What the Mantis Shrimp Sees-University of Chicago Essay

11 November 2018

The mantis shrimp could be seeing anything . . .and that’s the beauty of it all. I can postulate to no end what the mantis shrimp perceives, describe a color none of us can even hope to imagine, delineate what exists on either side of the visible spectrum.

The mantis shrimp could outdo any of our conventional, fictionalized superheroes, boasting x-ray, night, laser, telescopic and heat visions all at the same time. It may be that the mantis shrimp see clearly those truths which man has sought for centuries: the light, a sign, the forest for the trees. Perhaps the mantis shrimp can see the future, the past and the present for what it truly is. Who can say what the mantis shrimp sees? If Newton did not describe it in his Opticks and only Johnny Nash claims to have seen clearly, then it is not likely that I, a mere philosophy prospie, will be the one. I could always guess, but this would be musing, wasted space. No, I cannot say what the mantis shrimp sees. Rather, I will skip ahead.

What is it that we could be missing?Man, naturally, is an exceptionally anthropocentric species. We’ve claimed superiority throughout our history in our religions, our literature and even our science. “of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along theThen God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birdsground.’” In our oldest written work, Gilgamesh, Enkidu is disallowed to live among the animalsbecause of his superior emotion and intellect. We are upright and bipedal at the end of theevolutionary journey and we reside comfortably at the top of the food chain. We were made inGods image. We have received dominion.

We have set ourselves apart. The Earth is ours toexploit and the environment ours to protect because we are so advanced in our physical,technological and intellectual qualities. We understand so much of the universe and are movingin leaps and bounds to discover the rest. We know it all. And here resides our fatal flaw:arrogance.So, back to the question: what are we missing? Well, I guess we’re missing that we’re not really “all that.” We’re missing the fact that something as (seemingly) insignificant as a shrimp could outdo us in any physical feat.

The discovery, the revelation, must be along the same vein as Arthur Dent learning that the Earth is in fact an experiment run by white lab mice. We’re missing the fact that we don’t have to look as far as a Marvel comic or an episode of Doctor Who to find a species that could surpass us physically, outsmart us or absolutely crush us at a game of hide and seek. We’re missing the fact that we just have to look down at our bowl of scampi to find that creature.And isn’t it just a bit aggravating? It’s a little exasperating that, to the mantis shrimp, we may seem like the proverbial blind men, failing to understand the elephant, failing to understand the world we live in. isn’t it maddening that the mantis shrimp might observe how one electron behaves in the double slit experiment or how light acts as a particle and a wave? Just think of the mysteries we could solve with just a fraction of the mantis shrimp’s eyesight. Isn’t it just a little bit annoying? It is. But it is also humbling, awe-inspiring and absolutely fantastic.

The fact that we cannot even begin to imagine what the mantis shrimp sees is exactly what we are missing. That we haven’t got then world completely figured out. That maybe we never will. And that some somehow, somehow, an organism that spends more time in our stir fry and ceviche may know a little more about the universe than we do. No, I cannot say what the mantis shrimp sees. It could be anything and isn’t that just beautiful?

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