Saturday, 13 March 2010

Bird-brained? Not exactly

HAVE you ever noticed what a great habitat dual-carriageway roads provide for certain species of bird? And what a great extra service is provided for them in the form of lighting poles?
For the crow, the seagull, the hawk or buzzard, here is a perfect perch from which to survey a place where other creatures come to be killed or maimed.
Of course there’s a risk to the carrion-hunters themselves, but they’re mostly pretty good at swooping out of the way of traffic.
And where there are no poles to perch on, the kestrel – that supreme hoverer on the air currents – is king of the central reservation.
The other day I had a close encounter of the bird kind. I was driving, not on a dual carriageway but in a typical Suffolk lane, sunk between fields.
Suddenly, just ahead of me, a kestrel flew out of a hedgerow and straight across the road.
Fortunately, I was not travelling very fast. I barely had time to touch the brakes. And in that moment, the kestrel turned its head and for the briefest instant we had eye contact through the windscreen.
The bird got safely away, but was startled enough to drop the small mammal it had in its talons. And close enough that the mouse, or whatever little creature it was, hit the car bonnet.
A few days later I was heading past Colchester on the A12 when I witnessed an even more remarkable event.
I’d just caught sight of a kestrel hovering over the verge when a magpie flew across the road and straight at it.
I’ve seen hawks attacked by other birds before, but this was the first time I’d seen one literally brought down in flight. Last I saw as I sped by, the kestrel had been brought to earth on its back with the magpie fiercely on top of it.
I find such glimpses of the wild in our midst both fascinating and compelling.
And if we really look with open eyes and minds, we should find them a little humbling too.
There are still people – even scientists – who will claim with straight faces that humans are the only species to have evolved consciousness, to use tools, or to make discoveries and inventions.
So what do you make of this?
Rooks at Membury services on the M4 have found a way of getting at the appetising titbits thrown by wasteful humans into lined bins.
A lone rook can’t do it. But with one on either side of the bin, two can lift the liner bit by bit, securing it with their claws as they go. Once they’ve raised the contents high enough to grab, they throw it with their beaks to a third rook standing by.
The level of creativity – and communication – this shows would excite a researcher watching chimps in Africa.
But this is in Berkshire. And it’s a creature vastly more different from us, with a brain very different, and much smaller.
We like apes to be clever, because we know they’re like us. That we are apes too.
Meanwhile, some birds are a lot cleverer than we like to think.
Which ought to make us a bit more open-minded. And a bit less arrogant.

Evolution of an atheist thinker

AN INTERESTING theory of evolution is proposed in the current issue of National Geographic magazine. Interesting – and rather attractive to people like me.
The author of a new study suggests that atheists, pacifists and those of liberal inclination are more highly evolved than other people.
According to this view, blind aggression and blind adherence to tribe or faith were useful in an earlier stage of human development. But now it is the thinkers, the questioners, the fair and open minded, who are in the natural ascendant.
Great. Except for one thing. That little weasel word “highly”.
It implies progress towards something better. An idea which the great theorists of evolution, from Charles Darwin onwards, would reject as a misunderstanding.
It’s unscientific. But it’s worse than that.
It contains in it the idea that one type of human being is better than another.
And that’s the idea that was used to justify slavery. The genocidal obliteration of native peoples in America and Australia. The oppression everywhere of the working poor by the property-owning rich.
It’s the perversion of evolutionary science that led HG Wells and others to suggest selectively breeding out what he regarded as “lesser” human strains.
And which the Nazis took to extremes.
However tempting, it’s a road which no one of liberal inclination should even consider starting down.
And there is another problem with the study, by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics.
He bases his ideas on the discovery that children with higher IQs were more likely than others to reject religion when they grow up, and to be less conservative.
Which is all very well and not very surprising (to me, at least). But it assumes that IQ is a fair and proper measurement of intelligence. Which it isn’t.
Do I, incidentally, suppose Dr Kanazawa regards himself (as I do) as liberal and atheist? What do you think?

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