In the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine, ten people offered their opinion on the challenging and interesting question, Which Animal Has Most Changed the Course of History? I find their wide-ranging choices, ranging from a captive gorilla, to mockingbirds, to horses, to Martha the last passenger pigeon, to horses, to be fascinating. This posting simply is a heads-up on this discussion.
What is also interesting is that in some cases the choice of the animal reflects the career or interests of the writer. For example, Jack Hanna, director emeritus of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, chose Colo, "the first gorilla born into human care [because she] paved the way for successful breeding programs and innovative advancements in animal care." Susan Orlean, who wrote Rin Tin Tin, chose "whichever wolf was the first to slink up to a Paleolithic-era campfire and wag its tail." Biological anthropologist Jill D. Pruetz chose "David Greybeard, the male chimpanzee in Gombe, Tanzania, who first trusted Jane Goodall in her efforts to habituate wild apes to her presence." Stephen Suomi, chief of the laboratory of comparative ethology at National Institutes of Health, chose rats because they "have been key vectors in spreading pestilence among humans around the world [and] laboratory rats have been key to countless advances in basic biomedical knowledge and medical practice, ultimately improving human longevity and well-being in once-unimaginable ways," and I chose earthworms, agreeing with Charles Darwin that, "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures." I never really thought of earthworms in this capacity until fellow Psychology Today writer Mark Derr and I exchanged some emails about the question at hand and I began thinking of the less charismatic animals who were very important historically.