OK, this is probably the greatest thing I’ve read in a while. “Thought-provoking” as they say:
In truth, though, I was drawn to the darkness of meerkat life. Beneath the kid-friendly surface, a Shakespearan drama was unfurling in those South African burrows. It was like watching King Lear or Titus Andronicus acted out by suricates with brains the size of walnuts.
A typical meerkat inhabits a world of revenge, suffering, and endless toil. The cuddly characters of the show were regularly stung by poisonous asps, lifted off camera in the talons of enormous raptors, or (most common of all) expelled from the group like Old Testament exiles, lost to wander in the desert until they expired from thirst. Even the ‘successful’ meerkats, the ones permitted by the matriarch to have children and live with the group, had lives that resembled Victorian factory workers, spending almost all of their waking hours on the tedious dual tasks of lookout duty and grub-hunting…
And yet I firmly believe that meerkats and other higher-order mammals do have a history, of a sort. I’m not talking about the natural history of biologists, which is concerned with their average lifespan, their feeding habits, their reproductive cycles. I mean the history of historians. This type of history, the kind I enjoy doing and reading, is grounded in imaginative leaps that bear a core resemblance to those of the novelist or poet. It’s about putting your own experience of the world to one side and trying as hard as you possibly can to imagine someone else’s experience. What is it like to live in a meerkat society? On what internal principles do they organize themselves? What do they dream about? When they gather in the desert at night and make high-pitched sounds as a group, are they singing? What is meerkat subjectivity?
Edit: Silly me. Here are some meerkats for you: