For the Birds Radio Program: Evolution: Chickadees

Original Air Date: Aug. 24, 2009 Rerun Dates: Aug. 22, 2016

Are people really at the pinnacle of evolution? Laura talks about a New York Times piece from August 23, 2009 that asks, “Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?”

Duration: 4′49″

Transcript

Evolution The August 23, 2009 New York Times has a wonderful opinion piece by Robert Wright about evolution. It’s a surprisingly open-minded review of the theory and about God, but being written by a human being, it still places us at the pinnacle. It’s as if even the wisest people are incapable of noticing just how much more evolved birds and some non-primate mammals are in ever so many ways, including eyesight, hearing, ability to fly, more efficient respiratory system, and much more complex vocal apparatus. We people like to tout our so-called “superior” brains, but somehow we can’t bring ourselves to use those brains to see how whale communication, using their voices to hear one another thousands of miles away, sort of precluded the necessity of inventing Twitter or email. People spend whole careers trying to tease out what contexts avian vocalizations are given in, but hello? Birds speak a different language because their senses and lives are so different from ours, not because birds are simpler or stupider. The world is ever so much richer and more complex for birds because their senses allow them to perceive that richness. Small wonder birds have no need for television or video games. People will NEVER understand what birds are talking about until we fly a mile in their shoes–which is impossible because even if we could fly, we’d still have no concept of how their more complex sensory systems even perceive the world.

Birds hardly ever come to blows when disagreeing–it would be a huge jump in human evolution for us to finally figure out how to define and defend our property not with barbed wire fences and AK-47s and well-armed police departments and military might, but with song.

The Times editorial asks, “Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?”

Robert Wright clearly has not observed a chickadee flock or he’d realize that the time he’s speculating about is NOW. Chickadees already have developed moral intuitions and moral discourse of a higher level than we humans have. Chickadees have enough intuition to know which species to accept into their foraging flocks and which to avoid, not by mindless prejudices but by the knowledge of which birds are literally trying to kill them. Chickadees let everyone know about danger and good food resources, and are perfectly happy sharing a feeder. They join forces to scold and shun shrikes and hawks and owls, but even with nasty predators chickadees have a live and let live philosophy and don’t go out of their way to seek them out.

Humans are far more narrowly altruistic than chickadees. Yes–even in the area of altruism, chickadees are more evolved. You won’t find a chickadee setting a roadside bomb, lobbing a grenade, flying an airplane into a building, dropping an atomic bomb on a entire city, shooting anyone, or watching starving children on TV and not doing a friggin’ thing to help. Chickadees aren’t into pretense either. Breast implants?! Botox???? Plastic surgery? Give me a break!

This is a tricky world to negotiate as a moral being, but I think the chickadee moral system is far more evolved than that of us humans, no matter how you look at it. Maybe if our human brains were less egocentric and more evolved, we could see it too.