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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse


When I was at school studying biology, one of my favourite topics was ecology. I found this side of biology rather fascinating since it differed from the anatomical aspects of the field in being almost uniquely sociological. I wish I had done more ecology at school which might have even urged me to take up economics and politics to complete the picture of population dynamics, but I am glad that I studied history at University (Oxford) where I managed to pursue the general principles of the social sciences. I still like history and politics, and in my habitual pursuit of online documentaries I have come to enjoy watching those that deal with natural habitats in which wild animals learn to live with one another (or not). The first impression that comes to my mind is brutality, since the wilderness really is cruel. It is not entirely lawless as there are certain rules of nature which determine the chances of survival for each species, but it must be said that the outside world really is savage with no mercy spared for the weak whatsoever. You either live to eat or be eaten. There are only two general roles in nature: predator and prey (intricately and hierarchically arranged along the food chain, which results in complex binary relationships between species). There is no middle ground, and there cannot be complacency or immobility in a world like this.

Some people may legitimately find it disheartening to observe and analyse such a world (for whom becoming a natural ecologist is definitely not recommended), but it should be noted that amidst so much savagery there is also a lot of guile and resourcefulness that animals have come to display by living through tough situations, and these we may not immediately associate with animals less intelligent than us homines sapientes. In this documentary about the African rivers, there is a documented conflict between cichlids and catfish where the former fiercely resist the latter’s urge to eat their babies (eggs or infants). In this video, it is remarkable how strong and tough these African cichlids are, since when it comes to protecting their young and tender ones, they really do go full on and spare no strength with their jaws and teeth, and given their physical advantage, they usually manage to fight off the hungry catfish. However, while catfish may not be as physically imposing as their prey in their adult form, they are extremely cunning in that while attempting to prey on the cichlid eggs, they often deposit their own eggs in the mix. The adult cyclids are not aware of this and as they fend off the catfish and return to rearing their babies, they unknowingly end up raising baby catfish which often devour all the baby cichlids in the first meal of their lives. As the commentator says in this video, ‘looks like the catfish have won the evolutionary battle against the cyclids.’ This is a remarkable episode of guile over strength, and a lot of cannibalism too.

Observing the natural habitat draws parallels with our own human habitat, since it is often forgotten that we humans are also animals trying to co-exist with each other (or not) in our own unique habitat. Interpersonal politics and human social interaction may not be as barbaric as what happens in nature, but it is still brutal, as we humans are essentially competitive animals striving for big things, and we are no less devious or cunning than these catfish as we must all have seen episodes of backstabbing and sabotaging which characterise our working and domestic environments. Taken to its bare essentials, all animal habitats are the same in that they are all circuses for show of strength, and unless one can outdo all the others, one does not have much chance of survival. In a world like this, one better gear up for the fight.

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