Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, October 11, 2010


(For the Birds script for 10-12-10)
Every now and then, I read something that twists the theory of evolution to conclude that we humans have evolved to dominate and exploit our fellow human beings, our neighbor species, and our environment. People who believe this seem to think that altruism exists only as a rather sneaky strategy for individual profit rather than a broad approach to ensuring that an entire community remains strong and sustainable.

Darwin developed his theory based on his study of songbirds, which are more evolved than humans in a great many ways. They’ve been on the planet longer, both in terms of years and generations, yet their lines continue to radiate and thrive, while we primates as an order are declining, and our species seems to be digging itself into some serious dead end tunnels. Songbird bodies are far more evolved than ours, including their vision, hearing, ability to physically discern changes in air pressure, and cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Chickadees, which have been here longer and may very well outlast us, have social hierarchies much like ours, though chickadees, in a more sensible and arguably more evolved manner, maintain their hierarchies not with fighting but with songs and other vocalizations. Every chickadee society includes members of all social strata. If the lowest chickadees on the hierarchy have to wait the longest to get food resources, the flock still remains in an area until all the birds have fed. Over generations, their society couldn’t support the disparities in income that our own society seems to think are sustainable.

In every case I can think of, when a single species increases and multiplies by dominating and altering its environment and unsustainably consuming necessary resources, it eventually hits a peak and declines rapidly, often to the point of extirpation or even extinction. Chickadee social flocks allow for much longer-term stability and success. Chickadees join with a wide variety of other bird species in cooperative feeding flocks to insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity in a manner that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution of the United States. Our Constitution has lasted us for roughly 12 human generations, but now our civil system seems to be crumbling. We are fighting within our own population and against other populations over limited resources, often while squandering or destroying the exact resources we are fighting over--a strategy that seems, in the long run, neither an evolved nor an intelligent approach. The chickadee system has allowed them to not just survive but to thrive over tens of thousands of generations—something no human civilization has ever managed to do.

If we're going to look to Darwin, especially for those of us who think it was our species' intelligence that brought us as far as we've gotten and who believe in the concept of free will rather than predestination, we’d be wise to consider what evolution really is about and how populations and species collapse. The militaristic strategies we're using right now worked beautifully for Tyrannosaurus Rex, right up until the time that they didn't. If we're going to call on Darwin for the answers to human destiny, let’s look to those songbirds that inspired his theory in the first place rather than to dinosaurs, especially because we all know how that turned out.