Thursday, June 21, 2007
Again I find myself trespassing on Nige's ornithological territory, but, hey, I started this blog. I saw Why Birds Sing, a BBC4 documentary last night. This opposed the ideas of David Rothenberg - birdsong has something to do with beauty - to those of some rather bone-headed scientists - it is the result of sexual selection and a system of territorial marking. Rothenberg was sentimentally anthropomorphic and didn't really seem to know what he thought, but the scientists were worse because they failed to understand the limitations of their answers. Sexual selection may cause birds to do something but it does not explain why they do this. Even if we could show the production of sounds makes sense as a strategy, this would not explain the production of such extravagant sounds.
Why do humans compose symphonies? Only a fool would be satisfied with the answer 'sexual selection'. The causal threads between the desire for a mate and an orchestral work in three movements have patently snapped long ago. What is true of symphonies is also true - though possibly to a lesser extent - of birdsong.
Causality, even in the most basic scientific analysis, is seldom quite what it seems. Nige quoted Wallace Stevens in the comment to his Birdsong post - 'I am content when wakened birds, Before they fly, test the reality Of misty fields by their sweet questionings.' Raising oneself above the depraved Cartesianism of the boneheads, one can see from these exquisite words the possibility of an entirely new interpretation - perhaps birdsong is an epistemological tool. But this would be beyond the boneheads because a great deal of contemporary science seems to derive its rhetorical energy not from admitting the presence of the unknown, but from denying its existence.
The climax of the documentary was the plucking of another scientist-rabbit from the hat. He, apparently, had found a brain response in singing birds analogous to the human pleasure response. I can't imagine a more blindingly predictable finding. That singing does produce a brain response is obvious, that it produces one that seems to indicate pleasure is almost equally obvious.
All of which is to say, people used to talk intelligently about such matters, now they just lurch from one conceited category error to the next. What we should be saying to the birds is what Shelley said to the skylark - 'Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know...' Birds effortlessly know what they like doing - sing. We should be so lucky.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 4:16 am