Same Purpose, Different Styles

satin bowerbird

I’ve slowly come to accept that humans are not special.  Or we are, but no more than any other life form.  As much as I like the idea of being a member of a privileged, ‘higher’ species, I just can’t find any clear distinction between us and other animals.

Superficial differences are easy to find: sure we can build cars and write novels and vote in elections, but these are just behaviors we’ve come to engage in; they don’t exactly make us anything different that just a spectacularly intelligent animal.

In school, children are taught in certain terms that animals are a different type of being than people.  There’s Old McDonald, and his animals: the pig, the goat, the rooster.  Even a five-year old playing with farm animal toys knows that the chicken, cow and horse go inside the little white plastic fence, and Mr and Mrs McDonald belong firmly on the outside.

There are cultural and economic reasons for this imaginary line in the sand, and I won’t get into them here, but it seems clear to me now that all organisms on earth are just different approaches mother nature has taken towards the same end.  Life simply insists on living, in whatever way it is able.  In all of its forms, from people to dandelions to mosquitoes, life just stubbornly does its thing, whatever that may be.

I like this way of thinking, that every living thing around me, and not just every human around me, is fundamentally the same: each is a refined biological system that sustains itself by using its own methods.  Whatever form it takes: a weed, an insect, a mammal, it just wants to continue to live and to reproduce.  All life forms share this same peculiar insistence on existing.

I’m often struck by the tenacity of the tiny little yellow-flowered weed that pushes its way through a crack in a concrete sidewalk.  Something in it makes it really want to be there, no question about it. All life shares this tenacious spirit.

What is so miraculous is the astounding variety of forms this universal insistence takes.  Every plant, animal and fungus has developed its own collection of habitual behaviors and methods for survival, which one could describe as its culture, its way of life.  We humans have our ways of going about the tasks of foraging, building shelter, and courting the opposite sex, and so does each other species.

The act of using tools — despite the bombastic, femur-smashing monolith scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey — is not unique to humans or even primates.  Some vultures, with one talon planted on a stolen egg, will smash it open with pointed rocks held in their beaks.  The woodpecker finch uses twigs to fish for insects in the hollows of trees; they have even been caught on video fashioning a piece of wire into a hook for this purpose.  Gorillas use walking sticks and chimpanzees wield clubs sometimes.  And then there’s this incredible photo.

No, technology doesn’t make us special either.

Language seems, at first thought, to be a unique human achievement, but then we remember that birds have been singing to each other for millions of years, and monkeys have been taught sign language.  Even whales have been found to sport a vocabulary of 35 distinct song tones or so.  Their vocalizations are not as sophisticated as us, but perhaps they don’t need to be.

One of the other ways that people have attempted to distinguish their species from other animals is to point out that human beings are the only life forms to produce art, and the innate urge to do so confers some unique, higher status on our kind.  While it’s true that spiders can weave intricate webs, oysters produce pearls, and wasps build nests that look like designer lampshades, we know that none of these behaviors are motivated by an appreciation for beauty; they are all acts of utility and not art.

But there is at least one other animal species whose appreciation for art — and talent for creating it — cannot be denied.

There is a family of birds called bowerbirds. The males exhibit a fascinating courtship process: they build a shrine, called a bower, to attract a mate.

The centerpiece of most bowers is an inviting arrangement of stems or twigs, individually positioned by the industrious artist.  Some varieties actually build an elevated, thatched roof, supported by pillars, over their bower.  Around the twig arrangement, the male will place collections of whatever he thinks a female would find pleasing to the eye.  Flowers, acorns, nuts, insect wings and pebbles are common adornments, but bowerbirds will just as often employ shards of glass, twist ties, hair elastics, and other carefully-chosen and color-coordinated human refuse.

bower1

bower2

The females will often visit the bowers of several of her suitors, and decide which she finds most pleasing.  Quite often one particular male proves to be a budding Rodin, and his masterpieces will capture the affections of several females, and some of the less talented males will not have a chance to mate. Life is cruel.

