A Story about Partnership

Arthur Noll

A person riding a donkey illustrates partnership, very well.  The donkey has excellent senses, and has instinct to listen to those senses.  The donkey doesn’t suffer fools who don’t listen to signs of possible danger.  It stops at such signs, and no persuasion short of threatened death will convince it to advance into the death it senses ahead.  It is master of the event. The person riding a donkey is going to be a partner, or they aren’t going anywhere together.  Force a donkey too much, and it will end up looking for a chance to kick you in the head, or run away.  But if a person is willing to listen, a donkey is also willing to listen.  If no danger is sensed ahead, the donkey will concede to carry you forward.  People have liked horses better than donkeys, because while horses also want partnership, they aren’t so conservative about fears down the road.  Horses have evolved to outrun any danger down the road, and this fits nicely with the instincts of people, who also feel like they can outrun, outfight, and outsmart anything they meet up with.  A human riding a horse makes a good  metaphor of instinctive leadership leading instinctive people.  A human on a donkey makes a good metaphor of how leadership rationally should be.

If you deal long enough with a real donkey, you will sometimes find that their instincts are incredibly stupid, as instincts often are.  The problems with instincts are most obvious when the animal is taken out of the environment where the instincts evolved, and put in another environment.  Donkeys, for example, evolved in dry climates.  Water sources in such places are predator traps, as many animals must go to drink at these specific spots.  Water puts donkeys on high alert for danger.  To step in mud around a place where predators lurk, is an instinctively dangerous thing to do, since even being slowed by a step can be the difference between life and death.  If you take a donkey out of its dry climate, and put it in a place where water is abundant, and try to ride it anywhere, good luck to you.

A person living in a dry climate might look to the hills, and see a mighty storm going on, and on, and reason tells him to get out of the low lands, get to higher ground, because a flood will be sweeping along rather soon.  The donkey is saddled, and away they go, until they come to a small stream that is running, a warning of what is to come, and lo, the stupid donkey will not cross.  It is not a time to bend to instinct.  You tie a strong rope across the stream to the beast, get behind it with your staff, and let it know that you will kill it, if it doesn’t go.  A drowned donkey is no good to you, and doesn’t do itself much good either.  Given such a choice, most donkeys will go, and they go before they get seriously hurt, too.  The death in the stream is only a chance, after all, while the pain behind them is quite real.  They don’t get out paper and pencil and calculate the odds.  It is just a reality that they have evolved with.  If a lion were behind them, a donkey that feared the stream more than the lion would die, while one that crossed might live.

We have a barrier to cross, a dramatic shift in our lives in the kind of society we live in.  I want to roar like the lion, and ask who out there wants to compete with me for leadership on these things?  Who has better ideas, and specifically why are they better?  I look to scientists, whether they have advanced education or not, and they are tied across the stream by their belief in rational thought.  I would hit you from behind, calling you fools to not see, threaten to kill your reputation and livelihood as scientists, pull in the logic,  point by point, like a powerful winch fastened to the rope.  If you are like the donkey, you will come.  Reluctantly, braying, a tentative kick or two, but you come.  If you are like the wild zebra, you take no direction from me, but fight madly the rope, kick wildly at me, break the line of rational thought with claims of mysticism, or of the infinite cleverness of technologists, and run away to drown.

The above essay excerpt is from a little book called  Harmony, which I highly recommend.