Oh, sure, it's cute now...
Yes, folks, that is what it looks like: a baby orang-utan is cuddling with a baby tiger. Will their friendship last? Eh. My guess is no, but that's just me. Only time, and zoologists, will tell.
This fits in well with something I've been thinking about a lot lately, however. This picture is striking because it seems unnatural to us: orang-utans and tigers do not normally buddy up, whatever the Jungle Book would have us believe. Yet, if this is unnatural then what, precisely, is natural?
The dictionary defines natural in a number of ways, but the one we usually think of is, "existing in or formed by nature." Seems simple enough but, really, it gets pretty complicated where we humans are concerned. Take a simple example: Dogs. Dogs are "natural" in the sense that they are not artificial constructs but, at the same time, have been domesticated by humans for somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 years. In that time selective breeding, both intentional and incidental, has converted them from wolf-like ancestors into what we now know as "Canis Familiaris," or the common dog. Are dogs natural, or are they products of human ingenuity? When do they stop being a part of the natural world and become artifacts? I mean, let's face it: most of what we consider "technology" has only been developed in the past 5,000 years. We've been modifying dogs for at least triple that amount of time; does that make them a kind of human technology? We might ask the same question about domesticated cats, which have been associating with humans for less than 10,000 years and, yet, have been shaped substantially in that time. Are they natural or are they crafted, produced things?
Beyond these companions animals,* however, there are a huge variety of quasi-natural or completely unnatural things that we depend on each day. As Sense about Science points out in their .pdf Science for Celebrities we depend on a web of domesticated organisms for our survival. As Professor Vivian Moses comments, "Not one of our crop plants or domestic animals exists in the wild: they have all been created by selective breeding over the past 10,000 years. Wheat, for example, doesn't exist in nature; we made it. And nowhere on Earth do crop plants exist in rows unless we put them there." This is a point that Jared Diamond would almost certainly agree with, given that he more or less makes it himself in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel. He has pointed out that the totality of a civilization isn't simply its people, but also its crops and animals. It is also a point echoed in the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.*** Not only have we had a massive impact on dogs, cats, and crop species- we have been displacing and recreating biomes for thousands of years. How much of the "countryside" in Europe, for example, is really "natural?" Instead, how much of it has been cleared and cultivated by generations of humans? How many of the species of plants and animals are truly indigenous and how many were introduced, deliberately or accidentally, by humans as we spread across the land? How much of that "artificial" environment do we now regard as "natural" for the simple, if stupid, reason that it is the way things have been since our grandparents? And how far are we willing to go to avoid changing something that is, itself, the result of our own intervention?**** What, indeed, is natural?
I have no compelling answers to these questions but, instead, have an observation. Humans are unusual in a number of regards but this one, I think, is one of the most striking: we are the ultimate social species. A number of other species form partnerships with other creatures. Ants, for example, ranch aphids and the clown fish survives in partnership with the deadly Sea Anemone. Various creatures find ways to work together. Humans, however, are special in that we don't just work with one or two species, we form partnerships with dozens of other species and, in so doing, are as changed by them as they are by us. The changes to crop plants that we have wrought are certainly matched by the changes that the Neolithic agricultural revolution wrought on us. As a result it is in many ways a misnomer to refer to "Human civilization." We may, indeed, be the senior partners but our civilization is, if anything, a confederation of disparate species who now live together, each indispensible to the others.
And for those who belong, for better or for worse, that has become natural.
* I just find it a little insulting to refer to dogs as "companion animals." They aren't companions so much as they are our partners. Canis Familiaris and Homo Sapiens Sapiens have a relationship that is older than the most ancient human civilization. In that time we have lived together, worked together, fought together, played together, and died together. In all likelihood their presence has subtly influenced our evolution much as we have influenced theirs. So, in short, to refer to them as "companion animals" seems, to me, to deny them their just due. We are ally species** and so long as we endure I suspect that dogs will too.
** In fairness cats are an ally species as well, but their roles have been much, much more limited than those of dogs and, so, I don't feel so strongly about them.
*** Sadly, the most recent issue isn't available online yet.
**** I really am not trying to sound anti-environmental here. I just really do want to problematize the concept of "natural." Much of what we consider "natural" has been heavily shaped by humanity for a long, long time. We may as well recognize that and not get too wrapped up in a deification of what is, at the end of the day, partly artifice.