On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”


“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”


Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.


Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.


We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.


We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On the origins of war.

24451Recently someone suggested Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Blood Rites” as a companion piece to read alongside Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood” (see a recent post inspired by the latter here).  Which seemed reasonable enough; both works attempt to explain war and where it comes from.  And although I hadn’t expected to be overly fond of Armstrong’s work based on a review I’d read about it in the newspaper, I think her theories are much more reasonable.

Ehrenreich’s book had some parts I liked; her analysis of the importance of the moon through ancient time, as well as the importance of menstrual cycles, and how the two may have influenced goddess worship, was very interesting.  I just disagree with her theory of where war comes from.

Here’s a passage from the beginning of her work that explains her thesis:

In the conventional account of human origins, everything about human violence is explained as a result of our species’ long prehistoric sojourn as hunters of animals.  It is the taste for meat and the willingness to kill for it that supposedly distinguish us from other primates, making us both smart and cruel, sociable and domineering, eager for the kill and capable of sharing.  We are, in other words, a species of predators–“natural born killers” who carried the habit of fighting over into the era of herding and farming.  With the Neolithic revolution, wild ungulates were replaced as prey by the animals in other people’s herds or the grain stored in other villages’ fortresses; and the name for this new form of “hunting” was war.  In this account, the sacralization of war arises only because the old form of hunting, and probably also the sharing of meat, had somehow been construed as sacred for eons before.

No doubt much of “human nature” was indeed laid down during the 2 1/2 million years or so when Homo lived in small bands and depended on wild animals and plants for food.  But it is my contention that our peculiar and ambivalent relationship to violence is rooted in a primordial experience that we have managed, as a species, to almost entirely repress.  And this is the experience, not of hunting, but of being preyed on by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves.  In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator, I will argue, but that of a creature which has learned only “recently,” in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.

…the idea being that human violence arose through self-defense, attempting to fight off predators, and the same emotions underlie modern conflict.  She points out the frequency of predator symbols, etc., amongst militaries.  And this allows her to introduce what I find to be a very elegant metaphor:

To put it another way: We will not find the roots of the human attraction to war by searching the human psyche for some innate flaw that condemns us to harass and kill our fellows.  In war we act as if the only enemies we have are human ones, but I am proposing that the emotions we bring to war are derived, in an evolutionary sense, from a primal battle that the entire human species might easily have lost.  We are not alone on this planet, and we were once decisively outnumbered by creatures far stronger and more vicious than ourselves.

Medicine offers a useful analogy.  In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immunological defenses turn against the body itself.  Cellular responses which evolved to combat invading microorganisms start combating, instead, the tissues of heart or muscle.  We do not understand exactly why, in all cases, the immune mechanism becomes so confused that it can no longer distinguish “self” from “other.”  But we could not even begin to comprehend these perverse ills if we had no inkling of humankind’s long struggle against an external enemy–the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause so many diseases–because it was out of that struggle that the immune system evolved in the first place.

Similarly with war: The weapons have changed beyond recognition over the millennia, but the basic emotional responses represent defense mechanisms which evolved in combat with a deadly, non-human “other.”

In fact, I think she could extend her metaphor even farther with some findings from modern science, specifically the “hygiene hypothesis” proposed to explain the current prevalence of autoimmune diseases.  The idea being that if you take away the microorganisms that your body has evolved to fight, even by something as simple as making your environment too clean, you increase the chance of contracting some of this diseases.  With no exogenous enemy, the body fights itself.  So it seems very elegant to think, humans evolved to fight off predators.  With no predators, our same emotional need for combat is subverted to cause us to fight amongst ourselves.

But personally, I don’t think it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s much more likely that the underlying motivators, emotional and otherwise, that fuel war are rooted in the scarcity of resources.  You have, I want, I kill.  And, yeah, I’m a cold-hearted economist, so that does bias me toward explanations like this.  But I think there are a couple pieces of evidence to consider that support this.

For instance, chimpanzees are still subject to the sort of predation that Ehrenreich thinks formed a human emotional connection to war.  So, as in the autoimmune metaphor above, they shouldn’t fight amongst themselves – they still have leopards and lions and such to battle.

