Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Birding and Politics

Trilobite Fossil

As young child I remember becoming utterly fascinated by dinosaurs after seeing the traveling Sinclair exhibit during the late 1960s. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, right before me were life-sized replicas of huge monsters that once roamed the Earth. I was hooked. The exhibit left me with a lifelong source of inspiration for all things Nature. In elementary school I read every dinosaur book in our library. I collected fossils (and still do) and joined a rocks and minerals club championed by the school's principal. I understood that the last dinosaurs existed tens of millions of years ago and that anatomically modern humans arrived on the scene about 200,000 year ago. By age 10 my interest in astronomy gave me a pretty good idea of the age of our galaxy, solar system, and our home planet. By the time I was a teenager I accepted concepts of common ancestry, descent with modification, and differential reproductive success, but probably not in terms I use today. I attended Sunday School for a time, then confirmation classes before graduating from high school. At the time I accepted science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria; there was little or no conflict between the two views. It wasn't until a few years after high school that I began to doubt creation stories depicted in the Book of Genesis, even in the context as mere allegories. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Genesis was mythological.

I'm writing about this subject today because yesterday the Tennessee legislature passed an anti-science bill on a 72-23 vote. The language of the bill reflects the long-standing canard that there exists a controversy (there isn't one) within the scientific community regarding evolutionary theory along with other science-based concepts. (Why don't they ever attack linguistics re: The Tower of Babel?) In my mind it remains one of the most intriguing social and cultural phenomenons in our nation. How is it possible that around half of all people residing in what is arguably the most modern and scientifically advanced civilization on the planet deny the greatest biological discovery of all time? The correlation is undeniable. A majority of one particular political party rejects evolution and mostly on religious grounds. You may find exceptions, but it's typically the rule. In my opinion, this legislation is a direct product of the Christian Right, which is the lapdog of the GOP.

What does this have to do with birding? Plenty, I believe. The welfare of birds is inextricably linked to the environment and protecting the environment is intensely connected to politics. I should also make a distinction between watching birds and studying them. The two methods can be taken individually or combined in any fashion; one view isn't better than another with respect to an individual's personal enjoyment of the hobby. That said, one of the surest ways we advance our understanding of the avian realm comes from the knowledge gained by studying their natural history as discovered by science. This encompasses evolution. How can we experience genuine respect for a creature's nature without the knowledge of how it got here, what it does, and why it does it? The consilience behind evolution unifies our understanding of birds (and other animals) through major disciplines of science like taxonomy, cladistics, genetics, paleontology, paleobiology, embryology, geology, biogeology, microbiology, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, and more. Based on empirical evidence, only science offers us a complete picture. For my birding niche, reading and learning about avian science and evolution adds an enriching dimension to my personal enjoyment of watching wild birds. But I've worn all hats; chaser, lister, compiler, photographer, field trip leader, public speaker, citizen naturalist, anthropomorphizing spiritualist, and more.

One birding niche isn't better than another, but a well-rounded one is likely desired by us all, if only we could devote more of our time and attention to our shared passion. And I really don't feel it's necessary to embrace a scientifically rigid view of the natural history of birds to simply admire their appearance. I get that some birders experience the Glory of God's creation through the astounding beauty and diversity of birds; they see a supernatural design where I see a natural process. If one birding niche is no better than another, then it's probably because an individual's personal enjoyment is immeasurable. If an individual's enjoyment is immeasurable, then there is no basis to pity those who partake in one niche over any other. Perhaps we can pity people who are so presumptuous that they assume their enjoyment of a hobby is somehow deeper or more meaningful than somebody else's. I also get that different people are in it for different parts of the hobby. That's normal. Assuming that your favorite part of the hobby is somehow superior, well, that's kind of immature. Supporting politicians who threaten science and our environment? It's impossible to ignore that they know so little about what they're trying to force on everyone else. In my view it's a path that goes all the way down and will ultimately impact the welfare of birds and other critters.

Suggested reading:

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight

Disclaimer: The views, opinions, or positions by the blog author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, positions or strategies of Eagle Optics.

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