Animal kingdom

Justine Toh on the wealth of metaphors the animal world offers for our meritocratic culture.

“We are Wall St,” declared an open letter that circulated among finance workers during the Occupy movement. “We get up at 5am and work till 10pm. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill.”

In other words, beware the wolves of Wall St, who work harder than anyone else.

Apparently, ‘Duck Syndrome’ afflicts students at elite American universities. Like ducks looking all chill above the water while furiously paddling beneath it, stressed-out students project an air of calm while frantically trying to keep up.

We’ve had tiger mothers fiercely pressuring kids to perform academically while, according to one insider, the Ivy League churns out “excellent sheep”, success-driven but morally aimless young people.

The animal world, it turns out, offers rich metaphors for our meritocratic culture, where effort and talent tracks achievement and success.

We use such imagery to tell a ‘survival of the fittest’ story: who is the top of the food chain and who is dead meat. Or, in the terms of a merit-driven system, who deserves their success through their hard work—and who doesn’t.

If those are the available options, you want to be a wolf with killer instincts, rather than a gormless sheep. Which makes the phrase “the wolf will live with the lamb” just about impossible.

But this is the provocative claim of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. He was not on about persuading the winners of the meritocracy to be kinder to the losers.

Rather, Isaiah was counting on the reign of God to broker an endless peace between all rivals—in the actual animal kingdom, as well as ours.