Just look at this guy:
Isn’t that just the cutest critter you ever saw (well, maybe short of a Quokka)? Doesn’t that just make you cheerful? Could there be a better national mascot? Other countries, huffing and puffing on the world stage, present themselves symbolically as big nasty predators, the better to boast of their own mightiness and frighten rivals – bears and lions and eagles and such – but here in Canada, we picked the redoubtable beaver, world’s second largest rodent**, and most industrious by a country mile. Lover of carrots. Feller of tress. Builder of dams. It may suit others to pick animals that tear their victims into shreds with fearsome claws, teeth, and talons, but we here in the Great White North identify with a mild-mannered, web-footed, flappy-tailed civic engineer, and vegan to boot, who just wants to have a nice warm place to live and a backyard pool, that’s all.
Think about it though: builder of dams. These big ungainly water hamsters don’t just dig holes in the ground, or find hollowed out trees to sleep in, they create large scale artificial habitats that are more to their liking, by radically re-engineering the landscape, just like we do. The big difference is that none of us is born knowing how to build, say, a suspension bridge. Sometimes I’m given to wonder: just how in the hell does that come to be? How does such an exquisitely complex and abstract goal-oriented behaviour enter into the innate repertoire of a big old guinea pig, no matter how many millions of years of evolution it’s given to play with? What’s the mechanism? What were the intermediate steps along the way which, according to the evolutionary theory of natural selection, should on their own have been advantageous, paving the way for the next steps? What’s the tenable middle ground between dams and no dams?
When you’re talking purely physical adaptations, it’s a much easier process to visualize. Take feathers, for instance; modern birds’ feathers are thought in some quarters to be the ultimate evolutionary extension of reptilian scales, and particularly the scales of the dinosaurs to which birds are now known to be closely related (in some interpretations, birds are dinosaurs, which thus never went extinct at all). Feathers are crucial to flight, but they didn’t start out for that purpose. They were probably useful initially as insulation, or as an easy means of vivid colouration and display – paleontologists wonder these days whether many, if not most, dinosaurs sported feathers, particularly the two-legged ones, and imagine that something like a T-Rex may actually have presented itself as a riot of colours more or less on a par with peacocks. As time went on, some dinosaurs developed more elaborate coats of longer feathers that show up in the fossil record, sported by creatures which almost certainly couldn’t fly, but perhaps were able to glide like flying squirrels, or maybe flap into the air with the same limited skill exhibited by modern domesticated chickens. Some have theorized that a set of long feathers on the forearms might have been useful in catching the insects that were probably a large part of the smaller dinosaurs’ diets. It’s all very plausible and comprehensible. You can look at the fossils and actually see things like upright lizards turning gradually into things like birds.
A behaviour like dam-building is a whole other kettle of fish, though, isn’t it? Except as we can discern from the clues left by footprints, or the remnants of nesting colonies, animal behaviour doesn’t fossilize. We can infer a certain amount from physical characteristics, such as the way that teeth indicate predator or herbivore, but we can’t really see with any specificity what the animals were doing day to day. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that it can’t be the case that one day, no rodent extant knew the first thing about stopping up creeks and streams, and the next day along came an offspring that could go out into the woods, fell a bunch of trees, and build a proper little wooden facsimile of the Hoover Dam, with integral lodge and everything. So what behaviours were somewhere in the middle, and were themselves useful enough for one reason or another to confer evolutionary advantage? Are dams an outgrowth of nest building, maybe? Did some outsize rodent now lost in the mists of the primordial past make a boo-boo, and try to build his nest in the middle of a babbling brook, only to discover that the next day, quite by accident, he had a nice pond to swim in? Which pond was immediately attractive even though at that point he had no adaptations suitable for swimming? Or what?
You can cite any number of animal behaviours that similarly boggle the mind. The construction of termite mounds, beehives, and anthills, for example. The almost unbelievably elegant and complex nests that some species of bird, like the Weaver Bird, have come up with. Echo-location, as employed by bats and marine mammals. All those elaborate mating rituals, with their prescribed moves and counter-moves. It’s often hard to propose with any confidence the evolutionary trial and error by which the various critters started out at A, and wound up all the way over at Z. Evolution is obviously a fact, and natural selection is clearly involved, but it seems, to me anyway, like maybe we’re still missing something. There seems to be something inherent in the fabric of the universe that nudges natural systems, both animate and inanimate, towards astonishing complexity, as if nature is thumbing its nose at the immutable laws of thermodynamics and the inescapable tendency of all things to succumb, eventually, to entropy. All physical things in this iteration of a universe, right down to their constituent atoms, must eventually decay, and everything must sooner or later devolve into a loose pile of nothing in particular, yes – but not here, not today. Today, we’ve got these incredible uber-rodents stopping up rivers and manufacturing artificial lakes where they can site their cottages, OK?
All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that an animal like a beaver is actually a miraculous thing, and a wonder to behold. Don’t you think? A little odd-looking, sure. Perhaps awkward. Really rather comical. Sometimes, depending upon where they set up shop, very great pains in the ass to landowners who had no intention of flooding this or that part of their properties. All of that, but also improbably excellent swimmers, skilled lumberjacks, proud homeowners, gifted handymen, and damned fine engineers, accomplishing things that no overgrown guinea pig has any business knowing how to do – miraculous.
Perhaps I’m an oddball, but it’s things like that which keep me going.
**The largest are the Capybaras of South America, which typically weigh in at well over a hundred pounds (even getting to 150), are sort of cute, and not bad eatin’, it says here. Worthy enough creatures, no doubt, but no beavers.