Talk #03Thoughts on happiness as the trip ends

Talk: August 26, 2017 Photographer/Biologist/Designer

It is the eighth day of this trip to Galapagos, which will shortly end. Our team of three, tired but in a good way, look back on the experience in this one final talk. The nature and creatures they encountered in Galapagos prompted a conversation in which the subject of happiness once again featured prominently.

Why five fingers in both iguanas and humans?

Designer We're approaching the end of our {Galapagos} adventure. It's a shame, but I must admit I'm reaching my limit physically. I think the drizzle today helped take the edge off the scenery and give it a tranquil aspect. The animals seemed happy too, didn’t they? Mind you, I’ve got so used to seeing {iguanas} that I barely pay them any attention now.

Photographer Yes, there was a soft, romantic feel to today's landscape. The legs of iguanas when they’re lying around listlessly reminded me of strongly of frog legs, which kind of ruins their image.

Biologist Iguanas have somewhat unfortunate faces, don't they? I mean, they’re kind of frightening. They appear to take survival very seriously, though, and I admire them.

Designer Yes, what with their scary faces and spiny backs, there’s nothing too cute about them. But going back to an earlier conversation today, when I remarked about how it's weird that iguanas have five digits on their arms and legs, Biologist said that we humans have come from fish, that a fish with five-rayed fins eventually became man with five digits. But I'm not supposed to ask why five digits, am I?

Biologist We really don't know why, but I think we could have managed with four or six.

Designer Forks have four prongs. There's a famous book titled {The Evolution of Useful Things} by Henry Petroski, an engineer who looked at the evolution of technologies from the unique perspective of failure, arguing that all successful technologies are the result of endless failures. The Japanese language edition of the book is titled Why Forks Have Four Prongs, and Petroski explains how people probably first started using some kind of stick to eat, and then two, a primordial knife and fork that finally evolved into their present form after much trial and error. For example, the knife might have been broader when the fork didn't have a scooping function, and maybe became narrower when the fork was designed to scoop better. There were two-pronged forks and six-pronged forks as knives and forks continued to evolve, each affecting each other's design as they did so, until the four-pronged fork eventually came to dominate the scene. This is effectively another example of {autopoiesis}. I think it would be called co-evolution in biology, though. This is also one type of evolution.

Biologist It's possible for us to look at a fork now and see how its width corresponds to the width of the human mouth, and how the prongs are perhaps arranged within that limited range to match the width of spaghetti, but while the fork was evolving, nobody thought along such lines. The fork became what it is as a result of trial and error, and even though it might look like convergent evolution at a glance, there was no predetermined outcome. Species are the same, and probably nobody knows the outcome. There have been countless failures in biology too that end up simply being buried under heaps of corpses.

Designer You see fancy cutlery designed by such and such a designer, but no designer ever set out to give the fork four prongs. I think that if anything, design is about recognizing that forks generally have four prongs. But I think it's interesting that iguanas have five fingers and toes. Maybe that's how we arrived at the decimal method, iguanas and people having five fingers on each hand just because they happened to evolve from a fish with five-rayed fins...

Biologist if you look at fossils from around the time when fish emerged onto land as amphibians, there are both four-fingered and six-fingered fossils as well. We actually have no idea whether it was inevitable or just by chance that five-fingered creatures remained. Whatever, we probably owe the decimal method to the fact that five-fingered creatures happened to remain, and we inherited those five fingers. If we’d ended up with four fingers, we might have been better suited to working with binary numbers and digital computing. And if we had six fingers, we might have found astronomy easier to understand, since there are 12 months in a year. I’m not much good at digital, so I'd have been happy with four fingers!

Galapagos and the inherent goodness theory

Designer Yesterday, I took a shot on my iPhone that captured the decisive moment when a {blue-footed booby} took off, prompting a “Damn!” from our famous photographer. That reminded me of when I went for a walk in the park one morning in Japan, I was greeted with the sight of all these retired guys, clearly photography buffs, gathered around a pond with huge telephoto lenses attached to their cameras. They were all aiming to get the perfect kingfisher shot. I couldn't help laughing a little, but I can understand how they feel. Getting that perfect shot of a kingfisher alighting on a branch and looking so alive brought them genuine happiness. After working for decades, they’ve finally retired, realized how beautiful nature is, and can’t get enough of it. I wanted to bring them all to Galapagos to photograph the bird life here. I get the feeling that such things could change the world.

