Vital Signs

Curses Not Loud But Deep

My dog does not understand cars.  An alarmist where a vacuum cleaner or thunder is concerned, a realist in regard to tomcats and other dogs, she simply lacks any concept of this genuine menace to her mortal tenure.  If you let her, she will dash across a street the instant the impulse takes her, absolutely without reference to the traffic.  Millions of years of evolution have pulled her eyes to the front of her skull and riveted her attention dead ahead, filling her with the predator’s cheery—and, it turns out, entirely false—assurance that nothing important can be crossing at right angles.

Of course, it is not just dogs that have this difficulty in understanding where their danger lies, in this unnatural modern world of ours.  Insects cannot cope with point-source radiation, which fouls their navigation systems and makes them fly by the millions into porch lights and street lamps.  That moth spiraling toward the candle flame, to the fascination of poets, understands itself to be traveling in a straight line.  Evolution is slow and has not yet conjured into existence the cognitive resources (or sheer terror of candles) that might allow it to escape the trap.  Perhaps evolution never will, because insects breed so extravagantly, hatching out in billions and then dying on a vast assortment of pretexts, that the toll of porch bulbs and bug zappers may not really amount to...

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