibises but for my presence. Fate had placed me between two of my genetic cousins; earthworm a distant one, as our ancestors parted company 500 million years ago, while I and ibis were almost like brothers as we had shared ancestors for next 350 million years.
While I was feeling smug about my deep intellectual understanding of my evolutionary relationship with other life-forms, increasing fidgetiness of ibises forced me to cognize a practical dilemma.
If I didn’t move earthworm cousin from the slab, it was heading for the gallows; but, if I did, my ibis brothers were going to be deprived of a deserving meal.
I really enjoy moments like these, as they allow me to watch my own brain in action.
Confronted with a conflict, first choice my brain made was to set aside intellectual learning regarding my relationship with either and opted to buy time by remaining close to earthworm. I could sense that my brain was hoping that this quandary may get resolved by earthworm finding a crack or ibis getting over its natural fear of men.
Unfortunately, concrete slab provided no such escape opportunities, and earthworm, in its blind and ponderous way, was crawling into the range of the ibis slowly.
As it was raining, my brain also weighed the discomfort of me getting wet against the agony of watching a worm getting sliced by ibis beak. This selfish contemplation delayed the decision-making for a while, but the stupid earthworm appeared hell bent on testing my brain circuits and continued down the hara-kiri path with determination.
With the braver ibis of the two about to succumb to the temptation of a fat worm, my brain’s hand was forced. My brain ordered my body to step into pouring rain to pick the worm on a leaf and deposit it in grass. With disgruntled ibises moving away, possibly muttering under the breath about the unnatural justice system that human brains use, I was forced to retrospect.
Why did I save the earthworm?
I am explicitly aware that my act was contrary to the natural system that drives the circle of life, so knowledge-driven part of my brain, i.e. neocortex, was surely not the one that pressed the button.
The decision was dictated by my old brain which implicitly hates to watch a life-form getting killed. It was clear that the innate circuit of empathy residing in my old brain prevailed over my neocortical knowledge and learning.
We often consider the old brain to be an animal brain driven by instincts and rate its contribution less than that of our rational intellect residing in neocortex; but looking at the way we are using our intellect to generate hate and conflicts, it is likely that our knowledge-driven self-destruction is prevented till now only because ancient circuits like empathy are still working.
Empathy is a gift of evolution and hence must have an important role to play in our long term survival. Let us hope that it remains with us to override our rationality, as reason is yet to prove its usefulness for our survival.