Are you human?

birds_in_tree.jpgRight now juvenile birds all over the northern hemisphere are fledging, growing their flight feathers and learning to fly. You may have noticed some birds looking particularly clumsy, patchy, loud, and awkward. These are likely fledglings, the bird equivalent of a human teenager. Just like teenagers, they are testing their wings, preparing to leave their parents for the world beyond. Also like teenagers, they are obnoxiously dependent, ungainly, and even ugly in a half-baked sort of way.

You will often see fledglings chasing their parents around begging for food. Most young birds make distinct “feed me” calls their parents find impossible to ignore. In a study involving the cagey wild turkey (I can’t remember where I read about this), scientists created a decoy polecat with a tape recorder inside that would play the cheep-cheep call of the wild turkey chicks. As the polecat is one of the turkey’s mortal enemies, the turkey would predictably attack the polecat decoy on sight unless the decoy played the cheep-cheep call. In this case the turkey would hover protectively over the polecat as if it were part of its brood rather than a potential predator. The fact that this behavior is automatic and triggered solely by the cheep-cheep call shows how nature uses instinct as an effective mental shortcut to produce good parenting behavior. From the parent bird’s perspective, they probably don’t realize that their need to feed their offspring is triggered by a particular sound and behavior. In their tiny bird brain, they are probably thinking something like, “Gotta find food now and give it to the baby.” Repeat.

It makes you wonder how much of our own behavior and thoughts are dictated by instincts undetectable to our conscious minds. Why do we really feel and think the things that we do? Do we overestimate the power and control of our own consciousness? What behaviors and feelings do we indulge because of some hidden, instinctual motive? I think about this on the highway where it seems like everyone is talking on a cellphone as they return to their homes. Many people feel this strong desire to stay in constant contact. There has to be some reason we feel the need to socialize in this way.

Maybe depression and anxiety are caused, in large part, by behaving against instinct. Maybe happiness itself is the emotional payoff from acting in accord with Nature. If that is the case, are there any cases where nature/happiness is suspect? In other words, are there times when we should act against Nature to achieve a better long-term dividend of happiness? I think this conflict between what we want and what we think we want is ever present and is responsible for many problems like crime, poverty, violence, and addiction.

It is possible that to achieve larger ends we must act against instinct even to the point of suffering.

From a scene in Frank Hebert’s Dune:

“What’s in the box?”
He felt increased tingling in his hand, pressed his lips tightly together.
How could this be a test? he wondered. The tingling became an itch.
The old woman said; “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a
trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure
the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to
his kind.”
The itch became the faintest burning. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
“To determine if you’re human. Be silent.”


  1. hollis baker

    Great post Chris! That is an insightful observation. One could spend years developing that thought into a doctoral dissertation. Go for the Gold Chris. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  2. Thank you, Hollis. I appreciate your kind words.