Peter Porcupine wonders why birds have so much fun
(Reprinted from Here and Now)
Looking out my window, or taking another break from digging the allotment, birds are always visible. The thing about birds is that they seem to have a lot of free time. Crows, in particular, hang about the air indulge in delinquent acrobatics, make a lot of noise and rarely seem to spend much time ensuring their preservation. Similarly round about the evening a hedge sparrow will start a piercing and delightful song and its persistence will invite the human – all to human question – ‘What’s it for?’ Well what is it for? Why do we catch birds doing do much that makes no sense in evolutionary, preservational or reproductive terms? The hedge sparrow which bursts into song does so long after the chicks have fledged, at times of ridiculous abundance on the plot, such that the fruit rots on the branches when not harvested by human ands and bugs and grubs enjoy an exuberant proliferation. The crows are quite visibly playing, there is no other word for it. I’ve seen other birds do the same, lapwings flying upside-down, eagles faking a stoop, tits so engrossed in an argument that they have come tumbling to my feet without oblivious to any danger.
And yet when I turn to a birdwatchers’ textbook or visit an R.S.P.B. visitors’ centre, bird behaviour is explained primarily, if not exclusively, in survivalist terms. They do X in order to secure Y in the struggle for survival. Watch any of the fascinating nature programmes on the box and you can guarantee that the life of the animal is explained entirely in terms of survival mechanisms. It doesn’t matter whether the underlying ideology of the programme is promoting the selfish gene, evolutionary psychology or even, I have observed, cost-benefit analysis, animal lives are routinely reduced to function. Everything is given a reason and that reason ultimately comes down to a utilitarian interpretation – each manifestation of the form of a living creature can be explained in terms of its function. Hedge sparrows sing in order to delineate territory (despite the fact that no territorial imperative pertains), crows play in order to hone their hunting skills (when did you last see a crow kill anything?), lapwings fly upside-down in order to scare off potential predators (what predator is alarmed by something as ungainly and misdirected as an upside-down bird?). The explanation pales in the face of the activity it purports to describe. Science brings a spanner and wrench view to actions which in their particular nature defy functional analysis.
Or course science is not wrong. Or rather it is only as wrong as the medical textbook which describes the human act of love as the behaviour necessary for the perpetuation of the species homo sapiens. It is just inadequate. Fixated by the big picture it obscures the detail in the little ones which make everyday life everyday living. Anyone who bothers to watch anything alive will be struck chiefly by one thing. That is its incredible exuberance. I took my ten month old daughter to Bempton Cliffs near Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, near the end of the breeding season when the seabirds are just putting the finishing touches to their terrestrial existence before embarking on the long winter sojourn at sea, and she couldn’t contain her delight at the furious activity going on beneath her. As far as I know she had little idea about what she was looking at and listening to but her response was immediate, happy and untutored. She knew exuberance when she came across it. At her birth some friends sent us a quote: “Man is born to live, not to prepare for life” (Boris Pasternak). If contemporary naturalists were to be believed present life is only a preparation for the future, and every individual only a cipher for forces an imperatives whose connection with the individual is practically arbitrary.
Why is any of this important? Well one thing that is disturbing about the plethora of nature interest programmes is the relentless imperative to fit nature into human systems of thinking. Thus some ecological thinking veers dangerously close to imposing economic thinking on life. Everything is seen in terms of input/output equations, almost as if an animal were the quintessence of the enlightened self-interested individual. Nature ends up purely as a zone of scarcity requiring astute management of resources. But perhaps what I find most worrying is the vogue for evolutionary psychology as a means to explain human as well as animal life. It is almost as if we are softened up for this (not so) new explanation of our crises and problems, by the vigorous promotion of the idea of the animal as essentially a set of adaptive functions. Now that anthropocentrism is out of fashion it is an easy step to start to explain human activity through the science that claims to explain animal life, or as it would say, behaviour. Not wanting to claim any special theological place for human beings, we are exhorted to view ourselves through the lens of the zoologist. That lens leads us down the path of accepting that all characteristics are the result of evolutionary adaptation. The animal or the plant, or the bacteria is completely explained by the interaction between genes and environment. No principle of self-organization or self-expression is accepted. There is no sense that evolution exerts an influence upon a subject – everything is merely an object of forces whose time-span alone renders it impervious to individual influence. This scientific monomania is bad enough when applied to animals – it simply fails to register either their playfulness – but becomes distinctly sinister when it turns its attention to human beings and becomes a plank of state social policy.
A number of groups have become excited by evolutionary psychology. It panders to their own adaptation to the market and the state, by asserting an iron law of evolutionary determination of life itself. With the exception of certain maverick minority publications it is impossible to escape the monotonous mantra that political action or social change can only occur within the limits set by the global market, welfare state, resources available, etc. In the forefront of this adaptive behaviour from leftists is Demos, who recently held a conference announcing evolutionary psychology as a breakthrough in understanding human behaviour – a breakthrough which happily gelled with their own abject surrender to what seems most powerful in society (currently, the market, whatever that is) thereby confirming Orwell’s charge against the real treason of the intellectuals. Evolutionary psychology is nothing more than Darwinism applied to the human personality and therefore presents human beings as a ‘fait accompli’[a finished work – editor] that can only be managed or ‘worked with’. True to their Stalinist roots the idea of freedom is foreign to them. Like any nineteenth century gentleman naturalist they toil over their taxonomy of exhibits, only this time it is human beings who are to be collected into the various types, identities, genders or categories that currently appear to present the most exhaustive picture. No wonder the present government likes them so much. They have provided it with the justification for the maximum meddling with the added advantage of a fail-safe excuse for failure. More surveillance is absolutely necessary, but if that doesn’t manage to improve people’s lives then it is entirely as a result of certain intractable evolutionary characteristics.
If people though it was bad enough when architecture embraced the formula: ‘Form follows function’ which managed to banish the playful and ornamental from most modern housing estates, how much worse will it be to live under a state for whom this watch word is the foundation of its reason to be. Adaptation being perhaps the most unequivocal achievement of New Labour there is no surprise in its willingness to subject the rest of us to adaptation to whatever is already most powerful.
I however remain away with the birds. Just as the variety of birdsong within species has no evolutionary function (in fact could be described as counter-evolutionary) so I plump for self-representation before function, life before its desiccation into little parcels of useful attributes. To those who think I am putting the spirit of things before the matter of them, I would ask them to reverse their priorities. To be oneself is the most materialist position to take – to rewrite oneself as an assembly of evolutionary and economic functions is the triumph of the spirit, albeit a very cynical one, as far as I can see. When crows play they take it very seriously but it is still play. A dog would have great difficulty with the concept ‘It’s only a game.’ The playful is the most important, and only the pressure of managed lives could have led us to impose our own miserable conception of life on what is blatantly and stunningly without purpose.