How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him. Pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived.

Scepticism about our assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.

 

References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.

 

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