Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Do we need to go where no human has gone before?

The Matilda Briggs was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared - wrote Sherlock Holmes' amanuensis, Dr Watson, in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes just eighty years ago, in 1927. Not ready then, and not ready now, for the animal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's imagination, four score years on, has just been discovered in eastern Indonesia, in the Sumatra-governed archipelago.

The rat belongs to the Mallomys family of rodents, and is about five times the size of the average rat. But fear not! The Giant Rat of Sumatra is an amiable old fellow, who ambled fearlessly into his discoverers' camp in the Great Mamberamo Basin; and he was captured by the simply expedient of someone picking him up and tickling his tummy. I shall name the species Rattus Watsonus after the fictional doctor who first named it in 1927. The finders were a group of scientists from the American group, Conservation International, in an almost totally untouched and unvisited paradise of eastern Indonesia. Previous expeditions have found dozens of species of animals and plants unknown to science, and more trips to the region are planned over the next few years.

Now, I am normally a pretty pro-American sort of fellow. Anyone who is not a friend of the USA is no friend of mine. But that notwithstanding, I am half-tempted to go the Vietcong Veterans Club in Ho Chi Minh City (probably in underground holes not even the Giant Rat could crawl through, as the tiny warriors engage in nightly revelries, remembering those happy times on the Ho Chi Minh trail).

There I would mobilise its members against the American intruders in the 100 million acres of the Great Mamberamo Basin, which they can turn into a new Mekong Delta, where explorers go at their peril.

Because, without such a threat, it is as if mankind can leave nothing alone.

Do we have to penetrate every single nook and cranny on the planet, and count every kind of plant and animal-form? Must we pretend to be master of every corner of the planet, even though the most mundane creatures before our noses remain as mysterious to us as the far side of Pluto's moons? The fruit fly in our kitchen can detect fructose in about one part in ten billion, just as it can sniff out another fruit fly's sexy bits a mile away.

We do not even begin to understand the miracle of the most mundane insect existence in the world which we have conquered, tamed and despoiled; yet despite this ignorance, we send out explorations to the one part of the world untroubled by our presence, and with only one certain outcome: Eden's end. It is as if mankind cannot learn either modesty or restraint: we will not accept that we do not know, for we cannot know.

We can devise theories which explain things to our limited minds; but the limitations of those minds must necessarily restrict the size and the scope and the complexity of the theories; and even if our minds were infinitely more diverse and complex, this wouldn't mean we could understand existence, any more than the cod can understand the sea it swims in, or the swallow comprehends the skies through which it can navigate, from Belmullet to Botswana, with a brain the size of half a match-head.

The inevitable aftermath to discovery is scientific exploration, exploitation and sooner or later, ruination. What unintended rodents, viruses, bacteria, parasites and perhaps hitherto undetected life-forms will explorers bring to the Great Mamberamo Basin? It can so easily happen: indeed, it has happened across the globe.

Some Nasa scientists even fear that a lichen-like life-form might already have been transported to Mars in one of the early Viking Missions.

But we do not have to travel to such exotic locations to discover the perils of species-contamination: the hecatomb which consumed the Ameri-Indian population was caused by smallpox and the common cold, to which the natives had no resistance, unlike the white men who had brought it amongst them. Bubonic plague followed the invasion of the black rat from India: and the black rat was then almost wiped out by the brown rat, (almost uniquely in all of Europe, the black rat is still found on Lambay Island in Dublin Bay, though happily, not bearing bubonic plague).

Bali showed that the world is good at prating about talks to set emission targets for greenhouse gases: The Giant Rant of Sumatra. But would it not have been wiser for the world to set itself the single great goal of isolating and preserving the Great Mamberamo Basin?

It would be a total exclusion zone, from which all human traffic was outlawed.

For Holmes' doctor-friend was right. The world is not yet prepared for the Giant Rat of Sumatra, Rattus Watsonus.

While that Eden remains intact, we should learn modesty, and hail the virtues of a studied ignorance. The alternative is to extend our diseased dominion over the last unexplored and virginal corner of the planet.

Better by far to let it remain forever a mystery.

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