Thursday, 18 September 2008
Myth: lemmings sporadically commit collective suicide by running off cliffs into the sea.
Reality: lemming populations experience very wide swings on a regular basis, ranging from near extinction to huge booms, but there is no evidence of mass suicide in their behaviour.
The cute wee lemming (thanks to the Animal Picture Archive for the photo) for some reason (is it their very innocence and defenselessness that exposes them to abuse?) is the subject of a long ago vicious character assassination, perpetrated by that icon of goodness the Disney Company (see Lemmings, Dying on Camera and at Snopes), which has rooted itself in popular thinking as the above myth. For the reality, have a look at the Hinterland Who's Who on lemmings, which sets outs the various theories about why lemming populations vary so much of which suicide isn't a credible one. Living in the Arctic of Canada, Norway and other countries, lemmings in truth are fascinating creatures - e.g. from the Hinterland article, "How such a small mammal, already under a severe thermal stress, can muster enough energy to breed in an arctic winter, and what factors determine when winter breeding will occur, are still mysteries." Non-Canadian readers may wonder the same about the human population but Canadians know they heroically manage to do it for the good of the species.
So, the big investing question, given the big market declines and the demise of a bunch of significant market players in recent days, which analogy with lemmings applies - collective suicide, i.e. the financial system imploding through the suicidal(?) refusal of banks to lend to one another, or a normal though very large swing in fortunes? I think I prefer the reality analogy despite the fact that many lemmings do die during the downswing.
And oh, despite seemingly catastrophic declines to "near extinction" levels, lemming extinction never happens and there is always a subsequent recovery. I like the way the Hinterland article concludes "the tundra ecosystem is gathering its resources in preparation for the outburst of energy that will come with the next lemming year."
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