Tuesday, June 04, 2013

'Nuff Read: The Human Nature of Birds

Though summer break from my position as a high school English teacher will not officially begin until June 25, the winding down of classes and hopes for September have me in a Summer Reading kind of mood. Some of my classes recently completed a film analysis activity with the 2003 documentary Winged Migration and as we enjoyed the movie together I was reminded of a book I had once started but never finished.

I've written before about how books sometimes reveal themselves to us more fully when the reader is ready, and it was with this thought in mind that I retrieved a dusty copy of The Human Nature of Birds: A Scientific Discovery with Startling Implications by Theodore Xenophon Barber from my bookshelf. Like a number of books that was once purchased and forgotten among science-fiction, poetry and Westerns, The Human Nature of Birds represented an "outside the box" purchase for when it was made nearly 18 years ago.

Published in 1994 by Penguin, this non-fiction selection represents Barber's sole mainstream publication, with only psychology texts such LSD, Marijuana, Yoga And Hypnosis (2007) also showing up among his credits. A doctor specializing in hypnotic behavior and susceptibility, here Barber turns his skills to analyzing, and ultimately drawing connections between bird behavior in the light of human nature. At its heart is the question of whether or not birds, like humans, are capable of purposeful behavior, or are they simply responding to the world around them reflexively.

An extensive treatise comprised of comparisons between human and avian development, Barber's premise is that birds (whom he repeatedly refers to as his--and our--"closest wild neighbors") are much more similar to humans in their behavior and communication than commonly believed. His argument is supported through the use of some familiar anecdotes illustrating interactions between humans and birds. Even the famed Dr. Irene M. Pepperberg's "genius" parrot, Alex, is named checked in the book a number of times. Fortunately, Barber, a trained behavioral psychologist, uses a vocabulary and terminology to lay out the argument for considering the possibility of species-quality that is accessible to readers (such as myself) with the limited scientific vocabulary.

"The Startling Implications" hinted at in the book's subtitle reach beyond the potential relationships between avians and humans and suggest the necessity for a deeper necessity for the development of this interconnectedness with nature as a whole.  All in all, pretty "heady" stuff, though presented in a manner digestible by bird brains and academicians (and avians, I suppose) alike. A more educated summary can be seen here from Enotes, and (though unrelated to the book), the NOVA clip below both eulogizes the death of one of Pepperberg's most famous parrot prodigies and gets at some of the spirit of avian intelligence researched by Barber.

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

Most interesting. Thanks....