When evolution gave humans their big frontal lobe, things became at once very interesting and decidedly uninteresting. It drove survival of our species into the realm of thought, which is invisible and not at all majestic. But before this, for many species, just biting something was top-of-the-line technology. How did it get that way?

I ask this now because I have just had one of the cat’s fangs plunge all the way into my thumb, and for an instant of white-hot pain I was on the wrong end of the same implements that the animal once used to maim a competitor or to kill food.

Why was my thumb in the way of the cat’s fangs? Apparently even hunters, the pinnacle of million-year refinement, get bronchial infections and need pharmaceuticals. I was trying to pry open the mouth of the cat to insert an eye-dropper full of antibiotics that are supposed to taste like mint, as if a cat cares what they taste like and as if mint were it.

This required trapping the animal in a kind of fake TV wrestling move on the floor. My method was to press in from each side of the mouth with thumb and forefinger until “Lily” couldn’t bear the pressure on her gums. Then she would snap her mouth open and I would squeeze the dropper in the miniscule timeframe in which this had a chance of working. This way I was able to get in a dose of something called Clavamox, which is manufactured by Pfizer in Hyderabad, most of which came back out of the cat straight away. There I sat with Lily gagging health all over me.

Suddenly my thumb slipped into her mouth and into my flesh went the fangs, to the hilt, as I mentioned earlier. The pain was beyond description, a satanic mix of avulsion (when flesh is torn away) and stabbing (penetration with a sharp or pointed object at close range). It is only a cat, yes, but my hand is only tissue and that little jaw can generate pressure well out of proportion to its size.

My hand was now stuck on the cat’s fangs and I was on the floor in a kind of pretzel configuration with Clavamox spraying everywhere and no way to let go easily. The cat was half under my left leg and trying to slink out backward while I was wedged up against the door frame for support.

So I took the natural course of action: panic. Panic is how I chose to deal with a leech attack in Borneo in 2009.  The animal had made its way onto my foot through leech boot, leech sock, and my new cargo pants. I ripped the leech off and my foot bled for four hours.

Now it was a cat’s fangs.

I jerked my hand out of Lily’s mouth and blood came streaming out with no interest in stopping. Lily is a Himalayan. I don’t know what that means except that her fangs are curved, like an Asian upland scimitar-type thing, rather than straight like a European-style pike. So the opening in my thumb was as long as the entire curve of the blade.

I sat there agape at the wound that the cat had just induced in my hand. But then the shock mysteriously evaporated, driven away by fascination at the process that gave this animal rigid, calcium scimitars in its mouth. These were tools aeons in the making, used to puncture, disable and then disassemble a far less well equipped being, all aided by equally destructive hooks protruding from each of twenty digits, and sometimes more if it’s one of those cats. I stared at my hand, transfixed as the blood radiated through the creases in my skin.

Charles Darwin found that when species are successful this is because random mutations in their form accumulated doggedly over immense time scales produce a favorable trait. Something that gives the animal an advantage, like enormous, sharp teeth. Reproduction passes the mutation on to offspring, a process finally mapped by Gregor Mendel in 1863. The offspring benefit from it in the same way that the parent did and in turn pass the trait on to their offspring, multiplying this modification exponentially until they outnumber whatever form of the species it was that initially produced them. Then they themselves become a “species”.

What causes the mutations then? Although environment appears to be the greatest source of pressure on living things, to say that evolution is simply adaptation to it misses the mark. The first life on this planet had to emerge, again, doggedly, from lifeless, organic molecules, which implies chance. The breeding ground was only part of it.

Are mutations then cosmically driven and therefore subject to the imperceptibly slow rate of change you would expect if baryonic matter, that is, the tangible stuff, is really only five percent of all the matter in a universe that has been expanding for 13.7 billion years at light speed at least? In miles that’s 13.7 billion times about about 6 trillion, or an 82.2 with twenty zeros after it.

Remember Carl Sagan sitting in a cave with a Geiger counter saying that cosmic rays from across the galaxy are piercing everything, all the time, including the cells in you and me right now, and that this causes mutation? If this is true, then at what rate? And are cosmic rays the only driver?

One standard answer for why mutations occur is still “errors introduced into the genetic code” as strands of DNA are unwound and strapped back together to make new strands by proteins in cell nuclei. What causes this, then? And why, if natural selection rewards favorable modifications, have successful species gone extinct unless something in their environment made their supposedly superior form unfavorable? Or was it just by more accidents of mutation that they then lost whatever element gave them the advantage and died a death as long and slow as their gradual rise?

What is certain is that somewhere long ago, an animal like a cat was born. It had slightly longer teeth than its predecessors and found that these longer teeth aided the ripping of the flesh of other animals, which put a meal into its mouth, which increased its chance of survival, which increased its chance of producing offspring with the same teeth. Over tremendous time scales these fangs grew into meat hooks, the sabre-toothed cat for example, whose sabre teeth were the key to success. The animal grew large and strong and lived a long time, until something changed.

We’re still trying to answer the question, “Why do living things change and how does this occur?” Current research being conducted in the tropics, where biodiversity is greatest, has found that some species may even be re-evolving traits that they once lost, which dramatically challenges the ‘one-way’ idea of evolution. It is likely that living things retain the genetic architecture that they have accumulated like a journal of this wandering process. Which would make every house cat still a wild predator inside, which seems to argue in favor of random mutation but still doesn’t answer why the mutations at all?

Cut to about 1,500 BCE. Sabre-toothed cats of any sort are long gone and Egyptians are mummifying their descendants. From that point, dispersion of cats as house pets follows civilization mundanely westward through the Hellenes and Latins, down to the animal that shredded my hand at about 9.30 this morning.

When I was growing up (no story about pets would be complete without a “when I was growing up”) we owned a large, black cat with white paws. The unimaginatively named “Sylvester” was the son, among 10 or 12 others, of a feral calico who we took off the street in 1976, called Lola. In Sylvester’s later life my mother would call him “the Thing from the Cellar” because he would retreat to this, his lair, every evening and maul any dog, in our case two extremely stupid setters, that dared poke their giant snouts down the stairs.

Sylvester was the heir of the entire sweep of evolution. But he was the last of his kind. What happened to me today, fang ripping flesh, instigated not by a struggle for survival in the cellar but by the routine administering to a house pet of a tri-hydrate amoxicillin clavulanate potasic something-or-other, was just an outburst perpetrated by an animal named for a flower that I’m allergic to. We’ve sought to administer nature and have rendered her fangs just something not to get stuck into your hand. What will we do with this power?