At once a retreat for solipsists and egomaniacs and a tonic for the anxious and alienated,

At once a retreat for solipsists and egomaniacs and a tonic for the anxious and alienated, birding is also a force of enlightenment. These essays explore the culture of birding in relation to science and society. Instead of seeking the frontiers of ornithological knowledge around the poles, in tropical forests, on remote islands, or far out at sea, I’ll focus on the heart of Megalopolitan suburbia, where ideas, birders, and birds from all parts of the Earth converge.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Warren the Ape is an Angel at Heart!

In between watching re-runs of Warren the Ape on the MTV website, I read Michael Washburn’s brief review of Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. In addition to such chestnuts as biology vs. culture, instinct vs. intelligence, and apes vs. angels, this short essay also critiques essentialism—a mindset that poses enormous problems for popular understanding of biology in general and for birding in particular—and ridicules the perverse discernments of pretentious connoisseurs—thus providing a convenient tie-in to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, discussed at length in my opening post. So, in between fits of frustration that the cable company has arbitrarily rescinded my MTV, I intend to batter these two bug-bears, essentialism and errors in discernment, from the vampire’s point of view—I mean, the birding point of view.

According to Washburn, “Bloom argues that an ever-present ‘essentialism’ conditions pleasure. This is the belief that everything has an ‘underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly, and it is this hidden reality that matters.’” The way I understand essentialism fits with the first part of this definition, the part positing that things have an essential character that is at the core of their true nature; the second part of the definition, that things’ essential characters are hidden and can’t be observed directly sounds more like philosphical idealism to me, but, either way, given that both of these mindsets are pet peeves of mine, their possible conflation is hardly going to discourage me from ranting against one or the other—in this case, my narrower version of essentialism.

No one ever said identifying birds was easy (at least nobody one ought to listen to), but even the most talented birders have a tendency to lapse into a version of essentialism that damages their biological understanding and ultimately hinders their ability to assess some kinds of identification challenges. Because field marks are useful for identifying birds, it is tempting to reify these particular features and ascribe disproportionate biological importance to them, rather than to recognize that what is special about such characters is simply their utility to us as observers. Ernst Mayr used the term typological thinking to describe this conceit, whereby observers use one or a few core characters to define the essence of a species.

It is obvious, for example, that if a Thayer’s Gull Larus thayeri were to develop white wing tips, by virtue of a simple mutation or some environmental factor affecting pigment deposition in its plumage, no one would argue that it was really an Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides glaucoides. Similarly, if an Iceland Gull were to develop black wing tips somehow, this would not transform it into a Thayer’s Gull. But many of the best birding minds in the world, when confronted with a motley bunch of Kumlien’s Gulls Larus glaucoides kumlieni, showing variably gray patterned wingtips, simply cannot resist the notion that the individuals with whiter wingtips must be somehow more related to Iceland Gulls and that the ones with darker wingtips must somehow be linked with Thayer’s. Moreover, if the average wingtip color of a population of Kumlien’s Gulls were shown to become darker over a number of generations, some very smart people would conclude that the change was a consequence of hybridization with Thayer’s Gulls. This is typological thinking. Pigment in the wingtips is the essence of Thayer’s Gull; lack of pigment in the wingtips is the essence of Iceland Gull; everything in between is an indication of the relative influence of these two types.

Many decades of research in population biology and genetics provide robust evidence that this is not the way populations work. Limited hybridization between Thayer’s and Kumlien’s is unlikely to alter the average appearance of the latter, but natural selection could blacken the wingtips of nominate Iceland Gulls with startling rapidity. Yes, the variability observed among Kumlien’s Gulls might owe something to past hybridization, but no, the appearance of an individual Kumlien’s Gull can’t be used to infer how recently it had a non-Kumlien’s ancestor.