What is particularly impressive about these feathered artists is their dedication to achieving their own unique vision for their personal objet d’art. The bowerbird is patient and meticulous, and will not tolerate a rushed job or an inappropriate substitute.  Many birds will spend months gathering just the right objects and adjusting his bower until it meets his lofty standards.

Though bowers often appear to be disordered stockpiles of random objects, researchers have discovered that if they move just one of the hundreds of objects while the artist is away, he will recognize it immediately upon his return and fix it.  It’s clear they aren’t just messing around, they really do have genuine artistic visions, even in their little bird brains.

To really impress his date, males will often build a twig-floored walkway of sorts, marking it with colored artifacts, leading up to his gallery in order to present it from the best possible angle.  Some subspecies of bowerbird will even paint the walls of the shrine with regurgitated plant juices.  How romantic.

bower_01_pengo

Bowerbirds remind me that humans are just one of millions of incarnations of life on this planet.  While I’m worrying in my little apartment about getting my writing done or doing my laundry, it lends me some perspective if I can remember that somewhere out there, precisely as I’m tending to my human to-do list, there are beavers taking down trees, ants hustling to feed their queen, rabbits feasting on backyard gardens, and elephants showing their children where the water hole is.  And none of these tasks are intrinsically less important than our own human habits and dilemmas.

We can’t help but favor ourselves over other species (all species probably do) but at least we can keep in mind that we’re not really different in any meaningful way.  Sure, other species look different, act different, and have different talents. But those differences are all just superficialities when you consider their identical purpose: to survive, to feed ourselves and our offspring, and live our way of life.  And if interior design, of all things, is not a value unique to humans, then maybe it’s time to admit we’re just another gorgeous contestant in nature’s incredible pageant.

Any differences are just a matter of style.

R

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Here, watch one of these incredible artists at work: Bowerbirds on BBC with David Attenborough

Photos by 91RS, Benjamint444 and Peter Halasz

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{ 26 Comments }

Jens Upton May 4, 2009 at 4:30 am

Hiya

Great article. In many behaviours we are very similar to other creatures around us. Just as special and unique too.

The limits of our search for meaning or uniqueness our defined by our perceptual abilites. These are based upon comparison and contrast. I believe comparison always limits because you cannot move beyond it. I also think that’s why certain cultures have embraced mysteries of transcendence through meditation or psychoactives.

The Uniqueness of humanity is in it’s communication amongst people and within people. It enjoys enormous creativity from the birth of a child to zen-like meditation practices. Much of it involves intricate processes we don’t yet understand. I think the uniqueness is lost when we compare ourselves to other animals, imagined ‘what if’s or too much emphasis on understanding through theories and models.

Thanks for a thought provoking article.
Jens

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David May 4, 2009 at 6:28 am

Hi Jens,

The limits of our search for meaning or uniqueness our defined by our perceptual abilites. These are based upon comparison and contrast. I believe comparison always limits because you cannot move beyond it.

I think you’re totally right. All the more reason to refrain from assuming the top spot. We are radically different though, but no more radically different to any given animal than, say, a tuna is to an amoeba.

I am glad I am the kind of animal I am. We are the only animal that blogs, as far as I know. :)

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Lisis | Quest For Balance May 4, 2009 at 7:35 am

Hey, David! What a great story… I’d never heard of Bowerbirds. They sound just like people, and a little Type-A, too! (If you move a piece they’ll put it right back where it belongs.)

Your post reminds me of the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. I don’t usually watch Keanu Reeves movies but this one was showing on the plane (I’ll watch anything to keep from staring at the seat in front of me) and had a neat premise. We, humans, think this is OUR planet when there are countless other species here. WE are the ones destroying it, so… well, you’ll just have to watch the movie. ;-)

Lisis | Quest For Balance’s last blog post..Adventure: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Roger - A Content Life May 4, 2009 at 7:55 am

David,

I like the Bowerbirds!

Many religions, including Buddhism, believe in reincarnation. Some believe that you can be reincarnated as a plant or animal. Therefore, the argument goes, all life is sacred because it could be an ancestor that you see when you see a deer or frog.

