Of the seven deadly sins, Envy is my least favorite. It is the only one that offers no pleasure at all in having it, and which necessarily can never be fulfilled. While it is fun to sleep in, gorge yourself, get laid, get paid, and dress up, it is absolutely no fun to want what’s not yours. Even Wrath, while technically an unwanted emotion, is a guilty pleasure at times, a green, intoxicating gamma-ray cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone, and bile. But Envy? Envy is a sulking sin. It whines like a child whose sibling got the front seat. It screams like a man in love with a married woman. Envy, an unchecked desire, is the root of all pain. It is samsara.
So you might think that envy is the one vice that is truly human. But think again. Animals can possess things (food, mates, nests, territories, physical attributes), and where ever there’s possession, envy is sure to follow. It’s especially prevalent in social animals that have fluid hierarchies. Primates are well-known for jealousy: female gorillas offer non-procreative sex when they see other females mating with the silverback, just to curry favor with him, and capuchin monkeys are far less likely to cooperate with researchers when other monkeys were given better treats. Elephants show jealousy, especially sibling rivalry. And a recent study of dogs found that, in what should be no surprise to dog owners, dog become envious when other dogs receive more attention or better rewards. Birds, too, feel envy and jealousy, and not just those sociable, evil-eyed parrots. When it comes to mates, even bluebirds, those harbingers of marital bliss, are known to become abusive husbands when they suspect infidelity.
With envy so ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, but mainly only proven in domesticated lab animals, which wild animal can I pick to represent Envy? For the answer, I turn back to the King James Bible. Maybe it’s not an envious animal, but the object of envy:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.
African Wild Asses are the ancestors of the modern donkey. While there are several species of wild ass, including the Himalayan kiang (the world’s biggest ass) and the Middle Eastern onager (the world’s hairiest ass), the African wild ass has the distinction of being one of the first domesticated animals, and one of the rarest mammals in the world, with only a few hundred left in the wild. Besides their phylogenetic relations, the distinguishing characteristic between all asses and donkeys is their toughness: while they can’t run quite as fast as a horse, they can survive in the deserts of Somalia and the icy mountains of Nepal with little problem. A wild ass can lose up to a third of its body weight during lean times. Their stocky bodies give them a powerful defensive kick, and their small hooves navigate their rocky environment without slipping — an attribute highly prized by the early Africans who tamed them as beasts of burden over 5,000 years ago.
It’s the ability of asses to carry heavy loads, and not just people, which made them essential to a material economy, which is a basis of the modern state. One of the earliest pharaohs of Egypt was buried with ten donkeys, surely a display of his wealth and their importance to the unification of Egypt. While horses aid in human transport and nomadic societies, donkeys allow heavy goods to come to your home, which aids permanent residence. Read the sixth commandment again: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house… nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass… All indicators of a permanent agrarian society in which mankind can amass things. Not that envy didn’t exist among the Botai people of Kazakhstan who were among the first to ride horses, but the nomadic lifestyle usually favors a sharing of resources which keeps envy at bay. Simply traveling frequently means that material resources must be kept to a minimum. Bringing goods to you, instead of traveling to them, meant that wealth could be amassed as never before, leading to the need to keep up with the Joneses. The wild ass was probably first domesticated by nomads to carry their homes from place to place. Ironic, that it led to merchant economies and the acquisition of wealth, pharaohs and city-states. The ass represents the sedentary nature of the middle and upper class, the reason we can now sit comfortably, but never too comfortably, watching our neighbors accrue new sports cars and wide-screens as our eyes widen, widen, and glow greener.