Essentialism is ubiquitous in popular debates over human biology. Our fixation on “those things that are essentially human” would be less annoying if it conceded that apes, and their (often disturbing) essential qualities, are utterly meaningless constructs unless one conceives of apes as including humans; ditto for primates and their not so charming essences, mammals and theirs, animals and theirs, and so on. Contrasting an “animal mind” with the human mind is a particularly popular form of this intellectual delusion. While acknowledging that human brains are very special (some of my best friends have human brains), it is important to realize that the nervous systems of Iceland Gulls (and those of butterflies and ctenophores) are special too—and that the only common identity shared by all of these organisms is one that we humans share as well, as descendents of an ancestral animal. The basis of identity for all of us living in this world is not an essence at all; it is recency of common ancestry. Ctenophores share a rather distant ancestor with us; butterflies share a much more recent one. The most recent common ancestor of Thayer’s Gulls and humans lived on this planet not much more than 300 million years ago and bequeathed its more or less charming amniote schtick to all of its roughly 20,000+ descendent species, including reptiles, birds, and mammals. Whether Thayer’s Gulls, humans, or any of the others have squandered or abused their inheritance over the last 300 million years is another debate—and the same can be said for the unsavory exploits of Chimps and humans over the mere six million years since our mutual progenitor cut us loose.

The reference to angels and apes above relates to an instance in which this problem reared its head in Washburn’s essay on pleasure, via a preposterous little dualism attributed to anthropologist Robert Ardrey: “we are born of risen apes, not fallen angels.” Rejecting the supernatural is really just picking on an unworthy opponent, and there’s no reason I can see to say anything nice about apes—any of ‘em. Yes, we humans are one of five or so species of ape, and if some of us must strive not to feel ashamed about it, the rest of us certainly ought to recognize that it’s nothing to be proud of either! We are also one of 50,000 or so species of fish—perhaps a more promising basis for phylogenetic jingoism.

The tie-in to Dunning-Kruger involves Bloom’s observation that subjective notions of pleasure are often disconnected from physiological sensation—for example when sommeliers grossly misjudge the basic type of wine they are tasting, even as they claim to discern much more subtle distinctions; or when “people find dog food succulent when it's labeled foie gras.” Although Washburn describes these revelations as “startling,” I don’t see it that way at all. Our society is replete with snobby aesthetic pretensions, and incompetence is not an obstacle but a foundation for our culture of phoniness.

Bloom’s argument is fine as far as it goes, but it can't provide a general solution to the problem because not everybody is incompetent and full of shit. I know people who can distinguish the subtlest variations among the artistic traditions of Late Antiquity, others who can detect the esoteric stylistic bounce-back influence of Swedish disco on American popular music, and birders who can master astonishingly difficult problems of field identification—and prove it to the bitterest of skeptics. Finding a species for the first time in a particular region is like noticing, and then proving, that a particular bottle of wine was labeled incorrectly. The tens of thousands of individual birds one ordinarily sees fit more or less neatly into familiar slots. Even for skilled observers, a one in a million rarity might be shoe-horned into an expected category and therefore overlooked. Nevertheless, on the odd occasion when such a bird arrives, it is there for anyone skillful and focused enough to recognize it.

In Massachusetts, which has been birded longer, more competently, and more intensively than any other part of North America, Richard Forster personally added six species to the state list, and he did so during the late 20th Century, when one might expect a pattern of diminishing returns, with more birders than ever, and fewer undiscovered novelties remaining. A peculiar fact attached to his discoveries that renders them still more astonishing is that he made three of them on his own birthday, in 1982, 1984, and 1986! It is difficult to imagine how much more he might have discovered had he lived longer, and applied equal effort throughout the rest of the calendar. Meanwhile, what are the rest of us waiting for? There are plenty of birds out there—and even some new episodes of Warren the Ape—vying to engage our 21st Century human minds.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birding vs. the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or how Rummy never got over "The Doors of Perception"

I don’t know if Aldous Huxley shared his brother Julian’s interest in birding, but I’d expect he was aware of the hobby’s mind-expanding qualities. Although visually impaired, Aldous was deeply concerned with visual experience and its relationships with various categories of subjective and objective knowledge—an appealing combination to me during my late 80s college days, when birding and philosophy competed successfully for my attention with school, work, family, friends, girls, etc. In those busy days and nights, nothing seemed so important as the nature of knowledge, and it was obvious to me then that my knowledge of nature, gained through birding, gave me an edge over some of my fellow seekers.

I thought of Aldous recently during a cell phone conversation with a birding friend.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got an Arctic Tern!” my friend implored, “We were there yesterday at low tide for the faunathon, and the place was dead.”

“Hugh,” I said, standing thigh deep in salt water and mud, “you’ll need a rising tide if you want to get higher!”

