Nothing that’s ever walked, slithered, swum or flown the earth has ever been as intelligent as human beings. We’re the smartest species ever. The things we can do with our brain can’t be done with a sparrow’s brain, or an ant’s. Or even a dolphin’s. They’re clever, sure. And other species can do stuff we can’t. But they haven’t risen to the top of the food chain, like us. We’re not the strongest or biggest or fastest. Just the best.
Still, thanks to evolution or intelligent design, parts of our brain are closely linked to the brains of our animal cousins. Indeed, the amygdala portion of our brain is sometimes called “the lizard brain,” because this discrete almond-shaped section is constructed similarly to reptile brains, and it performs many of the same basic functions and calculations. Fight or flight. Eat or fuck. Animal instincts, we call them.
Fortunately, we’re not lizards. We have feelings and emotions, language and writing. Morality. Religion. Computers. We may have a “lizard brain” inside our brain, but we don’t act like lizards. We’re more evolved.
Some people make “pets” of lizards, and the beasts have had a fabulously successful run as insurance company pitchmen and various animated character franchises. But you wouldn’t want to be one in nature. In the wild, life is tough for lizards.
Yesterday, on the pavement beside the front garden, I watched with fascination and horror as two lizards, each about 18-inches from head-to-tail, battled to the death for nearly 30 minutes. When I first came upon them, I thought they were copulating. Making love, as it were. Then I saw that the top lizard, the one sort of side-mounted on the other, had his jaws sunk deep into the bottom lizard’s neck and was slowly squeezing the life out of him. It was like seeing a museum diorama of dinosaurs locked in battle, only this one was smaller and more terrifying.
The dying lizard was calm, barely breathing. Yogic. The tip of his tail raised up lazily and fell back down. The top lizard twitched and clamped down harder. As I was imagining how I might dispose of a dead lizard, the defeated combatant writhed like a rodeo bull, and with a whip of his tail he flipped the reptile pile into a scrambling mass of feet and tails and mouths, and a second later he was the top lizard, with his jaws sunk into the neck of his tormentor.
By now, neighbors had arrived with phone-cameras and were dutifully documenting the violence. We could all see that the new top lizard had a gaping bleeding wound in his neck, with what looked like a bone protruding from the brown-grey leather skin. The cut didn’t stop him from applying the death vice to the one who had hurt him. For another five or ten minutes, we watched the bottom lizard behave as his victim had: his eyes nearly closed, he barely breathed, his body was perfectly still.
Now I was imagining what would happen if a passing hawk observed this scene. Two meals for the price of one. Neighbors were saying how brutal nature can be, and how crazy this fight was, how there was plenty of lizard space in the back yard, how–
And then the dying bottom lizard did the same mixed-martial arts/wrestling/jiu-jitsu/judo move, flipping and squirming and rolling. He was free.
The lizards circled each other, hissing, poking mouths toward necks. “Walk away!” I heard myself screaming. “Just walk away!” Both lizards were bleeding and weakened. “Stop!” I said. “Stop fighting.” The more badly wounded lizard made a last half-hearted lunge toward his enemy and then slowly, cautiously, he backed away from the scrimmage. The other lizard didn’t follow. He stood his ground. He had won the territory. The vanquished antagonist slipped between two waste bins and disappeared into the bamboo forest. The winner returned to his domain, the ferns at the edge of my front garden, an area that he had defended – or had he invaded? – with his life.
“That was about the best result we could have hoped for,” someone said.
“I didn’t know they were so territorial,” someone else said. “That they would kill each other over some dirt.”
“They’re lizards,” someone else said. And we all laughed