Baltimore / Brackish Waters / Swirl of thoughts

Sentimental Drift: Bird Brains and People


I recently had a conversation with my teenage son about his future plans. Like most teenagers, his ambitions and aspirations will be adjusted as time goes on, I convey to him. And like most teenagers, he seemed perturbed by the notion of compromise. “Everyone changes their views over time,” I explained to him. Though this seems rather cliche, for the young mind, it may as well be a fairy tale. That is, until they become full grown adults and then realize they have been changing all along. That’s when it truly hits you. Around every corner there is a change we all make in order to live as orderly and sanely as possible. I don’t blame my son or any teenager for feeling the way they do about changing their character or compromising so much of their inner self that they lose sight of what they truly are in this world. It is just a matter of fact and not something derived from a philosophy.

Ultimately, this raises some key questions about the human experience: If humans evolved (in the manner it is believed and accepted by science), then we had to evolve under the same rules all other animals evolved, and therefore subject to the same biological scrutiny. It is widely accepted birds are descendants of land dinosaurs and somehow naturally obtained the ability to fly. This in itself is an incredible fact to fathom. Birds have a social order that compliments with their biological adaptations, and it is also widely believed these cohesively ensure the survival of the species. At least, that is the logical conclusion. And it is safe to look at all life forms and make that same assertion, “physical and social changes occur so the species can have a better chance at surviving.” As humans, we can be logical, and when we see these types of things in nature, we can also determine that they make logical sense. Yet, the question of where that “logic” comes from in nature evades the conversation.

My son, upon arriving to Maryland to begin his first year of college, said at the onset his studies were more important than having an active social life. But as the months wore on, he turned to me with a blank face and admitted he missed his friends and longs to make new friends. Immersing himself in studies only satisfies certain aspects of his life, I said, but it seemed to fly by him. “Having a social life is apparently very important after all,” were my words to him, and he agreed.

Apparently, there are many things necessary in the human experience. However, some are just not defined by modern science. For example, it is difficult to gauge what level (if any) of satisfaction a bird experiences because they have such small brains and we know certain experiences and feelings occur in particular sections of the brain, but birds don’t have those sections. Yet, one can tell a “happy” bird from a “sad” bird (Interesting article about bird emotions you can read here). This is a feeling we feel as people. We can sense the emotions of other people and creatures. It is simply an innate ability people have. I knew something was bugging my son long before he ever said anything about his “friends.” This can be attributed to more than simply the connection between a father and his son, but a connection with all life forms, whether they are graceful creatures or critters. How can science explain this “connection” between life forms? What instrument can measure this? Or better still, how much change would it incite in people if it were proven scientifically to be true? Would it change how people treat animals and each other?

“Why does having friends matter?” I asked my son. Annoyed by this question, he reluctantly said, “Because who else can I share my stuff with if I don’t have any friends?” You answered a question with another question, I said. “Ok then, because I want to share my stuff with someone else.” So, social connection gives our human experience a sense of purpose. I didn’t press my son on why it is important to share “stuff” with another person, but it may be he doesn’t know the reasons why. In fact, it may be safe to say the reasons don’t matter in the human experience. In the same way it doesn’t matter to the bird why it does what it does, it just does it because it is here in this world and is instinctually compelled to do what it does. A human, though possessing a much more complex brain, is subject to the same simplistic necessities any animal has. Which also begs the question: Why is necessary for humans to have a brain with such sophisticated abilities? If our needs are no greater than that of birds or lions, why do we need to be so smart?

I started thinking about the “logic” thing in nature again and wonder why something so random as nature would conclude humans need to be so much smarter than even its closest relative, the primate. It makes sense birds need the ability to fly, allowing them to evade predators and ensure the survival of their species, and gazelles’ ability to outrun most predators ensures theirs, but how does having the ability to build rockets and going to other planets ensure our survival? It seems to be rather illogical. Where did this immense “jump” from using sticks to pull termites out of mounds to building pyramids with perfect mathematical precision happen? And why would it be necessary for survival? It just seems to defy the “logic” presented in the theory of evolution.

My son wants to be a lawyer. Driving home from class the other day he said he learned so much about the legal process and was excited to tell me what he learned. I could sense his brain was teeming with activity. I told him it isn’t enough just to be a good lawyer, but to be a great one. “I just want to be able to make a lot of money,” he said. Greatly disappointed, I asked, “Why be a lawyer if you want to make a lot of money? If it is about money, go into business. Be a lawyer because you believe in justice.” He thought about this for a moment and just chuckled. This was a debate for another day. Just then, I noticed in the sky a “swarm” of birds flying in unison above one side of the road to the other, quickly shifting, going upward and up a ways and then across the sky again. It was like a school of fish in the sky, with a few confused birds being left behind and then rejoining the swarm. I pointed to the birds, “Look at those birds,” I said, but my son didn’t look. “They’re just birds,” he said. “Perhaps someday,” I replied, “they will mean more to you and change how you feel about the world…”

I told my son what was on my mind. “It isn’t enough,” I conveyed in a low, serious tone, “to stand at the edge of the world and question the point of humanity or even human existence. We have to try to make sense of it all.” My son, not one to shy away from such discourse, said “It may not be enough, but it also causes us all to fall into a pit, and with all of us in the same pit, we cannot see beyond the walls of the pit.” How profound, I thought to myself. The walls of our “pit” are put there by the very questions we pose in terms of our own existence! How can this be? The birds don’t question these things because they can’t and that works for them and keeps them in check with nature. Maybe we wrestle with these questions because they, too, keep us in check with nature. We try to prove things that lead us away from the real truth of what we are: human beings. Instead of looking at ourselves, we look into ourselves and get lost internally. “It’s strangely funny,” I said to my son as we pulled into our driveway, “so many people doubt the existence of God because they don’t know what God is. Perhaps God is the architect of the universe. Something had to have made the rules, wrote the formula, pieced together this thing we exist in.” My son was exhausted by this point and said, “Maybe God lets some things be random and other things not. If God made the universe, then he can change it. God, after all, would be much smarter than His subjects and could change the rules at will. We are essentially forced to look for Him and find Him in the ways he deems fit.” It was a very proud moment as a father to hear him say such intelligible things. Just then, a bird landed on the fence and chirped. It sang a few notes and flew off. I stood there in sheer amazement next to my car for what seemed like a thousand years…


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