The Ignorant Butterfly Collector

3.5 billion years ago life began to emerge on Earth. A single, lonely cell, our common ancestor, began to diverge into separate species. At first only about a handful of fragile life forms existed, barely distinguishable from each other. But fast forward a few million years and an incredible diversity of life unraveled, enough to provide material for countless hours of David Attenborough documentaries. Many of the natural world’s secrets, wonders and mysteries remain to be discovered today, at an age when we arrogantly think that we know everything, having catalogued as much as we could of this natural wonder called life in our documentaries, encyclopedias, museums and genetic banks. By doing so, we have cultivated the false perception that we understand Earth’s infinite diversity and complexity. We assume that by recording, cataloguing, capturing everything in pixels, bytes and megabytes, we understand what an ecosystem is all about and how it came together over millions of years.

Examining the individual parts does not mean that you understand how the sum of it all functions. As species diversified further, they began to form increasingly complex relationships with each other. And here is where the beautiful paradox emerged: the more species evolved away from each other, becoming birds, fish, terrestrial mammals and insects, the more they became one, forming intricate relationships to one another, vital to their survival. They all became one organism, ironically just as they were splitting into more and more individual, differentiated species.

Our traditional representation of a phylogenetic tree of branches that lead to nowhere misses out on this important insight. It fails to capture the interrelationship of species both within the ecological habitat, as well as at the genetic level where we know for a fact about lateral transfer of genes across these branches, between species that are very distant in the phylogenetic tree. The branches do not end up nowhere. They reconnect to the roots, and they can also link to each other, in strange and unexpected ways that we are only just about beginning to understand. We have literally missed the forest for the trees, in our obsession to identify and catalogue the species of this planet.

The “sum” is actually not just a sum of the parts. The sum of all species appears to be an organism all to itself, in fact, the most important of them all, and this is the one organism on Earth we have yet to fully understand. We have a poor understanding of how ecosystems evolve, live, breathe and change over time. How they can appear chaotic on the surface, but are at the same time unbelievably simple and balanced in their overall underlying principles. This lack of understanding is similar to the one around the climate system, which scientists have repeatedly failed to predict and anticipate, as the climate crisis accelerates at a rate much faster than previously thought.

Human understanding of the ecosystem puts too much focus on the principle of interspecies competition, rather than the overarching harmony that presides over it all. While on close inspection it may appear that all species are engaged in brutal conflict as they antagonize each other, consume each other, or compete for the same habitat, they are all in fact part of one big organism that is in perfect balance. This principle was beautifully explored and brought to life in the biosci-fi movie Avatar, which is actually not fiction. All species on this planet are “different and same” at the same time, and undoubtedly connected and dependent on each other for their survival. Yet human popular culture focuses on conflict and superiority of one species over another, as this is the narrative that serves the Human Supremacy dogma indoctrinated into all of us. The truth is, there are no winners or losers, predator or prey, sentient or non-sentient life forms. There is only balance and unity, in a healthy ecosystem. By viewing our ecosystem through the human supremacy lens of conflict and competition of the species, we predispose our own very toxic and aggressive relationship with that ecosystem and the planet as a whole, demonstrated through our corrosive track record so far.

Our obsession with cataloguing and recording other life forms is a very capitalist way of looking at Earth, merely from an ownership and “catch them all” perspective, as if the ecosystem is a Pokemon game or a series of products on a supermarket shelf. We are more interested in owning nature, than understanding it. And we focus on the individual parts, the different species, rather than the common heritage that all these species share which is dynamic, not static like a natural museum exhibit in a glass cage, or the isolated products on a supermarket shelf. Like an ignorant butterfly collector, we pay more attention to how butterflies differ from each other, as opposed to the attributes that they share. The more sizes and colors of butterflies there are, the more exciting the chase is. The butterfly collector however doesn’t know or learn anything about butterflies as he goes about his work, even as his collection grows in size. All they see, and all they care about, is the different sizes and shapes. They want to own them, pin them down, and arrange them by size. What may appear to be a benign “scientific curiosity” to understand the world through our “butterfly-collecting” scientific fields, is actually much more ignorant and evil. We are purposely seeking out the differences between species and types, much like we did with the various races within our own species, as if this is a magic picture game. We erroneously cling on to the differences, rather than the commonalities, in our attempt to make sense of the world. We are on a mission to understand who is on top: the lion or the zebra, as we can only understand how the ecosystem operates through a series of supremacy narratives. We view the biological world as a series of conflicts, as opposed to harmonious balances. Why?

Differences between the butterflies and other species help the ignorant butterfly collector to create power structures. Once these power structures are in place, they can be exploited. Differences help us exploit. We actively seek differences and hierarchies all the time, whether by species or “level of sentience”, so that we can find ways to dominate. We follow this process of inter-species chauvinism in exactly the same way within our own species: it is racism in its more narrow form, which is an extension of what we have done to the rest of the species of the planet: in our desperate quest for differences that we can exploit, we have spent thousands of years asking ourselves whether the dolphin is smarter than the octopus, or if white people are smarter than black people.