Photographer I'm fascinated by the attitude of the Galapagos animals to us. They're not in the least fazed even when something as foreign as us approaches. For all we know, they may be taking it all in, but to us, they look totally unfazed. I think it could be because they're on their own territory, and it's us rather than them who should be exercising restraint. But seeing them behave like that is a happy thing indeed. Animals normally get uppity and escape when approached, unless they're accustomed to being fed, in which case it's the opposite, and they get annoyingly close. So when they just act nonchalantly, it really gets you thinking.

Biologist Yes, they’re astoundingly unafraid of people, aren't they? I too long felt that the natural world sees humans as, if anything, inherently evil, as an enemy, But I changed my mind on seeing penguins in the Antarctic. They have no fear of man. They even come to you, in fact. I thought that Antarctica might be the one exception, and never imagined that Galapagos would be so brimming with belief in the inherent goodness of man. I mean, the {mockingbirds} come right up to you.

Photographer Yup. I approached to within about 2 m of some {flightless cormorants} the other day. They were so relaxed that it was if they hadn't seen me, as if I were transparent. That's happiness. If they change their behavior when you approach or do something, you feel guilty of disturbing them. If it were at all possible, I'd like to become totally transparent to photograph them.

Photography is a constant struggle in that respect. The moment someone notices there's a camera pointed at them from the left, that they're being watched, the skin on the left side of their faces changes. Whether it's animals or people, it's the same. The minute that something catches your eye and you approach, whatever caught your eye disappears or changes into something different. The only thing that doesn't change is landscape. Usually, you work slowly to try to mitigate the impact, but that's not necessary here. It was pure delight to able to approach the subjects so easily.

Designer Normally, it's as if the camera’s exerting pressure that causes the subject’s skin to distort. I think that the people of Ecuador and Galapagos are trying to protect the balance here not only because it's a unique and precious ecosystem, but also because they too are amazed by the attitude of the wildlife. The fact that these animals don't fear people is, after all, astounding.

Biologist Considering they can't fly, flightless cormorants in particular should be really wary of intruders, especially when something is approaching their nests. Normally, you'd expect them to put on a threat display.

Photographer Yes, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes, the way they do nothing to protect themselves. They have chicks hatching out in their nests, after all. When something strange approaches, I think it would be only too natural to think they're up to no good.

Biologist Galapagos really does seem to symbolize the inherent goodness theory. In physics, they use this term {observer effect} to describe the way simply observing something can affect its movement or position. It's something that cannot be avoided in physics, so we see it as fate. It means, in effect, that we can never observe things as they really are. But Galapagos appears to confound the observer effect. Our schedule has these blocks of time labeled "shooting” set aside for photography, and that word “shooting” gradually began to grate. Shooting implies capturing rare moments, but here it's the opposite. It feels like you’re sitting in the palm of Buddha's hand and being told, “Give it your best.”

Photographer Yup. It's as if they're saying, “We’ll show you everything, so make sure you get some good pictures.”

Designer As if they're serving everything up on a plate. In the past, {giant tortoises} were killed in their tens of thousands for their meat and oil, and they probably put up no resistance as they were carried away. I get the impression that it's maybe remorse over the overwhelming sacrifice made by the tortoises that has built present-day Galapagos. They didn't fight back, and the only way they could get back at man is to make the ultimate sacrifice and become extinct. Galapagos gave birth to the theory of evolution, but it also gives the impression of being a rare place where the balance has remained unchanged. It’s easy to assume that you can take as much as you want, since Nature keeps on producing more. But when you actually do that, it disappears with consummate ease.

Momentary glimpses of joy

Photographer Biologist mentioned Buddha’s palm just now, which made me think that it's as if we're being told to just go ahead and live life as we want to. Today too, there were two parent-child pairs of {sea lions}, and the bigger youngster was swimming around as if he owned the place, while the baby, who couldn't swim nearly as well, kept on getting in the way. It was the kind of scene you can see easily enough in the human world too, but it struck me as being a picture of joy. There was also a {pelican} standing on the rocks with its wings spread, and nearby a random {crab} or two, and the whole scene looked to me for all the world like paradise. So this is Galapagos, I thought. You won't see the same kind of scene in the savannas of Africa.

Biologist Until he alighted on that reef and stood there looking so aloof, that pelican was a doting parent. I saw him diving low and giving his chick food when the chick called out that it was hungry.

Designer It may just be human conceit to interpret all this is happiness, though.

