Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do Birds Need Ornithologists?

Cooper's hawk in my backyard.
A number of times in the last few years I've read statements by prominent scientists about the irrelevance of philosophy, echoing Richard Feynman's famous quip that "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds."

Feynman was just talking about philosophers of science, which is just one narrow slice of the philosophic pie.  More recently others, like Freeman Dyson, have made broader indictments of philosophy, or like Lawrence Krauss, of the humanities generally.

Dyson, in an article he wrote for the New York Review of Books, described today's philosophers as "a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant."  Yes, we have a technical vocabulary that outsiders often have trouble understanding.  But that's true of every discipline.  And yes, we don't seem to have anyone in our discipline who is writing the next Job or Republic right now, but that's been true almost always.  No discipline consistently produces nothing but geniuses.  Many of us in every discipline live our careers out bearing the gifts of the past forward to another generation so that they might benefit from them and add to them. And many of us are content to be forgotten as long as the books of wisdom entrusted to us are remembered.
Female ruby-throated hummingbird.

In his recent book A Universe From Nothing, Krauss seems to be at pains to point out that without the sciences, the humanities are virtually useless, and that even with the sciences, the humanities are still virtually useless.  His introduction pushes the humanities back at arm's length and invites them to clear out while science handles all the real heavy lifting.

What stands out for me as I read these scientists and some others writing in a similar vein is that they write like they're on the defensive and feeling embattled.  My guess is that they see themselves or their disciplines as being engaged in an important fight about cultural values, science education, and research funding.  The outsized reaction to Thomas Nagel's recent Mind and Cosmos - with its inflammatory subtitle, "Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False" - suggests that many advocates of the sciences worry about any book that might give comfort to the enemy.

Mourning dove eggs in one of my flower pots.
A siege mentality can make us distrustful of everyone, and especially of our critics, no matter how friendly.  Dyson, Krauss, and others inclined to sideline the humanities would do well to remember that the humanities give them the tools with which to reason and write about the discoveries of science.  If those of us in the humanities seem critical of the sciences, this doesn't mean we're unfriendly. The funny thing about Feynman's dictum is that as long as birds and people try to live together, birds actually do benefit from ornithologists.  After all, ornithologists study the birds and their environments, and work to ensure that others see how important it is to preserve them.  Of course, the birds in their daily lives will likely never know it.


I should add that philosophers like me benefit from ornithologists, too.  I am especially grateful for the ornithologists at Cornell University for putting so much helpful information on their website for bird-watchers and ornithophiles like me.  

The bird I have identified as a Cooper's hawk might be a sharp-shinned hawk; I often have trouble distinguishing them.  We live on the migration path for ruby-throated hummingbirds, so we see them for two brief seasons, once in the spring and again in the fall.  Mourning doves are notoriously poor parents, and we often find they've laid eggs in silly places.  Fortunately for their species, they can produce multiple clutches each year.

If you're interested in both birds and philosophy, let me recommend Charles Hartshorne's book Why Birds Sing. Hartshorne suggests that maybe birds sing because they enjoy it.  This may seem so obvious as to be silly, but it is a helpful addition to the usual claims that birds sing because singing is useful for mating, staking territorial claims, self-defense, and so on.  Hartshorne doesn't allow us to reduce birds to bird-making machines.  Which is helpful, because it's a reminder that we, too, are more than human-making machines.  It's also good to be reminded that it's okay to sing for the sheer enjoyment of singing.

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