Original Copy

Image by BJARNE x TAKATA / Trunk Archive


words by willow defebaugh

Platypuses are odd ducks of the animal world. What can we learn from them about originality?

“Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another.”

Yuri Kochiyama

As I stand at the edge of the pond, watching the sun set behind the trees, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and awe at the creature before me. The platypus, with its unique combination of features—a duck-like bill, webbed feet, and venomous spurs—seems almost otherworldly. But as I observe this enigmatic animal swimming gracefully through the water, I am reminded that it is very much a part of this earth, and that its existence is a testament to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living beings.


Except, I’m not standing at the edge of a pond—and what you just read wasn’t written by me. It was the result of ChatGPT being given the instructions to produce a creative essay on platypuses through the lens of spiritual ecology. It was sent to me as part joke, part experiment by a colleague when the AI-driven language model was first made public, and it has haunted me ever since. Even now, I’m tempted to ask if you thought it really was my writing, though I suspect I would be better off not knowing whether my voice is novel enough not to be reproduced.


ChatGPT was right, though: platypuses are extraordinarily unique creatures. So much so that when they were first discovered by British scientists in 1798, they were believed to be a hoax. No one had ever heard of a mammal with the body of an otter, the tail of a beaver, and the webbed feet and bill of a duck. They seem to be a strange amalgamation of other animals—and yet their distinct combination of characteristics makes them a wholly original species.


It’s not only their external appearances that make these creatures chimeric, though. Out of every trait that lends platypuses their peculiarity, perhaps they are most known for being mammals that lay eggs as birds and reptiles do—part of a rare order of mammals known as monotremes, shared only with echidnas. Females build a special nursery burrow in which they lay two leathery eggs at a time. These eggs gestate for up to a month and are incubated by their mothers for another week before the babies hatch free using an egg tooth, a leftover from reptilian ancestors.


Male platypuses are no less peculiar. While we don’t often think of mammals as venomous, males possess a hollow spur on the back of each hind leg which secrete a lethal poison. And platypuses’ methods for hunting and navigation are surprisingly similar to sharks: they use a unique system of internal electroreceptors to seek prey underwater. Along with their streamlined bodies, propulsive tails, and dual layers of insulating fur, this makes them experts at moving through rivers and lakes—spending up to 12 hours per day beneath the surface.


So I’m standing here at the edge of the proverbial pond, thinking about this creature that is, in fact, a testament to the interconnectedness of all living beings—at once entirely original and yet also not. Perhaps originality is, paradoxically, found only in the unique combinations of borrowed traits and patterns we possess, rather than some innate manifestation of inimitability. That’s the thing about nature: it’s impossible to isolate anything from everything else.


I’m still working out my feelings about AI and what it means for our future. As a writer, it scares me to think that it could replace our originality. But I’m also trying to stay curious about the potential it presents, the questions it poses. Is it possible I’m haunted by the prospect of copy written by AI only because it threatens my individuality? What might be gained from the surrender of such singularity? Is there some greater wholeness to be found beyond it? What would it look like to measure ourselves not only by originality, but also by what connects us?

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