Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022.
In his classic book from 1990, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, the Marxist-turned-Catholic-Thomist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre discusses three basic modern and postmodern approaches to philosophical inquiry: encyclopedia, genealogy, and tradition. The genealogical method, pioneered by Friedrich Nietzsche and elaborated by Michel Foucault, presents a historical narrative in which ideas develop and grow over time. According to this thinking, being and truth are conditioned by history (historicized) and thus develop in tandem with the twists and turns of science, technology, economics, language, and culture.
A method initiated by critical theorists writing primarily for other intellectuals and academics, the genealogical approach has found surprising success in an unlikely genre: coffee table books. Writers such as the late Italian semiologist Umberto Eco and French medievalist Michel Pastoureau published popular books that chronicled the history of various cultural phenomena, ranging from animals such as bears and pigs to the colors yellow and black. These works usually begin with a description of how early humans in the “prehistoric” period depicted and conceptualized, for example, bears or the color black, tracing the various developments up to the post-millennial period in which we live. The message often conveyed by these genealogical narratives is that there is no substantive or eternal truth, but merely the development of truth. Whether one agrees with that proposition or not, these books generally make very pleasurable reads for curious minds.
In his recent work Birds and Us, British ornithologist Tim Birkhead provides such as a genealogical retrospective of human relationships with birds. Through his work, Birkhead offers a number of interesting tidbits about the relationship between feathered and what Plato once famously called “feather-less” bipeds (or humans). Birkhead’s passion for birding and the study of birds is palpable, and the work provides a rare glimpse into the cultural and biological history of human-avian relations.
Relationships between ancient humans and birds had a deeply religious element. Birkhead locates the “ground zero” of an early human civilization built around animal worship in ancient Egypt. Within the catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel in Egypt, there are four million mummified birds contained in jars and coffins. In addition to mummifying ibises, ancient Egyptians preserved a variety of creatures in cemeteries throughout the Nile Valley. Birds, however, are among the most prominent animals. Clearly, the lovingly embalmed birds were considered sacred; and ancient Egypt was a civilization in which humans and birds lived in harmony.
But such religious understandings of birds could cut both ways—not just care and preservation, but also blood sacrifice. Ancient Egyptians believed that the gods demanded appeasement in order to regulate, among other things, the fertility of the Nile river. Figures such as Ramses II (1187-1157BC) would offer sacrifices of up to 20,000 birds per year. Animal gods populated the Late Period of Egyptian history (672-332BC). The ancient Egyptians ate birds and used them for sport. The Egyptians developed nets as well as bird decoys for catching birds.
Birds also represented images of transcendence into the other world. Birds could fly, and this ability to go from earth to heaven represented the soul’s own migration to the other world. Birkhead points to the painting known as “Fowling in the Marshes,” painted about 3400 years ago, in which Nebamun, a court official, is depicted hunting birds in a marsh. As Birkhead notes, it is both a lovely depiction of a pleasant day hunting as well as a deeper symbol of ridding the world of chaos.
The bird was a ubiquitous symbol. Indeed, there are fifty bird hieroglyphs. Birds—sometimes with mongooses and other animals—provide the decoration for many Egyptian tombs. But after Greco-Macedonian and then later Roman conquest of Egypt, Birkhead notes, Europeans largely abandoned animal worship.
Europeans tended to worship birds less, but they developed the scientific study of birds. Birkhead, however, rejects Aristotle’s anthropocentric notions of humans forming a cap on a gradated ladder of perfection. Drawing from Darwin, Birkhead sees humans as being one animal among many different types. According to Birkhead, Aristotle did note that birds “speak.” Long after Aristotle, Plutarch observed that birds seem to have the ability to learn. The Platonic philosopher Porphyry of Tyre likewise argued that birds possessed some degree of consciousness. By contrast, Aristotle rejected the idea of the rationality of birds, a view that traveled via the Roman historian Pliny to influence early Christian thought on the subject
While early Christians tended to be skeptical of avian cognition, they made extensive use of ornithological imagery in their tradition. The Holy Ghost is imagined as lighting on Jesus like a dove. The Gospel of John is symbolized as an eagle. Various Christian medieval psalters such as the aptly named “Bird Psalter” were richly decorated with birds. The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, commissioned for her marriage to the Duke of Guelders in the Netherlands in 1430, contains a number of caged birds, which, Birkhead argues, represented the hoped-for fertility of Catherine. Birkhead further notes the importance of hawking during the medieval period, explaining that hawking developed from more brutal methods to more humane ways of teaching the hawk. Moreover, during the process of taming the hawk, a bond grew between the hawk and its trainer. Falconry and hawking were signs of wealth and decadence and thus drew the ire of some of the peasantry as well as clerics. There are other popular medieval Christian images of birds, including depictions of the “call of the birds” in the Book of Revelation as well as St. Francis of Assisi’s famous preaching to the birds. Birkhead takes a largely ecological reading of these texts, seeing them through the lens of an environmentalist, not a theologian.
The Renaissance saw an increase in the scientific study of birds that involved dissection as well as drawing of birds in detail—Leonardo da Vinci was famously enthralled by the tongue of woodpeckers. The encounter with the New World in the early modern period likewise introduced new species of birds as well as new understandings of birds found among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Birkhead takes note of efforts such as a 1533 act passed by Henry VIII that encouraged people to kill birds because they were eating the grain of the poor. His daughter Elizabeth likewise continued this process with a 1566 act “for the Preservation of Grain.” Curiously Mao Zedong imposed similar policies in China in the 1950s and 60s to protect grain harvests.
Despite these attacks on birds (or rather because of them) various bird preservation movements arose with varying intensity beginning in the Victorian period. The twentieth century saw increased knowledge of birds as well as sadly, at least in some cases, decreases in the population of some bird species. At the same time, there has been a rise in amateur birding, which, Birkhead argues, has been helpful in documenting bird behavior. Nonetheless, this increase in birding has spread some of the idiosyncrasies of bird watchers—including those birders with a penchant for obsessively stealing and hoarding bird eggs. It seems, as with many things, the democratization of culture has been both a blessing and a curse.
There is little question that human development has resulted in destruction of animal life and habitat. Few would be eager to contradict Birkhead’s call for cooperation between humans and animals. One might be forgiven, however, for suspecting that in his urgency to encourage that cooperation he devalues important distinctions between human and animals.
There are numerous passages in Birds and Us that represent the best of genealogical method. Clearly humankind’s relationship with birds and other animals—and a host of cultural phenomena—has changed and developed over time. It suggests, too, both the importance and difficulty of imagining a new manner of human flourishing that cooperates with and contributes to the flourishing of the rest of the natural world—without returning to the early states of human culture from which our ancestors were able to escape with the help of technology and social development.