Monday, July 20, 2009


A pair of house finches have brought me a mini-Darwinian insight this morning. (The variety of the finches in the Galapagos Islands helped shaped his thoughts on evolution.) As the sunrise extended to the feeder by my office window I watched a female finch picking out sorghum and sunflower seeds. Above her on the arch of the pole holding the feeder sat her mate in his crimson plumage. His head moved alertly from side to side, up and down. At any moment he might save them both from the thunderbolt of a falcon plunging murderously out of the sun.

For a moment I thought, “How nice that he watches out for her.” He then dropped off his perch, hovered momentarily above his drab brown mate at the feeder perch, took his fill and flew off. He left her alone, and he left me knowing I had been suckered not by him but by my all too human desire to find the best human qualities in other species.

The fact is we can much more easily and accurately find the most troublesome human qualities in other species. Wildness may have some value for civilization as in Thoreau’s oft repeated proclamation, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” However, overcoming our wildness is exactly the crowning triumph of civilization. The fact that civilization and civility are very much a tentative and unfinished effort is exactly why we seek in other species the validation of our best qualities—intelligence, conscience, and the capacity for love. We feel lonely being the only species struggling to turn these qualities into great institutions.

So for a moment my decades of struggle to be a good provider and protector found validation in a pair of house finches. Why have I tried so hard and why have I been so frustrated by my failures? For a moment it seemed that the finches proved nature wants us to be providers, to care for each other. So it seemed for a moment.

The human animal is the only animal that spends any time trying to prove other species share its best qualities. We are the only species that cares about the well being and survival of another species that does not directly feed us or clothe us. This hope for company explains why efforts to raise money for environmental causes are dominated by images of animals with large eyes, soft noses, warm fur, and a tendency to care for their young. If they move in herds or family groups so much the better, and if they have hands and touch one another, even better. And best of all—do they touch human animals gently?

We grasp at any of these signs to assure ourselves we are not alone with our intelligence and sympathies and our desire to like and be liked. We are not far from the children we used to be who loved books filled with talking, feeling, human-like animals.

To seem more adult, we try out arguments like, “Chimps and humans share 95% of their DNA.” How unscientific. When the human genome has some 3 billion DNA base pairs the 5% difference could mean 150 million possible differences. Similarly among the 20 thousand plus protein coding genomes, 5% means 1,000 differences. Consider that a single variation in a gene can mean the difference between an average human and a seriously deformed or retarded human or a human devoid of all empathy and sympathy.

The human animal is a very social animal. That means that when something nags at its conscience, it seeks company. And we are willing to spend money to get that company. As Robert Frost advised:

Better to go down dignified

With boughten friendship at your side

Than none at all. Provide, provide!

So, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars we have sent space ships out beyond our solar system looking for signs of intelligent life. For scientists the search may mean many things, but for the average person the message the space ships carry is simple, “Hey, is anybody home out there?” I used to say something like this when I would return home from first grade and open the door to a silent house. I’d immediately yell, “Anybody home?”

In all probability we are entirely alone with our humanity both on our little blue planet and in any part of the cosmos we might reach. We don’t like it one bit. We have only each other. W.H. Auden contemplated this situation in one of humanity’s darkest and most brutal hours.

His poem on the eve of World War II begins

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Even at this hour, however, this man who knew so much of human history and failure knew the solution. The poem ends this way:

Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(from “September 1, 1939,” by W.H. Auden)


  1. It strikes me that in your interpretation of male house finch behavior you might be missing some data. It's at least possible that the male had been on the alert for some threat that disappeared before he fled. As far as humans being the "only species that cares about the well being and survival of another species that does not directly feed us or clothe us," that's not technically correct, as there are recorded cases of dolphins saving whales from beaching and humans from drowning and shark attacks.

  2. Yes, to account for all information, I should include the kind of behaviors you note. It remains to be known if they constitute caring for another species. For instance, a horseshoe crab will scurry over to my boot in the water and "cuddle" up to it to make love. Does it care about my boot? We do know that it is trying to make love. Well, let's leave out my reflex humanization and say "trying to mate." How do we know the dolphins were not simply playing with humans or whales as objects? Or pushing them around as shark decoys? Probably not, but there we go--we don't know, and that leaves us alone. With our imagination, of course, a peculariarly human trait (as far as we know)and one which can both lead us astray and comfort us.