My reference was to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in particular the depiction of Dr. Gonzo’s grotesque drug frenzy as a meritorious alternative to mid-20th Century American depravity, in the style of the Vegas strip and the people who voted for Nixon. Aldous saw all of that coming and more, but that didn’t stop him from keeping his sights on better things. Standing in a flooded marsh, I wondered where I lost my 60s paperback imprint of Antic Hay—probably left it in somebody’s room, back in the 90s.

The mind-altering effects of birding are familiar to anyone who’s tried this popular form of nature study, but, of course, they are difficult to explain to those who haven’t. Birding is not necessarily the sort of thing that will get you into a bathtub full of green water, listening to Surrealistic Pillow, and longing for electrocution; nor is it apt to make you regard a vase of flowers as divine or a lawn chair as imponderably dangerous. But it might find you thigh deep in green tidal muck, elated, and aware that you’ve solved a simple question that had frustrated hundreds of very talented people for more than a hundred years—in this case, “How might one find an Arctic Tern in New York?”

No doubt Hugh suspected I’d gotten a bit twisted on rare birds (he might also have suspected Ma Huang, formerly a popular birding pharmaceutical until the bad behavior of a few irresponsible professional athletes and serial dieters ruined it for everyone) but, at the very least, he had to acknowledge that I knew how to find Arctic Terns—and that I knew how to have fun.

Birding is edifying not only because it yields knowledge of the natural world, but also because it gives its practitioners the rare ability to gauge their own strengths and weaknesses. Birds are real organisms, living in real populations within actual ecological communities. Two birders visiting the same forest will record very similar lists of bird species detected. Comparing notes, the objective and subjective dimensions of knowledge will snap into focus effortlessly. You missed Blackburnian Warbler because you can’t hear high frequencies; I missed Great Horned Owl because I’m lazy and don’t enjoy patiently searching through potential roosting trees; we both missed Pileated Woodpecker because they occur at low density and might be encountered about 20% of the time during an hour-long walk; and I pulled out Red Crossbill because I’d been told this nomadic species was on the move recently and was therefore better prepared to detect and identify a faint and distant “gip-gip-gip” that might have reached your ears but gone un-noticed by your naive cerebrum. So and so reported an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? The less said about that, the better, but see, the Pileateds are still here after all.

Contrast this situation to a popular culture where writhing tendrils of multi-media data contest like Medusas, disdainful of refutation, verification, and interpretation alike, and it should be clear that birders have an opportunity to enjoy remarkably accurate—and therefore consistent, from person to person—insights into how much they know, how much their peers know, and whence springs the difference. Active birders cannot fake skill or knowledge. Those who try are readily exposed and gain none of the esteem that presumably motivates such deception.

For instance, although we have seldom discussed such matters in many years of birding together, I know that Hugh is better able than I to discern the subtle shape of a White-rumped Sandpiper at long range; that Tom is better able than I to distinguish the song of a lone and distant Blue Grosbeak from a chorus of closer Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings; and that Patricia is better able than I to detect the shape of a motionless Least Bittern, partly concealed in the reeds of a marsh. They are aware of these differences too, I’m sure, just as they probably can think of examples where my skills or knowledge exceed their own, or those of others among our peers.

This sort of clarity seems rare and precious in a popular culture where journalists compete to repeat BP’s incomprehensible and contradictory assertions (e.g., that it’s not worth even trying to estimate the flow rate of their oil spill but that they must nevertheless continue to apply a particular volume of a particular toxic chemical to disperse the plumes); where self-styled proponents of fiscal propriety denounce taxes but embrace lay-offs and furloughs; where most people regard the statements of the Old Testament as more factual than those of researchers who study evolution or climate change; and where one of the architects of the Iraq war scored points for epistemological insight by trotting out his own variation on the theme of “to do is to be, to be is to do, or doo-be-doo-be-doo.”

A recent piece by Erroll Morris in The New York Times explores the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people’s tendency to deny or remain unaware of their own ignorance or ineptitude. Might birding offer a solution? I think so, because, in addition to yielding verifiable and deeply satisfying connections with the real world around us, any kind of genuine nature study tends to shift huge spheres of potential knowledge out of the realm of “unknown unknowns” into that of “known unknowns,” where they might at least inspire a modicum of respect and concern in the hearts of our planet’s self-appointed stewards.