Whenever I encounter dumb, really numb-skull human behavior, I think about a story I read years ago by author Annie Dillard. I’ve never met Dillard, but she seems like my kind of person, someone who likes being outside and enjoys observing the world around her. I’ll readily admit I’m not as keen of an observer as Dillard, and she likes to watch small creatures: birds, mice, insects, and such. I’m more fascinated by large, hairy humans. Some have called Dillard a naturalist, but she’s a great writer. I’m particularly fond of a story she wrote about the caterpillar moth. My only experience with caterpillar moths was when I was a little girl and held them in my hand, and watched their wooly bodies inch across my palm.
As Dillard describes it, caterpillar moths like to line up behind a lead caterpillar whose role it is to seek out pine needles, a primary food source. In an experiment, the caterpillar leader was removed to find out if its followers would break rank and find food for themselves. Dillard reported that astonishingly, the caterpillar followers did not vary the route set out for them by their leader, even when there was no food available along this trail. They continued in a “doomed march” head-to-tail around the rim of a garden vase, when just below them down the side of the vase was a stash of tasty pine needles. They mindlessly circled the rim of the vase for seven days, and probably would have starved and died without rescue. Caterpillar moths apparently are insects enslaved by instinct and habit.
I knew a man once, Michael, who like Dillard, enjoyed being out in the natural world. Michael was a fan of all kinds of science though: physics, engineering, astronomy—and bragged to me that he read The Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month. Michael was truly an intelligent man, not a caterpillar moth at all. One evening my husband and I invited Michael and his wife over to play Trivial Pursuit, that old board game you play by asking participants to answer questions from different knowledge categories.
Predictably, Michael breezed through all the science and science-related categories, but he was stumped when he drew a Literature category card. Michael was unfamiliar with novels and authors. I wasn’t surprised and thought for sure he’d steer clear of this category in future plays—but he didn’t. In fact, he repeatedly asked for Literature card questions and repeatedly missed them. It was as if he thought sheer persistence would gain him the knowledge he needed to answer the Literature questions correctly. He seemed fixated, unable to break a pattern—just like the caterpillar moths.
My friend Bob on the other hand, is definitely not a caterpillar moth. Bob is a former biology professor who sometimes likes to tease and make comments just to catch people off guard. I mentioned to Bob that I’d gotten my DNA analyzed so I could explore my ancestry. Bob didn’t ask (like most people would) what country my ancestors came from. Instead, Bob asked, “How much Neanderthal DNA do you have?”
Neanderthal? I looked at Bob carefully to see if he was joking. Nobody wants to be called a Neanderthal. Everyone knows that Neanderthals are big and dumb. I used to call my teenage brothers Neanderthals because they were hulking brutes that ate peanut butter out of the jar with their index finger. Novelist Jean Auel thought so little of Neanderthals she characterized them in her book, Clan and the Cave Bear like they were caterpillar moths: hobbled by tradition and unwilling to learn anything new.
I did a little research on Bob’s question though. I found out Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent. They used tools and could be creative. They made art. Most of us with European ancestry have anywhere from 1%-2% Neanderthal DNA. Whether Bob’s question was meant to be provocative or not, I know how I’d respond to him now: “Neanderthals aren’t so bad. Like moth caterpillars and other creatures, they have something to teach us–and of course, the most important lessons are always about ourselves.”