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?”

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 non-violence (part 2): empowering kids to act for equality.

On non-violence (part 2): empowering kids to act for equality.

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Read part 1 of this series here.

The other day I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell about their graphic novel March.  Nice to hear from others who believe in the power of literature to change the world.

And there was a question & answer section, too.  Unsurprisingly, my biggest question about their work was not addressed.  I wouldn’t have chosen it, either, given that there was time for only ten or so questions from an audience of thousands.

Still, it was very strange to me that Congressman John Lewis devoted something like a quarter of his allotted time to speaking about chickens, regaling us about how he’d raised them as a boy, recognized them as unique individuals, and preached to them.  The graphic novel, also, devotes something like a quarter of its total page count to chickens.  The art is grimly violent, showing a bird alarmed and fleeing, a gleaming blade raised into the air, ax-wielding human with flat eyes that mirror those of the brutal white anti-rights aggressors depicted later in the book, then the dead bird seeming anthropomorphically sad & resigned.  The accompanying text spills forth languorous and bleak:

john-lewis-chickens2“Worse, though, was watching my mother or father kill one of the chickens for a special Sunday dinner.  // They would either break its neck with their hands, // spinning it around until the bone snapped // or simply chop the head off. // They would then drain the blood from its body and dip it in boiling water, scalding it to loosen its feathers for plucking. // I was nowhere to be seen at those family meals.”

Then, eleven pages later, he writes that he had no qualms about eating a chicken raised and killed by someone else.

Which seems like a strange arc to include in a book about the civil rights movement. Especially because, in the case of brutality against human out-groups, history has repeatedly shown that we are less able to treat our opposition as mere things to be beaten or excluded after we get to know even one representative personally. This seems to be one reason why the gay rights movement has made such rapid strides recently: as homosexuality became less stigmatized, people were more likely to know that a friend or family member was gay, which made it more difficult to maintain hate. Similarly, I volunteer with a farmed animal sanctuary that lets people interact with members of species that are treated abysmally in human agriculture, with the hope that direct experience will disrupt the cognitive disconnect between living creatures and the slab of flesh cellophaned in a grocery store refrigerated display.

Congressman Lewis would not eat a bird he knew.  But when one he didn’t know was served to him, he “had no problem cleaning [his] plate.”  With chickens he didn’t know, he “wasn’t even bothered by [their] fate.”

Non-Violence by artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd.
Non-Violence (Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd).

It’s especially strange given how forcefully he stressed (in both his book and his lecture) the importance of Nonviolence (“Nonviolence with a capital N”) in all aspects of our lives.  The nonviolent civil rights protests were patterned on Gandhi’s methods, but the Sanskrit that Gandhi used is “satyagraha,” which would be translated into English as something like “truth force.”  The idea being that you behave correctly with such firm insistence that others will eventually realize the error in their own ways.  A nice idea, but it depends on a shared worldview between you and your aggressors — passive rightfulness could easily lead to death and defeat by aggressors who do not accept that their actions are wrong. (See the previous post in this series that considers our country’s history of nonviolent protest here).

In the case of the civil rights movement, even, you could argue that nonviolence in the South would have failed were it not backed by the threat of violent federal reprisal from the North.

3480649264_c4233a63ce_zThe Sanskrit word that best mirrors the English “nonviolence,” though, is not “satyagraha.” It’s “ahimsa.”  The latter emblazons the skin and t-shirts of many vegetarians throughout the United States.  And that parallel makes the chicken story arc in March seem even stranger to me.  The book makes clear how awful the behavior of Southern whites was, but with the chicken story arc, Congressman Lewis announces that he has a similar cognitive disconnect.

I can see why that level of honesty is commendable, but why did he devote so much space in a book about nonviolent civil rights protests to a story about violence against chickens?

CaptureIndeed, this has relevance to a question he did answer.  One of the chosen questions was from an elementary school class that attended the lecture as a group: “What can we, as eight year olds, do for equality?”

(Quick aside: can you see why I was so happy to be there?  What a lovely evening, to be at an event where this sort of question was both posed & answered earnestly.)

Congressman Lewis answered that young people should study the history of the civil rights movement, and that if they see something that isn’t right, if they see someone doing or saying something wrong, they should stand up to that person and let them know.

Which is nice.  And Congressman Lewis’s achievements make clear that he has the authority to give that advice credibly.

Still, I can’t help but think that his advice was only half the answer.  Personally, I think we can fight injustice both externally, trying to correct the bad behavior of others, and internally, trying to ameliorate our own contributions to injustice.

slide_287085_2236745_freeFor a second-grader, pushing back against external injustice is difficult.  There’s a question of access, for one thing — an eight year old might not directly observe major injustices or be able to attend protests.  Even if a eight year old does see a police officer frisk someone inappropriately, I’m not sure the officer would listen to a child saying “That’s not right.”

If that’s the only recommendation children are given, I’d worry that they might feel ineffectual, lose help and stop trying.

But a second-grader, through internal change, is fully capable of pushing back against the major driver of injustice in the world today.  Global climate destabilization is causing huge amounts of suffering to the world’s poor, and this will only increase as temperatures rise, hurricanes become more extreme, and weather patterns become more unpredictable.

Which sounds bleak, sure.  But climate change is driven by the behavior of consumers.  Most people, as individuals, don’t pump much poison into the atmosphere — I assume few first graders are burning garbage in their backyards or slipping out for long, unnecessary nocturnal drives in overweight vehicles.  But corporations don’t act in a vacuum — corporate behavior is motivated by the demands of consumers.  Second-graders, as consumers, can make choices that will contribute less toward climate destabilization.

Our world has other problems, sure — there’s been a lot of hateful language bandied about in the United States recently (see, for instance, the primary, or the “all lives matter” counterprotests), and other parts of the world are even more vicious — but those other problems, xenophobia, exclusion, etc., are exacerbated by economic scarcity.  In times of bounty, it’s easier for people to agree that everyone deserves a fair share… each person’s fair share will be plenty.  But if five people are stuck on a lifeboat with only enough food for three, it’s easier to invent mean-spirited justifications for pushing two people overboard.

Climate destabilization will lead to further economic scarcity.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that it will directly cause people to become more hateful & exclusionary.

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Sampson et al., 2011.

But second-graders can turn off lights that aren’t in use.  They can decrease their meat consumption.  They can play with used toys, and request as much for Christmas and birthday presents.  (I’m a wee bit older than six or seven, but here’s a video by Greg ‘Kingkong’ Eismin of some friends “shopping” for presents on my birthday.)

Those behavioral changes are all within reach of eight year olds and would be a huge effort toward fighting inequality — those changes will make it less likely that their fellow humans will starve in food crises, drown during forced migrations, die battered & bruised in hurricanes.