Racist supremacy theories, which served colonialism and capitalism, gave us the answer we were looking for, which suited the white people of the planet. In the quest for differences, black people were in fact thought of as a separate species altogether, and a “lesser” one that didn’t even deserve to share public facilities with white people. Bio-chauvinism, racism, slavery and colonialism set the foundations of today’s global economic system, where nothing has really changed since the days of slavery: people of color may be free on paper, but still struggle more than whites for opportunities and economic prosperity. Ball and chains have been replaced by debt slavery. The same principles of exploitation, the lifeblood of capitalism, exist into today, covering not only people of colour but every segment of human society. We are all slaves, pinned down like butterflies on the butterfly collector’s board.

Bio-chauvinism knows no species boundaries: whether it is a thousand year-old rainforest tree being cut down or a human indigenous tribe exterminated, it is all done under the same principle: they deserved it, because they are “lesser” and “different” life forms. They were not high enough in the hierarchy. The human supremacy dogma of sentience is often used to arbitrarily assign hierarchies to species. We are obsessed about which species are the smartest using only human criteria to assess this, and we even attempt evaluations within our own species based on biological phenotype i.e. how people look on the outside. In fact the Greek word “phenotype” means exactly what it is. The precise translation of the word is “how things appear to be on the outside”.

The problem with choosing “intelligence” as a criterion for inter- and intra-species hierarchies is our own definition of it. We are focused on individual species’ intelligence and ignore the intelligence of the ecosystem as a whole, as one organism. But individual species are only subfiles of the software of the planet’s Earthnet of Things. They cannot function on their own but only as part of the full installation package, as they all contribute very different types of intelligence.

An intelligent species to us is one that is “problem-solving” in human terms, like a chimp able to ask for more bananas by pressing a button, or an octopus able to get itself out of a trap. It is a definition of intelligence that again is based on conflict and competition and judged on purely human criteria important to our species and our species alone. We tend to consider a species “intelligent” based on whether it can get itself out of a mess, or how effective it is in killing all the other species in order to dominate, but these are human criteria. We judge intelligence by human colonialist and supremacist standards, although, ironically, we ourselves are clearly failing to tick the box “getting out of a mess” in the way we are dealing with the climate emergency. 

Our entire economic system and modern civilisation has relied on narratives of difference, supremacy and conflict in order to grow and sustain itself. Our political, social and religious institutions have desperately clinged onto these concepts for their own survival in order to justify the subjugation of “less intelligent” species and human races. In the process, the butterfly collector has become dumber and dumber, disconnected from the collective intelligence that he shares with his specimens, and which he will never quite grasp.

6 thoughts on “The Ignorant Butterfly Collector

    1. George Tsakraklides, I really enjoyed your article and it prompted a lot of thoughts that I would like to try to share. Your question about “what the hell is intelligence is a good one. I have often wondered myself. I took a graduate class in Intelligence at the University of Minnesota. The first day the instructor read 10 different definitions
      non of which had any relationship to each other. The point was that in the field of intelligence there is no consensus about the definition. He encouraged us to make our own definition. Mine was that intelligence is ubiquitous to the universe right down to the electrons. It involves a signal that is functional to the sender and integrated into the E-M waves of the universe that are appropriate. Try your hand at it. The linear part is helpful in the following. In the kingdom of animals, In the phylum of chordates (invertebrates) there are five classes of animals that are alike but different. It is a four limb pattern. Fish have a pectoral and pelvic fin. Salamanders and amphibians have four limbs. Birds have a four limb pattern with wings and legs. Mammals and humans have four limbs. On the other hand when you name something you kill it, in the sense that one says “oh that’s a robin” and all the mystery of that organism is dead to you. My interest is deep ecology. ” Deep ecology is a process of breaking away from our cultural perceptions of separateness and reconnecting with a perception that everything we sense is an interconnected energy field. When you look at a single animal it is connected with everything you can see as well as everything you can imagine.” Animals and their habitats, 2nd edition. John Hamer.

  1. >We basically consider a species “intelligent” based on how likely it is to get itself out of a mess, or how effective it is in screwing up all the other species in order to dominate. We judge intelligence by human standards, although humans are clearly failing to tick the box “getting out of a mess” with climate change.

    Right on!

  2. I never engage in discussions considering race as in like BLM (they do); what most humans do by consuming factory farmed animals and other atrocities is placing them in a very low category almost a non-living space. We are different but not better than any species. Racism doesn’t stop on the human level as you point out well. We are a very cruel and racist species which has me welcoming the extinction of the human animal.

    Thank you for all of your thoughtful articles. Reading your Pocket Philosophy for End Times, 5 stars as well.

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