“Human beings are the only animals that can harm at a distance.” This is a phrase out of the book. I complement it with one of my own. Human beings are the only animals whose greatest possibility of harm comes from members of their own species. Even the most dangerous animals need not fear their kind. Lions don´t fear lions; sharks don´t fear sharks; yet, even having swam this morning among sting rays I know that if any other animal ever harms me (bacteria aside) it will be another human being.

Interestingly, I learned that Tikehau is a case in point. Until 100 years ago cannibalism was practiced here. Cannibalism was an ancient practice in Polynesia only recently banned by Europeans. It seems that Polynesia had many kings, or a king per island or group of islands, and there´s over 100 islands in this vicinity. These kings, or A´ri as they were called when they wanted to rule another island, would first propose to the fellow king some kind of deal of submission. Now, more often than not, it turns out that the fellow king would not agree to it and he and his subjects would fight for their independence…and lose. And losing meant becoming the conquering king´s lunch! As crazy as this seems, somehow being here on such a tiny island, cannibalism makes a little more sense to me. When a population invaded an island and ate their people first, as disgusting as it sounds, they got fed. But secondly and most importantly, they eliminated a rival population from competing for the same basic resources…food and fresh water. Still, animals as far as I know, have not arrived at his “realization.”

Cannibalism among animals is rare. So, not only are we the only animals who can harm at a distance, originally with stones and spears and now with unmanned aircraft and missiles, but we are the only ones to have realized that sometimes killing our own can be a good first step to eliminate competitors before killing other species. This is horrible, disgusting and sad, but may explain why we kill each other. Or why humans are so quick to identify their own in clannish ways and more worryingly, to invent “others” who are different and fair to kill, displace, or force to emigrate. Examples? Protestants vs Catholics in Ireland; Jews vs Muslims in Israel/Palestine; Germans vs many other Europeans in WWII; and thousands of more cases in which populations try to dominate or exterminate others. It does not take millions of people to do this. Cannibalism and genocidal behavior only seems to need a few hundred people to take place.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Serena on September 22, 2006  · 

What are you talking about? Animals kill their own species members all the time. Males often kill each other for mates. 1/4 of Lion cubs are killed by strange males in order to sire their own cubs. Some shark siblings eat each other before they’re born!

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Django on October 25, 2007  · 

No, Serena, you’re wrong. No other animal performs genocide. Only humans.

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