There is a caterpillar in the Arctic that is at the same time the most inspirational, and the most depressing, creature I know of.
He lives in one of the coldest places on Earth. Every spring he wakes up and eats as much as he can for month after month until it’s too cold to function. Then he crawls into a hole in the ground away from the worst of the cold. His little heart stops and then he freezes solid, as the TV said: ‘first his gut, then his blood’ and then the rest of him until he’s turned into a furry little ball of ice.
The next spring he wakes up and does it all over again, eating and eating until it’s time to hibernate. He’s still not managed to eat enough so until he has he’s got to freeze himself to death each year.
For fourteen years.
After these fourteen years he wakes up, spins himself a little cocoon and goes about his business turning into a moth, all the while trying not to get eaten by something larger and hairier than himself. This poor little guy has no poison or spikes like other caterpillars, his only defense is to play dead if something happens to try to swallow him.
Once the moth emerges it lives for a few days, all the while trying to find a mate so that this whole 14 year process can start again for the next generation. The whole point of it’s entire existence is pass on its little moth genes.
I feel like there should be a moral to this story but it’s too complex for that.
That this little creature bothers to survive is an amazing demonstration of Evolution; the survival instinct needed on some level in its tiny furry brain just to keep bothering, and the fact that it even manages to successfully thaw itself out enough times.
My first reaction when I saw this was ‘Why ARE you bothering?’ I was amazed that it was bothering, but also really rather annoyed at Evolution for putting it through this. I know I’m anthropomorphizing this little caterpillar but I’m anthropomorphizing Evolution now too, sorry. It’s sole purpose for those 14 miserable years (are they miserable? Is there a sense of joy when it reaches the top of a plant stalk and there is a delicious leaf there to eat?) is to make another generation of tiny frozen caterpillars. There’s no end game, no final plan, no goal that they are working towards. Just generation after generation of tiny caterpillars being rather cold. Evolution is MEAN.
If someone asked me what the meaning of life is, I’d say ‘Staying alive long enough to pass on my genes to the next lot’ because if that is true of giraffes and cats and earwigs, then why not people?
Yet the more we stray from the things evolutionarily appropriate for us (with cheeseburgers, for example. Computers and spine-ache from sitting in a chair all day, thermal underwear and drugs to make us live to 100 whether our organs want to or not) the further away from being like this caterpillar we are. Is this a good thing? Sure we’re escaping but there’s only so far we can go. We’re still making generation after generation of people, like we’re supposed to, but each generation is less equipped to cope with their natural environment than the last because we built heaters and cars and don’t expect everyone to learn how to grow vegetables or raise cows. Sure we can survive in modern society but take that away and we’ve got few of the basics left, especially if we’re stuck on our own. There’s no ultimate goal here, either, so we’re still not much better off than the caterpillar following it’s little biological urges.
But then we get into Evolutionary Psychology and I really need to buy a book about this because it’s driving me mad. Evolution seems to suck but its working. Or we get into Religion and start believing in an afterlife because we’ve worked out that everything this far, though far from pointless, doesn’t have meaning ENOUGH.
Blah. I thought I’d reach a sensible conclusion of my thoughts if I left this overnight but I don’t think there is one.
All because of one depressing caterpillar.
For now I’m going to take inspiration both from the fact that this if this little guy keeps on for fourteen years in the freezing cold, I can probably survive winter too. I’m also going to be really REALLY pleased that I am not a caterpillar.