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Animal Walks


One of the games suggested in this years London International Festival of Surrealism (16-29.vii.2007) (the festival before and after and who were the participants) was called “Animal Farm” (rules were simples: pick a random animal and identify with it when taking a walk) and had some appeal to the Stockholm group, but first a good dose of critical remarks on the analytical difficulties…

The major difficulty of doing the animal walk with a zoologist in the group is the part of randomly picking an animal. What is random in this connection? The suggested method of picking one at random from a book relies heavily on what kind of book it is, and most popular books will be subject to the same particular bias as most people’s intuitive choices. Other books will be subject to other biases.

First of all, being mammals and genetically programmed to react empathically to things resembling possible mates and/or possible offspring, and having a strong tendency for complacency, narrowmindedness and chauvinism, most people display a strong mammal-chauvinistic bias, preferring middlesized more or less furry things with large eyes. Childhood programming by toys, popular science and TV entertainment (and usually very little by direct personal experience) make us imagine most ”typical animals” as belonging to either of two categories: domestic animals of farms, and wildlife of (african-indian) savannah (this may be slightly different in other parts of the world and even more in other generations). A few birds and perhaps an occasional reptile will come along with the mammal lot there. But in many everyday language situations, many people actually use the word animal as synonymous with mammal, as in the phrase ”animals and birds”. If pressed such people would probably see two different meanings of the word, animals sensu lato and animals sensu stricto, because otherwise it is a bit difficult to conceive what would be the more inclusive term for the whole animal kingdom – creatures? Beasts?

Thus, for people without a well-developed zoological imagination or zoological education, picking an animal by random from a book or from one’s own mind will probably conform to this bias.

Systematic attempts of picking a random animal would have to be based on some assession of animal diversity. Potentially there is an infinite number of ways of doing this, but the ones readily available are species diversity or phylogenetic diversity.

If random picking an animal is based on an assessment of overall diversity of animals in terms of species numbers; then almost all animals are insects. There are some significant portions of crustaceans, arachnids, molluscs and (admittedly) vertebrates too (predominantly fish though) and all other groups are close to zero fractions. This will produce a species diversity bias, which thus is strongly in favor of entomological choices.

It is notable that one readily available chance method, that of picking an animal by closing one’s eyes and then opening them and picking the first animal seen will, unless it becomes a human (many people will not count humans as animals) or unless the person has poor eyesight, most probably result in an insect.

But the other option in assessing overall animal diversity is the systematists way of imagining the animal kingdom in the representation of a phylogenetic tree showing out hypothesis of the evolution of the group. In this way, an extremely species-rich lineage such as insects, and an extremely subjectively important lineage such as mammals, will only be individual lineages among large numbers of others. As this perspective tends to give dominance to lineages that have been separate for long times, it sees an animal kingdom strongly dominated by (often species-poor groups of) marine invertebrates, usually more or less wormlike.

This is a phylogenetic diversity bias.

With the zoologist in the group being a systematist, there was no option but to base the selection on the phylogenetic diversity bias prespective. Starting from a random point picked in a strongly schematic tree of the animal kingdom, each player described an imagined walk with left and right turns, back and forth movements, occasional leaps, etc, which were followed by someone else on a more detailed tree of the particular region in the tree. So it was simply a blind walk in a labyrinth, the topology of the labyrinth being a phylogenetic tree.

Whenever the persons walk led to a terminal in the tree, and the person did not retreat from there, the animal represented by that terminal was the result.

In this way, EL became a crinoid (sea lily, featherstar, ”hair-star”, including the medusahead, gorgonhead etc) – marine echinoderms, easy to imagine as starfish with long and strongly branched arms, often stalked and sessile, otherwise slowly crawling on the ocean floor. A crinoid had played an interesting part in a dream by MF involved in the collective ”moon novel” project where it was mythologised into the character of the ”evolutionary runneress”.

KF became a shark. The night before he had been telling an anecdote of meeting potentially threatful reef sharks while scuba diving in Belize.

EB became a centipede, in popular culture (like in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) usually represented by large scolopenders, extremely swift and venomous predators, sometimes with phosphorescent colors and sometimes with poisionous cuticular exudates substantiating the ghost stories of people getting bad rashes when scolopender had been running over their body at night.

JE became a nemertine, a ribbon worm, a very common group of marine slimy, flat, simultaneously extremely fragile and extremely flexible worms, one species being able to stretch out to 30 m length.

MF became a siphonophoran, a ”state medusa”, one of Ernst Haeckel’s favorite animals (in Kunstformen der Natur and elsewhere), a kind of jellyfish made up by a large colony of hydroids showing spectacular degree of specialisation into ”swimming persons”, ”prey-catching persons” (with the nettle cells), ”sex persons” etc, often producing a gas-filled sailing bladder (for example the famous portugese manowar, probably the most famous but certainly not the most spectacular siphonophoran).

If someone would have ended up with an animal that didn’t make sense to them even after having learnt about it, it would have been considered a false hit and the process repeated, but as it were everybody felt quite happy with their results which all seemed very significant.

Now this was only the first step of the game and the point was to take a walk as that animal, and see what alterations and novelties it suggested in sensory input, body awareness, social relations etc. So the rest is up to the different participants.


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