Really, Mr. Spider Man? Really?

Feeding the mind with a cornucopia of readings on consciousness, instincts, psychology, poetry and rationality often leads to some weird serendipitous moments of amusement. For several years this has been one of my favorite urdu ghazals penned by the late Seemab Akbarabadi and sung in this rendition by the late Jagjit Singh. In the true  Divine Love (ishq-e-haqiqi) fashion of ghazal poetry, the poet talks about the beauty in dying at the feet of the beloved and describes the scene in great detail. The first four lines with translation are as follows:

tere kadmon pe sar hoga, kaza sar pe khadi hogi
fir us sajde ka kya kehna, anokhi bandagi hogi

//my head lying at your feet, death looming on my head
//oh what can be said of that salutation, that unique love & devotion

nashime subah gulashan mein, gulon se khelati hogi
kisiki aakhari hichaki, kisiki dillagi hogi

//the gentle breeze of morning, flirting in the garden with flowers
//someone’s last hiccup (old indian myth. – someone’s thought of you, is the source of your hiccup),  a source of amusement  for someone else
//(the last hiccup from her thought, kills me and she’s amused by it)

Now, any sane person would obviously classify it as poetic hyperbole. No rational minded human would sacrifice his/her head at the feet of their lover just as an act of reverence or devotion. More interestingly, it is hard to imagine our instincts guiding us down that path. Even my crazy mind that often has the weirdest instincts (at the weirdest of times), hasn’t ever felt like performing this psychotic act of elation or reverence. And yet, there are people who gladly sacrifice themselves for their cause (from freedom fighters, to army soldiers to militant extremists) and literally stand in face of death and disaster with a smile on their faces, by choice and often under no obligation to self-sacrifice. Dan Ariely claims in his latest book on the same topic, that it’s based on a flaw (or something by design) in our rationality – that people are able to convince themselves to do things (by using biased rational arguments to justify that it’s the ‘Right’ thing to do), and also alter their own perception of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and right or wrong) they are. Even the Gita suggests that the world is just a Projection of the external within your mind. Hence, more important than the nature of the external, is the nature of that projection. That seems to indicate our rationality as the cause of our predicament.

But even outside rationality, in the realm of instincts, there are insects that sacrifice themselves, by literally placing their bodies under the fangs of their mates, in a phenomena described as Male Self Sacrifice in Sexual Cannibalism. e.g. the redback spider. Notice the eerie similarity between the words of the poet above and the acts of this instinct driven insect.

The redback spider is one of only two animals to date where the male has been found to actively assist the female in sexual cannibalism. In the process of mating, the much smaller male somersaults to place his abdomen over the female’s mouthparts. In about two of three cases, the female fully consumes the male while mating continues. Males which are not eaten die of their injuries soon after mating.
Sacrifice during mating is thought to confer two advantages to the males. The first is the eating process allows for a longer period of copulation and thus fertilization of more eggs. The second is females which have eaten a male are more likely to reject subsequent males. Although this prohibits the possibility of future mating for the males, this is not a serious disadvantage, because the spiders are sufficiently sparse that only 20% of males ever find a potential mate during their lifetimes.

So what explains these outlier actions that we – yearn for in our poetry, believe and hope that we’ll never perform in reality, yet are able to convince ourselves to do happily in some cases, and not just us – even our insect brethren are seemingly not immune from? Is it a flaw in our rationality or some evolutionary emotional bias baggage or yet another clusterfuck of nature? Either ways, it’s oddly amusing. Isn’t it?

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