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I was half-listening the other day to one of those BBC Radio Wild Life programmes which, given a chance, actually leave you better informed. This one featured several men chatting below ground in a cave about some white, eyeless shrimp-like creature, which tends to lurk in watery pockets in dark corners of British caves, and it was some casual phrase like "this little animal has been here since the age of the dinosaurs and has survived quite unchanged" which caught my ear.

"Yes," said someone else, "it's probably the longest-lived creature in the British Isles. It has out-survived everything else."

Apparently it doesn't need light and it doesn't need anything else much either, except water and enough nutrient in the scummy film on top of the water. It has survived for millions of years without ever doing any of those things which separate human beings from other animals, such as singing carols at Christmas, playing bingo, going outdoors and pretending that going to discos is fun, or indeed without doing anything much…

A simple life, you might think. Not so, said one of the experts. This is one of the most specialised animals he had ever come across. I waited to hear what the speciality was, in the same way that we wait to hear what our dinner party neighbour does when he says he is a specialist ("Actually, I am doing some research into dirty stories in Sanskrit"), until I suddenly realised that this eyeless white shrimp's speciality was just that: being an eyeless white shrimp.
He was perfectly adapted to his surroundings. Being in the dark no longer bothered him. He had all the food he wanted. All the liquid. He seemed to have no enemies. He had no ambitions to have things he couldn't have. He wasn't happy but presumably he had no concept of happiness and therefore did not mind not being happy, which is as close as you can get to being happy for an eyeless white shrimp.

This was a species which had evolved as far as it needed or wanted to go and had refused all improvement grants since the day the dinosaurs had disappeared. By comparison with him human beings are very unspecialised. We do lots of things and we do most of them badly, and the few that we do well (singing carols at Christmas, ice dancing, inventing ways of recording sound, combating hair loss) are either not worth doing or somewhat outside the demands of evolution.

Anyway, a day or two later I happened to switch on the TV at random while I was shaving... Yes, if you really want to know, I do switch radio and TV on a lot at random. I have reached a specialised stage in my Darwinian evolution in which near-perfect happiness is attained by switching on radio and TV at random, or browsing in newspapers which are due to be thrown in the dust bin… and I found myself watching a French lesson in which I learn that " Every day 1,600,000 vehicles enter Paris. There are only 1,300,000 parking spaces in Paris".

What does this tell us about the white eyeless shrimp, as compared to man? To put it another way, if the Tory government published league tables of Darwinian success, which species would be looking good and which looking bad? Yes, I'm afraid you're right. The white, eyeless shrimp would be way out ahead. It has achieved everything it set out to do, as far as cave-dwelling is concerned. It has never known a parking problem. It is a 100 per cent success. Man, on the other hand, is creating more problems the further he progresses. Through over-population and pollution and idiocy he is managing to offset all the advances he has made. He discovers cooking and then peppers the world with Macdonalds restaurants. He invents TV and puts Esther Rantzen on it…

We are told now that the warming of the globe has resumed and that we may well be on the way to messing up the place terminally, not just for humans but for every living species. Human beings have turned out to be very good at having fun, but not at clearing up after themselves, or conserving the environment. Which means that by and by we shall have done for creation.

Except, probably, for that white eyeless shrimp down in the caves. By and by everything will go very quiet upstairs, and the white eyeless shrimp will be, without knowing it, the most intelligent form of life left alive. Maybe, over half a billion years he will evolve enough to go outside, and as he totters nervously out into the daylight, his first words will be: " Watch out! Those dinosaurs may still be around!"

If someone told him about the temporary reign of human beings and what they were like, he simply wouldn't believe it.


The Independent Tuesday 29 1994