05/01/2013 02:03 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

Celebrating Animals

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The earth is calculated to be four and a half billion years old, and at formation, a sterile rock. Not until one billion years later does the first bleep on the long timeline of history indicate the presence of life, when simple cells and living microbelike objects began to appear. Even if there is no one prevailing view of how life came to arise on our planet, complex animals do not register another flashing signal on the screen until about 500 millions years ago. Humans' earliest ancestors date to about 200,000 ago. And us, Homo sapiens with the same genetic blueprint we have today are at the very scrolled-down end of this linear view, not conclusively making a stronghold until about 13,000 years ago. In the animal kingdom, we are absolutely biological newcomers -- with a lot left to learn.

The earliest effort to list species that lived among us is credited to a book called the Physiologus, written by an unknown author working in Alexandria, Egypt in approximately 2nd century A.D. Public interest in animals exploded during a period that is often not credited with scientific advances, beginning at about the 12th century A.D. The bestsellers for the next few hundred years (only second to the Bible) were medieval encyclopedias called "bestiaries" that described strange and fascinating facts and lore about animals, real and imagined, which were presented in a format similar to the Physiologus. Often gorgeously illustrated, they were less products of close observation than works of imagination, myth, or the rare traveler's tales of far-off lands populated with seemingly fanciful creatures. Griffins and unicorns thus were comfortably included alongside eagles and lions. Beasts were studied to see what lessons they could teach us -- about daring and sloth, loyalty and cowardice, good and evil.

At first we might dismiss the readers of these books in those ages as gullible people, believing dragons and hydras were real. But suppose you were living in 14th century England before there was access to information to verify facts. The description of a creature as big as a house, with a thick, snake-like nose, and with 6-foot-long ivory tusks growing out of its mouth (an actual African elephant) would seem as plausible as a tale of a nine-headed dragon lurking in some far off land. These early authors, naturalists and philosophers looked to animals as a way to measure our differences, defining ourselves by similarities or by observing the wide range of peculiarities found in nature. Yet, even if animals were anthropomorphized, given human qualities as a means of making points about mortality and ethics in the bestiaries, these tomes eventually spurred serious scientific inquiry and helped establish an understanding of biological laws and principles. There was also wonderment about animals in these books that we've lost or forgotten.

Attitudes toward animals changed throughout history, although we primarily believed they were here for our usage, which has led to a great deal of regrettable mistreatment and exploitation of our fellow creatures. The idea that an animal is an individual, or a sanctioned being, was never particularly popular. However, everyone who cares for a pet knows that each animal has its own personality. A dog is a dog, but all are different. The same for eagles or insects. Are there introverted sponges or extroverted ants? Is there a mean-spirited termite or a butterfly who is frightened of flying?

Without animals, there would be no human civilization. We would have been among the multitude of trial-and-error species that came and went -- gone in a bleep of time -- without them. They were our food and clothing. We imitated how they hunted; animals, birds, and even insects showed us where to collect fruits and grains and provided raw materials to make our shelters. Our first roads were their migratory paths; they were the engines that built cities. But who are they, these millions of creatures that live with us? Do they think the way we do? How do they feel? How is it that they live and die?

We try to imagine how animals see the world, but even our pets are mysterious to us. However, understanding the way their eyes work, or their sense of smell, for example, it helps us to appreciate them even more and adds a measure of empathy, if nothing else. Appreciating the vastness of these individual lives, from the smallest microbe to the greatest whale, makes us more human.

There are countless phenomenon that other creatures have mastered of which technology has yet to understand. For example, there's a jellyfish species Turritopsis nutricula that solved the great dilemma of all living things and developed a way to rejuvenate itself when facing old age. As an adult, this jellyfish lives a solitary life, but when sensing deterioration, it has the ability to trigger its cells to begin a process called "transdifferentiation." This biological process is rare in nature, as when a cell changes into another form and assumes an altogether different function. This would be the equivalent of an elderly person who, as he or she got feebler, went to bed and then began shrinking, until turning into a fetus once again. This jellyfish comparatively becomes a baby, a toddler, child, and adult -- ad infinitum, thus achieving biological immortality. The jellyfish species has been doing this for 500 million years, surviving an untold climatic shifts and ecological upheavals.

Think of the implication to our society, and our species, if we were genetically able to copy this immortality ability into our own genetic code?

Or observe a woodpecker in action. It was once believed woodpeckers had coiled, automobile-like shock absorbers located in their necks that allowed them to drill their beaks into solid trees at a rapid-fire rate of twenty-one times per second without getting headaches. At the force in which they drum into bark, humans would suffer a concussion, immediate unconsciousness, or worse. Our brain floats in fluids while the woodpecker has a brain that practically occupies its entire skull. This prevents it from moving and shaking the way our brains would rattle. In addition, the woodpecker has spongy tissue and muscles between the beak and the brain that absorb the pressure. The multiple aspects of survival the simple woodpecker has mastered are essential to understand.

Science and technology have made astounding advantages in better comprehending animal behavior, yet don't lose the marvel at the sheer diversity of creatures still with us. For science-sake, and for our better health and well-being, we must make preserving what's left of the planet's biodiversity paramount. There are millions of species and trillions -- actually, countless numbers -- of creatures alive right now. No matter how we'd like to think otherwise, each is an individual, considering itself, if it can, as an "I" or a "me," and doing what it's able, any way it can, wanting to stay alive.

Michael Largo has just released his latest book THE BIG, BAD BOOK OF BEASTS: The World's Most Curious Creatures.

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