Cautionary Fables for Darwin’s Birthday


by Mike Bendzela

In the great class of mammalian vertebrates, antagonism arose between the egg-laying monotremes and the marsupials. Neither side could see the other on its own terms, each insisting it was the True Mammal.

An opossum (Didelphis) complained, “The platypus is a shameful pretender! It won’t admit that it is a failed duck, a builder of nests and hatcher of puggles, unable to fly!”

For its part, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus) sought revenge on the marsupials by sowing doubt about their child-rearing abilities: “We’ve seen the opossum abandon its newborn babies at birth! The poor things are doomed to forage for a nipple and live in a pocket!”

Moral: Steady misrepresentation is the chief hazard of tribal membership.

Monitor Lizard versus 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 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.

Moral: The most depraved acts may be committed in the name of preventing depravity.

To Be a Bat

The curious sciurid wished to be admitted to the order Chiroptera, “for the Aves just laugh at me,” he said. This flying squirrel had staged several demonstrations for the many orders of birds; but the songbirds and the woodpeckers mobbed him and chased him off, while the falcons and owls tried to seize him. The sciurid got away each time.

The bats could see his point. The sciurid was as furry, warm-blooded, and winged as they were. Sciurids shared some of the bats’ dietary habits, fed at night, and nursed their young. But the bats were still left scratching their heads. So, they offered the sciurid a trial membership to see how he would fare as a Chiropteran.

It was soon apparent the flying squirrel could not perform as well as the bats. They could stay aloft for hours, and they cleverly located their prey through sound rather than sight. The flying squirrel could do none of this. But the sciurid did discover how properly to hate.

The barn in which the bats dwelt was haunted by a feral felid that snapped up any pups that fell from the rafters and even swatted adults right out of the air. In a bid for status, the flying squirrel swooped down on the cat to be martyred on behalf of the Chiropterans.

Moral: Group identity is a mindless fiction that robs us of autonomy.

Preening

The great albatross (Diomedea) preened herself in front of a penguin (Spheniscus) that bobbed in cold waters near the rock on which the great bird stood. “She must feel pretty silly,” the albatross inferred upon seeing the penguin’s pitiful fin stumps. “Is she fish or beast? I don’t think even she knows.” The great bird continued straightening its magnificent feathers.

Just then the penguin launched out of the water and with addled gait took up a stance on the rock not far from the other bird, and she began preening in like manner. As the penguin drove its beak into the stubby feathers of its breast, and picked around under its forelimb, and shook its head rapidly back and forth, the albatross recognized, with horror, that those miserable fin stumps were wings just like her own; and, cantilevering her capacious wings over the edge of the rock, the scandalized bird took her preening elsewhere.

Moral: Homology is the final humiliation for those who believe they are above nature’s dross.

A Pastoral Parable

On the barren slopes live the shepherds. Those in the valleys below raise swine.

The herders are seasonal: they wander with the herds of sheep. From the hills, they can look down on the swineherds below.

“How loathsome, the sedentary life, living deep in the clefts of the hills,” sniffs one shepherd to another. “Their livestock live amongst their dwellings, shitting in the same place, day after day! That is the definition of unclean.”

His companion adds, “Look how even their children’s noses turn up at the end.”

Meanwhile, the swineherds espy the herders haunting the outskirts, like feral beasts. One swineherd remarks to another, “You can smell those shepherds coming a league away.”

“Yes,” rejoins the other, “and if you had to haul your livestock around with you, everywhere you go, day and night – even to sleep! – why, you’d stink, too.”

Moral: Familiarity is no guarantor of toleration.

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These fables are from the unpublished collection, “Variations on the Metazoa: Evolutionary Fables and Other Emblematic Tales.” Mike Bendzela lives in Maine.

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