Science of life: Of humans, monkeys, and birds

If I were to make a list of the traits that distinguish humanity from other species, I would start with ‘kindness’ and end with ‘cruelty’. Our ability to be harmonious has co-existed with our capacity to be a destructive force. Most of us were Frankenstein monsters in search of the doctor who had created us. Thankfully, some were concerned about the science.

A few days ago, I was introduced to the works of Dr. Yuval Harari – a historian. In his book, Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, he talks about how we are the “only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers”. He also opines that the human tendency to invest in fiction is what separates us from the other species.

“…as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, and the same values.”

His conclusions, as obvious as they may seem, are brilliant. Emotions such as affection, greed, anger and confidence are figments of our imagination. Despite that, we spend a lot of time – toying with them. Abstract constructs, whether patriotism, spirituality or morality, shape the way the world operates. The manner in which human beings interact with each other. But these are fictional elements that we have woven into the fabric of our minds. Yet without them, we are ill-equipped to discover meaning in our existence.

Psychologist Harry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys was a landmark moment in the science of emotions. He put infants through the maternal deprivation to better understand the power of attachment. Soon, he had evidence that the creatures seem to prioritize psychological over biological parenthood.

As horrific as the process sounds, it makes for a fascinating read.

I wonder about the centrality of cognitive thinking in the bird kingdom. About the stories that they might have believed in since their ancestors took to the skies. Do they care about their own beyond the realm of posterity? If they do, how similar it is to how we behave? Do they sing aloud Pearl Jam ballads or birdsongs in the shower after being dumped by their lovers?

There are many theories on it; from the intelligence of crows and the moral outrage of bluebirds to the empathy of domesticated hens. I read some of them from time to time. But I prefer to go out there and watch them.

I may end up with inaccurate conclusions and half-baked observations about their behavior. I may even find myself more deluded about their ways than I was a few years ago.

And what if Spotted Doves don’t playfully flirt with each other? Is it possible that Spotted Owlets don’t like me as much as I think they do? Is there even a chance that Common Mynahs aren’t goofy pranksters?

But if it’s all human speculation anyway, I already know all the answers.

As the skies
turn to gray.
two-legged apes
wonder, “what does love
have to do with
a sunny day?”

(Photographs: Chennai, Kanchipuram, Kodaikanal, Valparai & Mudumalai) 

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26 comments

  1. If you look at our history, it has been the ability to circumnavigate the globe (on water) that began the demise of other species, ramped up by our successful manipulation of earth’s resources (oil, trees, damming water) to our singular advantage.

    Animals are no match for the sudden arrival of an upright primate with a rumbly tumbly, timber ax, and a Facebook account. The 6th mass extinction is already a foregone conclusion.

    Better for the headache to just opt out of the madness and enjoy what’s left first hand instead. Here I come, birdies. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Opt out of the madness” is my current modus operandi too, Shannonroo. At times though, it just feels inescapable given how tangled and hopelessly interconnected everything is.

      I bet in the era of absolute dystopia, we’d be quoting X-Men dialogues.

      “The Neanderthal is running scared, my fellow mutants”!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved that Frankenstein monster part – I agree! May be its the thought that we are better or the best and deserve the best drives and distinguishes humankind from other species now. We seem more equipped for a peaceful co-existence but then we end up using the same to deprive others of existence!!

    It’s so good that you love the company of birds and prefer to go out to get first hand experience..to me that’s much better than experiments. Thanks to your blog my interest in birds have grown ….. ‘ve been more observing and more accomodating now though they are very few in variety here(but guess that makes it more convenient to understand them better).
    [ I do find a whole lot of humanly behaviors (I cldn’t think of a better word) in them – tolerance, kindness, curiosity, selfishness, greed, responsibility ( or was it parently love I don’t know!)]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Mridula. Your comments set my heart aflutter! I am glad that you have discovered some amount of love for birds. I dearly hope that it keeps growing larger!

      I guess, being capable is only half the battle. To have the inclination to unite for common good is another story altogether!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Phoenix! I once tried to start an online campaign called ‘Shut Up & Behave’. I hash-tagged it and everything. So here’s the crux of it – first, we shut up about our First World problems and then we behave (be kind and generous, don’t break traffic rules, don’t spit / pee in public, etc).

      I can’t say it picked up any sort of momentum, but it was helped me understand a few things about nothing ever really changes as far as modern civilization goes. We consume, we reproduce, we rinse and we repeat.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Animals cannot be wicked or good they have no moral sense we interpret what they do in human terms. Dogs copulate in the street they feel no guilt they will kill a chicken without second thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a little frightening that I am led to believe they don’t matter at all hehehe. Yuval in fact said something that got to me. He asked whether you can cut open someone and find human rights in there. I clutched onto my headphones and mouthed “holy crap, yes they don’t but but but…!”

      I just don’t know anymore, GB (sheepish smile)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The but you were looking for, I think, is humanity’s endless quest against entropy. We need human rights and ethics and values in order to order our lives and create our own little normal. We need rules to create a structure in which to exist. So yes, human rights may not be intrinsic. But that doesn’t make them any less necessary.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Certainly, GB! Constructs such as human rights and democracies need to be woven into our systems in order prevent chaos. But (sorry, another one) even in the case of such indisputable issues, there are debatable points. From reservation and voting to gender politics and distribution of social welfare, I believe we have tainted them all to the point that they are no longer driven by “kindness”.

        The thing is, I don’t have a solution at all apart from – hope I have enough money to buy some popcorn and watch the world fade away.

        A simpler conclusion could be that I am not aging gracefully at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “i would start with kindness and end with cruelty”- you have just fully captured the entire human spectrum of emotion or even movement.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We must not judge animals with human eyes using our own ethical values which they do not have. A tiger cannot be cruel and nor can a crocodile. When man gained his conscience he began to judge his own actions and left the innocent animal kingdom. What is cruelty will vary from nation to nation and person to person but all except psychopaths have some set of moral values. Interestingly psychopaths have different brain scans from ordinary human beings.

    Liked by 1 person

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