Photographer But I think that animals also feel happy when they’re with their young, and those young are growing up healthy. Granted, such happiness may just be momentary. The next minute, when they dive into the sea again, they might well get gobbled up by a killer whale.

Designer I was shocked by that incident yesterday, the killer whale chasing the sea lion. The killer whale looked as though it was playing with its prey. The sea lion was trying to escape with all its might, but its number was already up, right?

Biologist Trying to escape is only natural, but if I’d been that sea lion, I'd have given up. Remember we also saw a sea lion playing with a marine iguana. The iguana was trying to get back on land, probably because its body temperature had dropped, but the sea lion wouldn't let it.

Designer So maybe such cruelty is also an aspect of happiness?

The wisdom people need to survive

Designer We humans have created science, philosophy, thought and technology, but are we really better off for it? We may have made technological progress, but I get the impression that we ourselves have stopped evolving. If only we were to use whatever wisdom we have to look out for each other and live in a way that doesn't harm the environment, instead of building societies with such huge gaps between the rich and the poor, I think we'd be much better off. Biologist, what do you think from a scientific standpoint?

Biologist In evolutionary terms, evolution is divided into two stages. The first is random, and the second directed by natural selection and comparative advantage with respect to environmental and competition pressures. In Galapagos, however, the second stage is lacking. New forms appear randomly through mutation, and survive as they are. That's why I can't help feeling that Galapagos is not that evolutionary, despite being the birthplace of evolutionary theory. In a more normal environment, competition would arise naturally wherever a comparative advantage could be secured. Betrayal, cheating, vigilance, and aggression are all part of evolution. It's just a matter of doing whatever you need to do to ensure your genes remain. But there is no such “dark side” here. This makes the islands feel strange to us, islands of saints.

Designer Because there’s no competition? I think that competition is thoroughly institutionalized in human society. Don't you ever feel that we'll soon start perishing as a species? How many years ago was humanity born?

Biologist Three million years ago if you mean the whole {Homo} genus. {Homo sapiens} emerged 200,000–300,000 years ago. Speaking biologically, our species Homo sapiens is actually thought to have started to decline. The human intelligence and sensibilities that have underpinned our success as a species have peaked. However, entering decline can mean one of two things. We can either slowly die out as a species, or some mutation or other will occur that leads to our emergence as a new species.

Designer We may have sped up that shift to mutation by creating {artificial intelligence}. I feel that we may have entered a phase in which, instead of making machines to change our environment, machines are changing us.

Biologist I think it's feasible that relying on artificial intelligence could propel us down a different evolutionary path from biological evolution. Maybe that’s cultural evolution, or IT evolution. For 99.9% of the time that has elapsed since the birth of Homo sapiens, we lacked civilization. The latest theories propose that we've suddenly started to decline dramatically since civilization developed during the last 5,000 years, which is just a fragment of time in our evolution. Civilization has effectively catalyzed our biological decline. Even if we’re losing things, we've also gained, since we now have culture. The problem is that the dark side of that culture is now in the ascendancy. But here in Galapagos, there is no dark side, is there?

Photographer I really think so. I feel very fortunate to have been given a glimpse of Galapagos.

Designer I took a lot of pictures at the water’s edge today. As I mentioned in our conversation yesterday, I feel that my desire to create forms at the interface between myself and the universe is a sign that I am alive. And being alive leads to a desire to design. I can't help feeling that design has a lot to answer for, but I don’t want to stop designing. To design is to live with purpose, after all. I think it's our destiny as humans to change our environment as we live our lives. We have this constant urge to brighten our lives by making things, but I'm always thinking about the direction we should head in as we do so. I feel that this trip has given me hope that I may be able to harmonize my yardstick of beauty with nature's yardstick.

Biologist It's our fate as humans to change the world. And we now have the power to wipe whole ecosystems off the face of the Earth. We’re now effectively asking if it's okay for us to stick around. To my ears, the creatures of Galapagos are whispering “It's okay.” But if we don't protect them, they'll disappear in no time.

Photographer You're absolutely right. If people were to come tramping in here without showing any discretion, it would break down in an instant. But like the creatures of Galapagos, people too are capable of appreciating the happiness in this landscape. I think Galapagos offers hints as to how we can coexist with other species, and how we can create an environment in which we too would be happy.

Designer Yes. Even if it’s not verifiable like science, I’d like to believe that people have the wisdom to live in balance with the environment. I’d like to search for that kind of wisdom. I’m glad that we were able to talk so freely today. Thank you very much.