But chimpanzees do fight in a manner sometimes eerily reminiscent of human warfare.  And they seem to do so in order to gain access to resource-rich territory or (relatively) scarce mating partners.  Obviously it’s sketchy to draw conclusions about ancient human behavior based on contemporary chimpanzee behavior, but I think this does show that it’s reasonable to posit intergroup intraspecies combat for resources in a species still subject to predation – with predation sometimes causing up to 40% of all deaths.

And, again, it’s easy to imagine that most territory was roughly equivalent prior to the invention of agriculture, but that does not seem to be true.  Even through ancient time, with everyone living on unimproved territory, there would have been reason to fight.

Robbers-cave-Eagle-bannerI also think that it’s important to consider human sociological research that shows the way violent conflict might begin – such as the Robbers Cave experiment (which, look… the old psychology experiments were pretty clearly unethical.  Things like this or the Stanford prison experiment.  But since they were in fact conducted, we may as well use the data, right?), or my personal favorite, an experiment to see if people would develop ingroup/outgroup conflict after being lied to about a personal characteristic – in this case schoolboys were asked to estimate a number of dots, then the researchers ignored their answers and randomly told them they were overestimators or underestimators.  Conflict between the groups ensued!  But in all these conflict experiments, there is exogenously-imposed resource scarcity.  Yes, eventually there were emotional components to the boys’ dislike of outgroups, but only after experiencing unequal division of prizes, picnic food, money, etc.

And Ehrenreich wrote that you might not expect self-sacrificing style combat for resource gain because combatants would not necessarily be genetically related to those who would benefit by their victory:

The biologically “rational” explanation for certain kinds of altruism is that it promotes the survival of one’s kin, and hence of genes that are similar to one’s own.  It could be argued that this explanation applies to situations in which men die defending their immediate clan or families (although the practice of exogamy has guaranteed that even clans and families will be of varied genetic makeup).  But it is somewhat more of a stretch from a band or tribe of loosely related individuals to the mass, genetically polyglot armies of both ancient and modern states.

…but as with the boys’ behavior in those psychology experiments, just because behavior is irrational when observed in a modern setting does not mean that it couldn’t have reasonable genetic underpinnings.  Because the modern world is so different from our environment through most of evolutionary time.  One of my favorite (outdated) books on this subject is Desmond Morris’s “The Human Zoo,” in which he analyzes some of the ways humans are ill-suited for our modern environment because it’s so dissimilar to the environment we evolved in.  Like, okay, goose imprinting?  It makes no sense to do that if you’re living in a world where you see humans first.  But that’s not the world that geese evolved in (or, well, even if it was, enough geese still knew they were geese that it’s as though the humans were just instantly devouring whatever portion were imprinted to them), so that’s how things are.  Similarly, if people evolved in a world where everyone composing their ingroup was worth helping – genetically or otherwise – then we will likely still have those compulsions, even if we now live in heterogeneous societies where you’d perhaps be better off always acting like a jerk.

Anyway, that’s why I disagree with Ehrenreich’s theory.  Even though it’s interesting, and the idea “humans fight to gain control over scarce resources, or because someone subverts the mental wiring that makes them think they need to gain control over scarce resources” is rather bland.  But to me the latter, simpler explanation seems more reasonable.  And, look, there’s still room for fun speculation, even if you extract the sacred underpinnings from war.  Because you can think about the sacred and religion in other contexts instead!  Like, okay, Marc Bekoff’s theory that the evolution of religious practice is rooted in intraspecies play, as though practices like dogs’ bowing before their wrestling bouts were proto-ceremonial in nature (EDIT: I first read about this theory in a book by Marc Bekoff, and he’s done a lot of experiments on play in dogs.  But it seems that the theory long predates him – I was just informed by the introduction to Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames” that the theory that human culture springs from play was first proposed by Johan Huizinga in “Homo Ludens.”  So, just wanted to revise this, make sure I give credit where credit’s due, etc.).  I mean, sure, that’s not war, and it might be equally incorrect, but isn’t that also a fun thing to think about?