I had never met creatures more cowardly than those two mice, but, for some reason, they would never abandon each other.
Mus musculus domesticus
missma’amsurvival of the fittestHomo sapiens
Mice have one of the smallest encephalization quotients (brain-to-body ratios) in the mammal kingdom, with an entire 2 percent of their brains devoted only to smell (as opposed to humans, with a mere 0.01 percent). A mouse can never be capable of the complex social thinking of a human because their social network does not extend far beyond “males with hierarchical breeding access” and “other,” if that. Mother mice will cannibalize their own offspring for any number of reasons, and they are preyed upon by nearly everything that can catch them. You would not expect an animal such as that to experience bravery, let alone to act upon it. But here they were, able to both fear me and to defy me, to stand by each other’s side with no consideration for their own genetic continuation. Even to a mouse, there were some things—some friendships and loved ones—more important than self-preservation at any cost.
And what did that say about humans? What did that say about me?
From the emergence of the first hominins (barely more than modern apes, hardly able to stand upright) to our species now, we have been evolving increasingly large brains; a mouse’s EQ is dwarfed by even our distant australopithecine ancestors. But ours are not only large brains; they are large social brains: Paleontological records show the most growth in frontal regions that control sociality, learning, language, and symbolic expression. The last members of the Homo genus were smaller and weaker in body than those that came before but were more successful at sociality than anything the earth had ever seen before—the obedient drones of an ant colony can’t hold a candle to the cooperation we’re capable of.
Ancient humans of multiple species made seaworthy watercraft and crossed the oceans, hunted deadly megafauna, mastered fire, and buried their dead with ritual objects. They learned how to change landscapes with controlled burns and leech poison from deadly rainforest gourds to make them safely edible. At no point did Homo sapiens ever evolve to have fewer group members around the campfire. Nor were we a pure, conquering species, either, intolerant of the other hominins whose lands we migrated across. Nearly everyone of non-African descent has borrowed 2 to 4 percent of their DNA from the Neanderthals and Denisovans of Eurasia. We did not march to war with these archaics; we welcomed them into our social groups, interbred with them, and added their knowledge to ours. Though those species no longer exist, they did not truly go extinct. They became a part of us.
Sociality—respect, worry, and compassion for one another—is the entire basis for our existence. And the mice taught me that this was not a fluke: It is not against the laws of nature to protect one another, to help someone else before ensuring your own reproductive success. It is why we are alive today, after hundreds of thousands of years of hardship. Our ancestors knew that an individual’s survival was tied intrinsically to the survival of those around them and then learned to protect each other with no motive beyond kindness and comradery, because it is right and good to help those around us. Perhaps today we are not confronting daily death on the steppes and rainforests, but high school—and all of life in this modern world—is just another ecosystem in which we must band together to survive. When we turn away from one another, we are turning away from what it means to be human.
Some people are awful; young me wasn’t wrong about that. Some mice eat their own babies. There will always be those who are intolerant, who make places unsafe for others, and I was not unwise to guard my heart against those who were revealed to be venomous. But what I’ve since learned is that they are the outliers; not all strangers and potential friends are predestined to be that way. Compassion and companionship can be found at our very core, and we, too, are capable of incredible feats of bravery against all odds. My mice taught me how to be brave when they refused to abandon each other, despite their fear of being devoured. And I proved to myself that I could be brave when I decided that to be human was to choose love, again and again. Your heart is a campfire on the prehistoric plains, longing to be surrounded and tended by your chosen clan.
My fifteen-year-old self could not have imagined the happiness I experience now. Of course, there are still days I struggle with my self-image, and there are times of immense grief from living in a dangerous, cisheteronormative world. But none are so bad as they once were because I do not experience them alone, and the days between are filled with joy and exploration. And though my mice have long departed, their teachings remain with me. I am inspired by them to be stubbornly alive: to welcome others into my circle, to be passionate, and, most of all, to have the courage to reach out when I am scared of what lies ahead. I will face it head-on and stand by the side of those I love through whatever comes our way. And this is how we will survive this world—together.
A'liya Spinner (she/him) is a non-binary writer and researcher, currently specializing in poison dart frogs but aiming someday for dinosaurs. In her spare time, she plays with her gecko, collects bones, and writes little tidbits for the magpie god that lives in her closet. Stalk his Twitter, @cladist_magpie, or visit her site: msha.ke/aliyaspinner