April 12, 2011


When I was a child, I was introduced to the story of the passenger pigeon. About the size of a dove and rather nondescript in appearance, this bird was once so common that its flocks could fill the sky. It was hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely to provide cheap meat for cities in the eastern United States. As a boy of five or six, I saw the stuffed bodies of several passenger pigeons at the Cincinnati zoo. There was also a bronze statue of the very last surviving pigeon, who had died at the zoo in 1914. The zookeepers had named her Martha. A tiny stone building housed some stuffed examples and a few pictures as a sort of memorial gesture. I remember looking up at the desiccated, dusty specimens in the display case, trying to imagine that they had once been alive. They were as inanimate as corn husks. Thinking about this pigeon holocaust, back in the distant past before my parents had been born, was enough to bring a tear to my eye. “Human beings are cruel and thoughtless,” I concluded then and there. I was ashamed of my species.

I am long since grown. I have almost forgotten the age when I had no idea there was any difference between emotions and the truth. I rarely cry over anything now, least of all dead pigeons. Nature doesn’t change because we have certain feelings about it, and neither does it stay the same because we want it to. If we want to see nature as it really is, we have to put aside our notions of how we feel it ought to be.

Facts are simply facts. All wild animals (and probably most tame ones too, including people) spend their lives in one long quest for food, mates, and security. Each individual will die. There are no exceptions. Sooner or later, either the probabilities of predation or accident will catch up with you, your food will run out, or you will succumb to old age or disease. This is nature. I do not now believe that the last passenger pigeon suffered in any special way that ordinary pigeons don’t. Martha, the last of her kind, lived, probably had good days and bad days in some unknowable pigeon way, and died. Individual animals know happiness and suffering; species do not. In the same way, individual human beings know suffering – while nations do not. It is each of us that possess the fleeting quality of being alive – it is never the collective.

Nature isn’t kind to species. The various forms of plants and animals arise through the inexorable processes of biology. Some are well adapted to their circumstances and thrive for a time. Others, that are less well adapted, decline and disappear. This is evolution. It is nature in actual practice. Our hubris as humans is that we have settled on the peculiar idea that we are not a part of nature – that we are somehow above the process looking down. This is nothing but make-believe and human chauvinism. Like Martha, we are born, we live out our measure of summers and winters, and we submit to the permanent dissolution of our consciousness in death. This is nature too.

We now may be more numerous than passenger pigeons ever were. We are unusual animals, to be sure, with our technology and social complexities, but we are subject to natural limits whether we like them or not. We thrive under conditions that are favorable to us and will decline when those conditions become unfavorable. We just happen to be dynamic enough, and numerous enough, to drive many other species into extinction. Humanity, from a neutral point of view, is like a swarm of locusts or a bloom of algae. Collectively, we are an enormous, sudden and spectacular natural event. Individually, we are just hungry, restless, inquisitive animals. Civilization is neither a noble march of progress nor an environmental evil. It is just what biology makes it. Like locust swarms and red tide, it is a population event – something that expands to meet its natural limits and then subsides. We are neither a threat to the processes of biology as a whole, nor are we the custodians of those processes. Nature is not our friend. Nature is not our enemy. It is the context in which each of us exists, even if we never see the ocean, a wild animal, or a tree firsthand.

The emotion that I once felt for the fate of the passenger pigeon may have been intellectually misplaced, but it certainly was real. The fact that our feelings do not change reality to suit us doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Hearts, too, are natural things. Whoever decided to call the last pigeon Martha did so with some sense that she was a being, an animal with life and a mind, and not an inanimate lump of bronze like her statue. We may be subject to nature in every respect, but we are not just mechanisms. We have the capacity of awareness, and the most fundamental things of which we are aware is that we are alive and conscious, and that other beings around us are alive and conscious too. To look into the eye of a stuffed specimen in a display case is to see only a body – but to look into the eye of any living animal, be it a pigeon or a human being, is to be aware of a mind, however unreachable or alien. We see an unmistakable reflection of ourselves. We experience, directly, what life is.

It is when we begin not to see people and animals as beings that we descend into a mere mechanical existence. Perhaps what we should remember about the passenger pigeon is not that we drove them to extinction, but that we mined them as unfeelingly as though they had been a seam of coal. We treated them as things, and to that extent we became mere things ourselves.

Life on Earth is not going to end because we snuff out the existence of a group of birds with a certain pattern of plumage, or a type of fish with a certain number of stripes. The biosphere has recovered from more egregious insults than we are likely to inflict. Our actions are unlikely to put an end to photosynthesis, sexual reproduction, the tetrapod body plan, lungs, wings, or any other of biology’s pivotal inventions. We will reshape the world. The damage that we do is almost all attributable to our exponentiating numbers, but it would be na├»ve to imagine that any individual is going to forsake reproduction, let alone existence, for the sake of a bird or a fish. Our collective trajectory will play itself out, a collection of forces too large for us to grasp except in fragmentary glimpses.

Martha’s little shrine is not an apology to nature. It is a monument to the irreconcilability of our compassion and our appetite. This is who and what we are.

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful piece.

    But humans are different - we are, as far as we know, the first and only species to recognize ourselves. We stand not just outside nature, looking down, but outside ourselves as well. "We" being the self-consciousness.

    Of course, consciousness is a completely artificial construct instantiated by our biology. It thinks it is the reason for our entire existence when in fact it's merely a side-effect of building a better hunting machine. Religion, in some sense, is the dream that that software can escape the hardware. And as you point out, it's not even a meaningful dream.

    But also as you note, we still have a heart. Our feelings are biologically in-built. So the life of reason does not destroy emotion; it embraces it, although with a higher chance of favorable outcomes.

    Turns out being able to hunt better is useful for lots of things.