Witnessing even a small murmuration of starlings leaves me struggling to understand how such collective action is possible. Is that because my human-animal mind is so individuality programmed that watching their close proximity movements, their fast flight twists and turns without collisions, their moving air design formations, is so far beyond my human experience? The flight capability of starlings allows me to believe a collective consciousness, a unified “mind”, is coordinating the show.
What can I possibly know about what it is to be a non-human creature? As my most common daily observations are centered on birds I think about such things regularly and, now that winter feeding is underway, squirrels get included in my musings. Are there collective mind sets in species? Do individuals within a species have distinct personalities? If so, what is it like to be that particular squirrel or a member of that specific crow family?
The explanations based on the science of Frans de Waal in his book “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” were unsatisfactory to me. While I appreciate the disciplined scientific methodology used by de Waal, my soul tires and finds the conclusions lacking. I’m old and impatient and I do not have enough time to wait until Science unveils a proof-positive explanation of human animal, or other animal, consciousnesses. After reading de Waal’s work I am not at all sure I will appreciate (or fully accept) such explanations, even from classic double-blind research. Both scientists and philosophers have been working on this topic for some time now. What they write is interesting but the overriding questions on consciousness remain in essence, unanswered.
What sense can I, in my tiny observational world, make from watching the crows on the lawn or the squirrels on the porch? Hunger seems an obvious motivator of behavior but what is the reality of these lives lived just outside my door?
There are many more articles and books to plow through searching for satisfying answers, working my way through what thinkers and researchers have to say. Consciousness is huge and hugely important.
I suspect critters other than we humans may have a very different awareness as to what all of this means. I feel that telling ourselves we are the smartest beings, those at the top of the food chain, doesn’t cut it or even come close to anything near truth.
de Waal Frans. Are You Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2017.
Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?”. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 4, No. 4, October 1974, pp. 435-450. http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/maydede/mind/Nagel_Whatisitliketobeabat.pdf
Starling murmuration video.