Culture Shock: The Ostrich And The Cuttlefish

The trouble with change is that the new is not yet born while the old is not yet dead, and in the interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms begin to appear.”
Antonio Gramsci, Marxist Revolutionary

The only constant is change.”
Heraclitus, Ancient Greek Philosopher

Andy Warhol’s Queen Elizabeth II

If any proof were needed we’ve reached the end of an historic epoch, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II arrived as if on cue to mark the nearly-unprecedented sixty-year reign of Her Majesty’s long-lived perch on St. Edward’s Medieval throne.

The occasion was marked with the lighting of 4,000 beacons throughout the Commonwealth, all burning fossil fuels left over from the age of the dinosaurs. What better way to celebrate the end of the Industrial Age than a colossal worldwide bonfire of the Royal Vanities?

It was England’s steam engine, after all, that first ignited humanity’s worldwide conflagration of hydrocarbons, now such a powerful driver of geologic change that scientists refer to the era we’re living in as the Anthropocene.

Controlled burn of Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The population explosion that Alvin Toffler warned us about forty years ago has arrived. And the resulting witches brew of environmental degradation, climate change, extremes of poverty and religious extremism has combined with a communications revolution unleashed with the invention of the Internet, creating an even more combustible mix than the oil and coal we’ve been consuming at such a rapid rate since the Industrial Age began.

And so it is that even as our species’ mastery of fire and light transforms the very planet we live on, we find ourselves powerless in the face of metastasizing cultural, political and economic dislocations not seen since the earliest days of the last century.

Trepid voters, panicking in the face of terrorist attacks from abroad and reckless economic destruction launched by elites from within, have elected reactionary governments around the globe in hopes their antediluvian policies will somehow forestall the inexorable shifting of historic tectonic plates we ourselves set in motion long ago.

We have responded to the threats around us, in other words, like ostriches.

Ostrich (struthio camelus)

Ostriches are large, powerful animals, lightning fast runners, able to kill a lion with a single kick. But they have a brain the size of a walnut and respond to all threats the same way, by lying down prone and pressing their long necks to the ground, desperately trying to hide.

It’s this survival technique that gave rise to the myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. They don’t, but the result is the same. By lying down to reduce their own visibility, they also reduce their own ability to see what’s going on and get away, making themselves more vulnerable, not less.

It may have worked for a bird with few predators, but if our ancestors had behaved like ostriches, lying down paralyzed with fear in the face of existential threat, we wouldn’t be here to share this tale today.

As NOVAs scientists tell the tale so brilliantly in ‘Becoming Human‘, homo sapiens teetered on the brink of extinction 140,000 years ago. A new Ice Age had turned the lush savannas of central Africa into desert, pushing the last 600 homo sapiens still alive onto a narrow band of survivable habitat along the shores of our original homeland continent.

Struggling to feed themselves in an unfamiliar landscape, those first modern humans just managed to survive by their wits, demonstrating the inventiveness and creativity that now define us as the most adaptable species in the world.

That early resilience led to a cascade of technological advances – in order to harvest shellfish safely it was essential to predict lunar tides. New tools were needed to gather and process the strange foods and new technologies necessary to cook and preserve them.

Lascaux Cave art

Thousands of years of drought forced the earliest humans to change, and as a result, our ancestors emerged 60,000 years ago stronger and more resilient, armed with new technology and the ability to use art to create symbols, thereby storing information outside of the human brain for the very first time in history.

It was the birth of a new type of human culture, more complex but easier to pass on from generation to generation. From there they went on to conquer the world.

They responded, in other words, like cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are the most intelligent invertebrates in the world with the largest brain-to-body size ratio of them all. They too hide from predators, but do so in plain site with their eyes wide open, using their large brain and the world’s best camouflage skills to fashion a response that is tailor-made to each carnivore.

Cuttlefish (sepia officinalis)

Manipulating 20,000,000 different chromatophore pigment cells and their own shape, cuttlefish adapt in an eye-blink to mimic the patterns and colours of everything around it, constantly watching the position of the predator and changing each part of their body to ensure it matches the background it’s seen against. They respond to danger creatively, using their intelligence and tailoring their response to each threat.

Charles Darwin taught us that life has been in a state of constant change since the Earth came into existence, part of a sometimes cruel, Hobbesian struggle for survival in which those possessing traits that helped them adapt better survived and passed on those traits to their children.

140,000 years ago, modern humans did not lie down on the ground and hope the drought would end. They acted courageously and like the cuttlefish, used their intelligence and creativity to adapt quickly to the changing environment around them. Ultimately, what allowed homo sapiens to endure where other hominids died out was that most valuable, mysterious and uniquely human of all inventions – culture.

No matter what challenges we have faced throughout history, we have always found a way of adapting. In “Becoming Human”, we learn that way is culture, and it is in that very creativity – born out of a desperate struggle to survive – that we find cause for cautious optimism even today with all of its challenges.

Masai dancers

Oft-maligned, frequently misunderstood, Culture is not the sole province of an effete group of self-entitled intellectuals whose esoteric and incomprehensible oracular utterances from on high are meant to be worshipped by the ill-educated, unwashed masses lucky enough to receive them.

Culture, rather, as defined in this context by Nova’s scientists, is “our society’s storehouse of complex ways of thinking and perceiving, and we pass it onto our children as surely as we pass on our genes.”

Culture then, is our only hope of surviving the climactic change we ourselves have set in motion, our only way of managing and adapting to the resulting epochal social change taking place in the world around us, and our only way of passing down the shared heritage of hundreds of thousands of years of knowledge that the next generation will need in order to thrive in this chaotic environment.

In a recent editorial – Canada must refuel for cultural creativity – the Globe and Mail cited two reports: the 1960s ‘Massey Report,’ which linked the development of a distinctive Canadian culture to our survival as a nation; and the more recent ‘Innovation Canada: A Call To Action’, which emphasized the centrality of innovation as ‘the ultimate source of the long-term competitiveness of businesses and the quality of life for all Canadians’.”


According to the Globe, “the issue is critical and urgent,” noting The Conference Board of Canada has just ranked Canada a woeful 14th after evaluating innovation in seventeen peer countries.

“Governments, federal and provincial, have been searching for the magic ingredient that will unlock that secret of innovation,” write Edgar Cowan, John Hobday and Ian Wilson, the authors.

“The mobile digital technology explosion has already transformed many aspects of our daily lives. It has dramatically changed our workplaces. Old business models and habits are being challenged, new forms of expression are emerging and our children, the digital natives, are functioning in new ways.

“It has radically altered how we communicate with family and friends, and how we relate to our cultural assets: how we listen to music; how we create and read books; how we distribute and view films; how we find information; even how we experience theatre, opera and ballet.

“For Canada, the Globe notes, “time is critical and opportunities fleeting. Our economy, our culture and our reputation as an innovative and creative nation depend on it.”

This is why culture matters. And governments fail to support it at the peril of their own existence.

And this is why modern arts organizations, governments and businesses alike must react to the culture shock we are all experiencing like cuttlefish, not ostriches, and embrace, not hide from the change necessary to come out ahead in this fin-de-siecle Brave New World of the 21st Century.

The era of the ostrich, like the Industrial Age itself, is dead.