Of Lizards, Monkeys and Men

Lizard not to scale.

The other day, was buying a couple live mice for the Caboose’s corn snake at the local house of reptiles. One of the clerks had a largish iguana-style lizard on the counter, and we chatted while waiting for the the snake’s take-out to arrive.

The clerk was picking bits of skin out of the crannies of this lizard, and commented that he (the lizard) had recently shed and hadn’t quite got all the old skin off. I observed that the lizard was remarkably calm, and the clerk said that, yes, you needed to handle this kind a lot from birth to get them this tame, otherwise they could be a bit dangerous. As it was, this lizard was so used to being with people that he would jump up on his (the clerk’s) shoulder at the first opportunity.

On cue, the lizard leapt up onto the clerks shoulder. He (the lizard) was a cool pet. Jumping up on people’s shoulders is a very survival-promoting behavior – in a lizard-friendly pet shop. People will tend to keep such a lizard away from predators and feed it. Outside such a pet shop environment, I doubt it would work so well.

There have been a few stories in the press over the last few years about people raising chimps or bonobos or whatever in their homes. Such animals are not safe to be around once they become adults, as they can tear your face off, and yet are also unfit for release into the wild, as they lack all the social and foraging skills they would have learned being raised by other members of their species. The cute and cuddly behaviors that promoted the survival of a young chimp in the home have vanished, and been replaced with adult drives and behaviors humans can’t control.

This seems to be a problem across the board with more sophisticated animals: they learn their survival skills from the other members of their species in their native environments. Raise outside that environment by humans, and they no longer can cope with what a wild animal faces everyday. For the chimp or lizard to obtain the behaviors needed to survive, they need to grow up in that environment.

The lizard will likely live a long, well-fed, predator-free life, often perched on the shoulder of some human; the chimp raised by people, with its innately more sophisticated social life and behaviors, is likely condemned to misery once it matures, as it will be either caged or released – either way, it will be stuck into an environment to which it is poorly adapted.

On the other extreme, developing embryos seem to need precise environmental triggers at just the right moment of development, in order to grow properly. When cells are removed and placed in a petri dish, they will not continue to develop normally, since the proteins triggers are missing or mistimed. Even before birth, animals need the right environment in order to develop properly.

People are much more than animals, but we are at least animals, and need at least the level of care animals receive. We don’t develop in a vacuum, but grow physically, emotionally and socially in response to our environment.

Nothing earth-shaking, there, I hope. But like with all true and obvious things, our current culture seems hell-bent (all too literally) with pretending that there’s no such thing as a proper environment for people to grow up in. We pretend to think that the individual is primary in such an extreme way that any influence on them that contradicts their wishes or whims is anathema. This is even projected onto children, so that, instead of shrugging off a boy’s passing fascination with Barbie, or a tomboy’s desire to play sports with the boys, we start fretting about ‘gender roles’ and ‘microaggression’, and, right when our kids most need clarity on what it means to be a man or a woman (neither Barbies or tackle football figure into it much), we fan the flames of what is most probably a passing moment until we have a full-on conflagration. We get the parents of little boys and girls trying to get everybody to use the right made-up pronouns so as not to offend the little dear who might otherwise not have even noticed or cared.

I wish I were exaggerating or making this up.

But that’s only step two in our dance off the cliff. Step one is to pretend that the carousel of sexual relationships that constitute what many people call marriage or family doesn’t destroy any chance of healthy development for any children unfortunate enough to find themselves in the environment such relationships create. I’m thinking here primarily of the repeated pattern of marriage, divorce, shacking up, and just fooling around that makes up the lives of most of the people I know. It’s to the point where anybody with only 2 or 3 heterosexual marriages, or the same live in lover for more than a few years is imagined to be the stable, sane one in most crowds. The kids, meanwhile, get told in a million ways that their sense of betrayal and emotional abandonment is *their* problem, that mom and this week’s dad are just normal people, and it’s completely normal and emotionally neutral to have a custody schedule, or to never see, or not to be sure even who is, your biological father. or to be raised by grandma while your parents go chase their muse or something.

It’s a miracle of human resilience that even more kids aren’t going to jail or mental institutions or just killing themselves.

Our suicidal obsession with  pretending this is all normal, and thus needing to pretend that whatever quirks or issues arise in the children are likewise normal, has created a desperate, hopeless situation: kids who have no models, no guidance, no freaking idea of what it means to be a 5 year old, or a 15 year old, or any kind of person at all, get to decide they’re really not a little boy or girl, but are the other one or something else entirely – and this confused, desperate grasp at sanity or cry for help or plea for attention gets cast in cement by the willfully clueless parents.

And misery ensues for all, who are obliged to pretend they are not miserable right up until they kill themselves one way or another.

In Arizona once, took a ranger-lead walk through an Anasazi site. In passing, the ranger pointed to a tiny tree growing out of a crack in the middle of a large boulder. She asked us how old we thought the tree was, and then told us it was over 200 years old. It was the same species as the towering pines all around us, but only a foot or so tall because of the harshness of its situation.

Thus, it seems, the best most kids today can hope for is to survive as a crippled, tiny shadow of what God meant them to be. And we need to love them all, and their parents, not only nonetheless, but even more so. And hope they don’t bring what’s good in our culture down with them.

Sorry to be so grim today. This stuff is just all too real for us at the moment.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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