The buddhist and the spider

Does a spider question it’s own existence? No doubt it has an instinctual drive to self preservation: the one I found dead in the sink this morning seemed to have been attempting to escape only to finally succumb to the toxic traces of the previous day’s dishwashing liquid. His (or her) legs had contracted in an arachnid version of a foetal position: thus it had died. But self-preservation is a long way from self-reflection.

Of course I automatically regard the spider from my own, human perspective – erroneously of course – for the inner life of an insect is no doubt very different to that of a man. I presume the spider, faced with its immanent demise, never asked itself, why? Why me? Why am I dying thus? Why am I in agony, trapped, and with no escape? Who will attend to my web when I am gone? What has my life meant? Did my existence serve some greater purpose?

Do Insects Have Emotions and Empathy?

“Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy and love, by their stridulation.”
~Charles Darwin (1872)

here are some intriguing insights by Carla Clark, PhD at:

Do other creatures have such feelings and thoughts?

I know I’m conflating far to many things here: a spider is not a man is not a dog, as it were. And initially I was exploring the thought that man – in having in common with all living things this thing called life, should with some humility accept that his metaphysical questioning is as doomed to failure as that of a fruit fly. This line of thinking became a bit strained and then took off in another direction. That’s contemplation for you.


If a dog is being cruelly neglected, or a chimpanzee is bound to a vivisectionist’s table, is there, beyond the anguish and terror which we know to be there, a kind of existential questioning?

And whether creatures great or small have an interior life; why does man seek for answers and consolation in religion and philosophy? Why, when any answers he discovers seem contingent and suppositional?

I recall seeing a documentary once where zoologists were monitoring a group of apes. One of the females had recently lost her baby in childbirth and was inconsolable, exhibiting unmistakable signs of depression, making the most haunting sounds, climbing into trees and sitting alone for hours. She kept the lifeless body of her stillborn infant with her wherever she went, as if she couldn’t bear to part with it. In another programme some small animals refused to leave their wounded comrade behind, abandoning him with a reluctance and agitation one can only describe as grief only when he had died.

Do these behaviors not speak of an inner life beyond the instinctual? Of course: one doesn’t require a zoologist or animal behaviourist to tell you that animals have rich and varied emotional lives.

Arachnids and insects one suspects, do not have such emotions.

However dismissive we might be towards the life of a spider or an ant for instance- and perhaps understandably dismissive when the world of men and the higher animals is filled with hardship and pain – yet it remains a point of departure for a contemplation of life and consciousness. We have this in common with all living creatures: this thing we call life, and, each according to its kind, a consciousness however different from our own.


Let us for a moment imagine a kindly Buddhist: he would not arbitrarily or for perverse entertainment stamp his foot on a beetle, or kill an animal for sport or to mount it’s head on a wall as a trophy. He would not kill an animal as a sacrifice to his gods (or god) or justify the slaughter from his sacred texts. We are unlikely to find him harpooning and butchering a whale or shooting a rhino and hacking off its horn. He won’t be pulling the wings off a butterfly to observe how long it takes to die (nor deriving a sadistic pleasure at its distress.) We struggle to imagine our Buddhist cheering at a cockfight, or watching pitbulls tearing eachother apart for callous bets. There will be no terrified animal suffering long hours of agony in an iron trap; he would never conceive of such a cruel device. Look online at some of the gruesome videos filmed clandestinely inside abbatoirs and medical experimentation facilities and you might regard our imaginary Buddhist as a not altogether ridiculous fellow. His respect for the most insignificant creature is inextricably linked to his respect for all living things: he does not pick and choose willy-nilly which living thing he will affirm and which he will negate. I might be mistaken, but as I understand it this respect Buddhism has for all living things is not primarily due to a fear that one might be reincarnated as a bug and stepped upon, but derives from a profound respect for life per se, because it is life.

For those amongst us for whom cold facts resonate more than a philosophy of respect and compassion for the other creatures of the planet, here are some interesting facts:

Genome-wide variation from one human being to another can be up to 0.5% (99.5% similarity)

Chimpanzees are 96% to 98% similar to humans, depending on how it is calculated. (source)

Cats have 90% of homologous genes with humans, 82% with dogs, 80% with cows, 79% with chimpanzees, 69% with rats and 67% with mice. (source)

Cows (Bos taurus) are 80% genetically similar to humans (source)

– 75% of mouse genes have equivalents in humans (source), 90% of the mouse genome could be lined up with a region on the human genome (source) 99% of mouse genes turn out to have analogues in humans (source)

– The fruit fly (Drosophila) shares about 60% of its DNA with humans (source).

– About 60% of chicken genes correspond to a similar human gene. (source)


On the basis of small variants of genetic similarly we subject animals to extraordinary and perverse cruelty: factory farming, vivisection, experimentation in the cosmetic, medical and pharmaceutical industries, blood sports and fashion. In a xenophobic world in which the differences between people constitutes less than 0.5 of a percent, and where the genetic similarity between different so-called “races” can be less than those within ones own so called “race” – genocide and cruelty are as prevalent as interspecies violence.

This must surely cause us to pause and consider how we behave towards eachother, and to other species.

I am not saying the pity I felt for the spider is much more than a projection of feeling, perhaps a poetic sentimentality. But if it opens up a space for a broader meditation on life and a consciousness and of what it means to be human, then the little creature didn’t die in vain.

As to the spider’s consciousness of itself, we can only guess. But it was not long ago when it was conveniently assumed by the white “race” that the black “race” was sub-human and this diminishment of their humanity became a justification for centuries of cruelty. We are quick to assume that our narrow prejudice is the very pinnacle of enlightenment.

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