Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Better Angels

Blue Jay

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me what I consider to be the fundamental difference between birds or other animals and human beings. Some religious philosophers have said we’re the only animals with souls. I’m not sure about that—some birds I’ve rehabbed, lived with, or watched in the wild have seemed genuinely soulful, and some sociopathic humans seem genuinely soulless, but either way, who am I to judge what a soul is? Some scientists have said birds have no emotions, but ironically, that is a profoundly unscientific belief. Animals share our biochemistry and the vast majority of our genome. To claim that every one of these non-human beings lacks emotions without experimental proof is not scientific. When we define love or fear or frustration or anger as uniquely human emotions, that’s linguistics, not science.

Some people say we differ from animals in our intelligence. On every measure of every form of intelligence, humans vary wildly. Our species includes rocket scientists, and we take pride in that although in my entire life I’ve only personally known one rocket scientist. As a species, we’ve certainly developed tools to a far more complex level than any other species on this planet has ever done, but I for one could never design and build a helicopter, and don’t have a clue how to use a lot of the tools my kids mastered in junior high school shop class. As far as technology goes, a lot of the things we’ve developed have in the long run done more to foul our nests or while away our hours in games that focus our intelligence on pointless exercises than to serve a useful end.

Some people say we’re the only species capable of altruism. They pooh-pooh cases of birds feeding nestlings that aren’t their own. The cardinal who lost his mate and young and spent a week or so stuffing food into the mouths of goldfish was simply making an innate hormonal response to the color and size of their mouths, which are similar to that of baby cardinals. The screech-owl who incubated flicker eggs, brooded the nestlings, and tried to feed them chunks of mouse was just making the same kind of innate hormonal response. I’m a human, whose behavior is supposedly not dictated by biology but by something unique to us, yet I remember just how gentle and nurturing and altruistic I was when I was pumped up with maternal hormones. I think a lot of our altruism is directly connected to how dependent our species’ young are for well over a decade, requiring a more consistent long-term uninterrupted nurturing impulse than species need when their young are dependent for just days, weeks, or months. Groups of Blue Jays and crows have both been known to help take care of injured or sick members of their flocks, even when not related to them. They aren’t so merciful when encountering an unfamiliar injured or sick bird, but our own empathy and altruism extend more powerfully toward family and friends than strangers, too. My golden retriever Bunter would find me and anxiously lead me to whatever room baby Blue Jays were if they happened to be hungry.

I used to agree with those who say the difference between animals and humans is that we have a conscience. But what is a conscience? If we must be taught right from wrong, by parents, a religion, or other outside source, then conscience isn’t intrinsic. Whether conscience is a gut feeling about what we should and should not be doing or an internal reminder of external rules, the difference between us and other animals isn’t that we’re the only ones with a conscience—it’s that we’re the only animals who can defy our conscience. We’re far from the only animals who can do right, but we are the only animals who can do wrong. When we appeal to our better angels to help us do the right thing, it might help us to remember that those angels are virtually always depicted with bird wings.