Ducks In Depth

This is your brain. This is your brain on ducks. Any questions?

This is your brain. This is your brain on ducks. Any questions? thumbnail
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We co-authored this unpopular opinion piece with our ducks…

You’ve probably spent time around other highly social organisms (example: dogs, even though they’re not nearly as brilliant as ducks). If so, you start to notice each individual within such a species has a distinct personality, one which is partially baked in due to its particular neuroanatomy coupled with how that neuroanatomy manifests within and is molded by the broader environment it inhabits. At a macro level, you might also notice certain broad personality clusters based on behavior tendencies/default modes.

For instance, some of our ducks seem much more inclined to venture off and explore new spots (if allowed), and are also more inclined to willingly approach the large bipeds that manage their existence just in case we happen to have a tomato or other treat in hand. (Let’s refer to this general grouping as the “try new stuff” ducks, or TNSs.)

Other ducks in the flock generally prefer the safety of the known — if it worked yesterday, there’s a good chance it’s going to work again today; no need to forage in the unknown spot or let the humans pet us. (Let’s refer to this general grouping as the “maintain what worked” ducks, or MWWs.)

If you think about it, you can see how important both general/broad inclinations (TNS & MWW) would be to a wild population’s survival over thousands of years. Likewise, you could see how dangerous things would be if only one personality inclination existed…

The TNS ducks might find new, richer foraging and breeding grounds. They might even expand the geographic reach of their species beyond its prior boundaries, allowing it to continue to exist in the face of a slow- or fast-acting cataclysm (volcano, desertification, meteor air burst, habitat loss, etc) that might render a localized species extinct. However, the TNS ducks might also venture too far and too fast afield, getting themselves and their group killed and genetically expunged.

Meanwhile, the MWW ducks might allow for a sort of species-wide stability and order — at least so long as things are going well and the environment in which they’re enmeshed continues to function as before. But in the face of external instability (and the planet is, after all, rife with instability), strict adherence to prior precedent versus trying novel approaches can be deadly, aka staying put on a sinking raft.

Now let’s assume these overly simplified, basic personality clusters transcend species and aren’t just peculiar to ducks. Take the planet’s most intelligent and social species: humans. Our kind (usually operating in small groups of ~150 individuals) populated and exploited every habitable environment — and even inhospitable environments like the Arctic — by no later than 10,000 years ago. The TNS- and MWW-leaning individuals within those small groups were friends and even kin. Their perceptual differences could be more easily valued due to social proximity. Likewise, novel ideas and old customs alike could be hashed out and refined face-to-face over a meal, fireside discussion, or tribal gathering. Both mental dynamics persisted, genetically, generation after generation because both dynamics were essential to group and individual survival. When optimally harnessed, mental diversity sees further afield.

As the climate warmed after the Younger Dryas period, novel forms of food production and social organization were tried and adopted by human groups across the globe. Instead of 150 people, a grouping could now encompass thousands of individuals with ever-increasing social, political, and technological complexity. Fast forward to today and a single nation state and socio-political order can contain the same population as the entire global human population from 10,000 years ago. And unlike any other species, we’ve managed to dream up, implement, and trial a vast array of socio-political arrangements, ranging from theocracies to representative democracies to dictatorships. (Ducks arrange themselves similarly no matter where you go.) Some of these human-created arrangements produce demonstrably worse or better results for their populations. Thus, whether it’s best to preserve, remake, or refine them varies by system and outcomes, time and place.

Zooming further in, we’re grateful to live in the time and place in which we find ourselves; a place full of warts and dangers, but one that has nonetheless helped create remarkable outcomes due to the combined efforts of countless TNSs and MWWs that came before us. But we don’t know our rulers; it’s unfeasible. We collectively choose them, but they aren’t our friends or our kin. And rather than sitting together over a shared fireside meal with a member of our tribe who happens to be embodied within a different mental architecture, we tend to retreat into self-affirming in-groups, thus dulling our wits and impoverishing our ideas (which we then link, dangerously, to our sense of self). We then battle the virtual enemies we’ve create over the virtual networks we create, rather than doing the hard work of acknowledging the humanity behind the avatar or the high likelihood that our ideas we so confidently hold as True are likely wrong or at best in need of improvement.

Even though we may wish for the extinction, eradication, or diminishment of “the Other,” the Other exists and persists for a reason: we need mental diversity to survive current and future challenges just as we needed mental diversity to survive past challenges. From this vantage point, Yin and Yang (or TNS and MWW) are not opposing forces, they are complementary; perpetually intertwined; codependent. They corrupt themselves and the whole in isolation; they improve themselves and the whole through collaboration and connection.

There’s no single or easy answer to how best an individual should operate in the world in which we find ourselves, but we need to be better versions of our individual and collective selves if we’re to endure. The margin for error decreases as human civilization inches up the Kardashev scale. Our spears are now nuclear warheads. Our untruths don’t simply infect the hut or the village, they can spread to millions in minutes. Our consumption patterns don’t just ravage the nearest forest, they can ravage the entire biosphere.

So if you find yourself dwelling comfortably in a social landscape of people who all look, think, and act like you, perhaps consider venturing further afield. Recognize that your ideas and mental models are NOT the same thing as the self. If you’re intent on pursuing notions that have a chance of bearing some resemblance to the truth, your ideas and models should be regularly challenged and updated (like software) without such updates causing chronic psychic damage. If the virtual networks you inhabit make you prone to conflict, negative addictions, and vapid impersonal relationships, wean yourself off. And always try to see yourself in the Other and the Other in yourself. Improve yourself. Improve your village.

And when you’re ready, get some ducks and grow tomatoes.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Diana Cohen Robinson
    July 23, 2022 at 11:44 am

    I adopted two little girl ducks at three days old, dumped on someone’s porch. They live a good life in our back garden and eat tomatoes every day! Love this piece! Thank you.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      July 24, 2022 at 4:32 pm

      Thanks for the kind words and thanks also for taking care of your abandoned ducks! It sounds like you’ve long since had things figured out. 🙂

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