What Makes Humans Smart…and Dumb

I never heard about the Great Emu War until recently.  What happened in that “conflict” seems fairly predictable, actually:  in response to demands for action by farmers in marginal lands in Western Australia, the government sent soldiers armed with machine guns to cull marauding herds of large flightless birds, only to discover that mowing down wildlife with machine gun does not work as well as mowing down humans, only to scrap the project amidst much embarrassment.  What made me wonder about this venture, though, is something a bit different:  why was it so much easier to cut down humans with machine guns than birds?

Emus are big birds–pretty much about human sized.  They are fast runners, but I don’t think they are so fast that it makes it impractical to shoot them down with machine guns.  As far as I can tell, what made it so difficult for the Australian army machine gunners to shoot at emus effectively was that the birds ran whenever the soldiers approached them and when the shooting began (usually at considerable distance if only because soldiers couldn’t approach them closely) they ran in all direction in panic making it difficult for even a hail of bullets to hit many of them.  Of course, these are exactly the kind of natural reaction that almost any critter would engage in, if they were shot at–that is, except, one:  humans, especially those who are trained and disciplined.  What made it so easy for machine gunners to shoot down great masses of men during World War 1 was that humans are trained to behave unnaturally:  they kept their formation even in face of bullets and they actually approached the machine gunners even as the bullets were flying towards them–still packed in formations.

This is, in a sense, what human sociality achieves.  Humans do strange and unnatural things that definitely run counter to the natural instinct of self-preservation.  This is how a human “society” can remain organized even in face of adversity–which might do them good sometimes:  a group of people engaged in effective teamwork is far more effectively than just the sum of individuals (the Greek phalanx was nearly invincible in close combat as long as they could maintain formation where each pikeman could support (and could count on support from) his neighbors.)  But the same discipline that allows an entire society to operate as a team can be used as a bait to wipe out an entire society–Mongols and other steppe nomads were quite good at luring an entire army into a trap–which a highly disciplined army was more apt to–and wipe them out as a group.  (In a sense, the Romans were trapped and annihilated so completely at Cannae and Carrhae, by Hannibal and Surenas respectively, precisely because of the disciplined nature of their legions.)  The same, I suppose, applies to World War I and machine guns:  it takes discipline and training–precisely what make the human animal social and usually powerful–for an army to keep formation under attack, and that makes them so easy to wipe out with industrial machinery.

Discipline turns humans into machines, in a sense–but machines can outmachine humans.  Perhaps, at least some of the time, humans need a bit of animal instinct, to break the pack and run away from machine guns, like real living creatures, not dumbly march towards it only to be cut down in droves like stupid machines that aren’t so durable like real machines?


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