Roger – A Content Life’s last blog post..Your Mindful Eating Mission

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David May 4, 2009 at 8:24 am

@ Roger — I don’t think I was a bowerbird in a past life because I’m just not that meticulous. :) But you’re right; we might as well think of deer and frogs as our ancestors, or even our siblings. In any case, there is a significant genetic relationship, even between species that are drastically different in appearance and behavior.

@ Lisis — That gave me a good laugh… they are so type A. Did you watch the video?

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Josh Hanagarne May 4, 2009 at 8:57 am

I heard someone say once that you could measure someone’s humanity by the way they treated animals (non-humans). I agreed and said I would also add that you can measure someone’s humanity by the way they treat customer service workers:)

Birds are now tweeting outside my window starting at 4 AM. I’m not sure what the acoustical anomaly is, but they’re so loud it’s like they’re sitting on my chest. But as far as I can tell, they are hideous magpies, not adorable, sensible bowerbirds.

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Positively Present May 4, 2009 at 9:25 am

Those birds are so interesting! Thanks for posting the pictures because it’s really cool to see what they do. I completely agree with this statement: “We can’t help but favor ourselves over other species (all species probably do) but at least we can keep in mind that we’re not really different in any meaningful way.” It’s so important to remember this!

Positively Present’s last blog post..rainy days and mondays…

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Jay Schryer May 4, 2009 at 9:33 am

This is great stuff, David! Although I know you didn’t mean people to take it *this* way when you wrote it, I just have to say that this is one of my primary reasons for rejecting the moral arguments for vegetarianism. The way I see it, I am no better or “higher” than wolves, bears, lions, etc., and nobody ever gives THEM grief for eating animals! I know it sounds kinda cheeky to put it that way, but seriously. I am a part of this world, I participate in the great circle of life. And yes, that’s a deliberate “Lion King” reference! :D

Jay Schryer’s last blog post..One Year of Love

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Nadia - Happy Lotus May 4, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Hi David,

I have been an animal lover ever since I was kid. I have had all kinds of pets and I always have said that dealing with animals is so much easier than dealing with humans. Animals are clear cut in what they want: they either want to be touched, fed or have some attention. You never have to worry about lying, cheating or being betrayed.

Great pictures too!

Nadia – Happy Lotus’s last blog post..The Ambition Paradox

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David May 4, 2009 at 5:32 pm

@ Nadia — That’s true, humans seem to be the least honest of animals. Pets and other animals are upfront about what they want. It’s refreshing. :)

@ Jay — That’s kind of how I’ve always viewed vegetarianism; we’re just animals eating other animals. But I think it is different in that humans are now quite capable of refraining from eating other animals. A vegetarian wolf just wouldn’t have a chance.

We’re still not capable of refraining from eating plants though, and they’re no less ‘alive’ than animals. I may experiment with veganism in the future.

@ Dani — I hope you checked out the video link at the bottom too; bowerbirds in action is really something to see.

@ Josh — I’m proud to say I’m always very patient with customer service people. Even if they’re hideous magpies :)

David’s last blog post..Same Purpose, Different Styles

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Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching May 4, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Thanks for this post. There are ways that I admire animals as well — when I see how quiet and still they can stay for such long periods, without getting stressed or telling themselves they should be doing something else, and so on. There’s a lot for us to learn from them in that sense, I think.

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ann elise May 4, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Thank you, David, for another insightful post. No, we really aren’t that different from animals; it’s just another “ism” that we hold on to, which holds us back. I think Jens was quite right that such comparisons limit us.

Like when we compare our own race to others’.

Like when we compare ourselves to people of other faiths.

Like when we compare ourselves to people of different genders, socioeconomic statuses, sexuality, occupations, political affiliations, and a myriad of other choices.

Even that nasty ol’ swine flu is just a living thing, trying to survive (although I’ll take a bower bird over a virus any day).

We have much to gain when we move past these comparisons.

ann elise’s last blog post..Greek mythology

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Lisis | Quest For Balance May 4, 2009 at 9:55 pm

I did, David! The video is fantastic! I love how at the end he says it’s basically the single mothers, who have no need for the males, that have led to this architectural infatuation. These guys are desperate to make themselves seem useful. Hm… I wonder if the same thing will happen with humans?

;-)

Lisis | Quest For Balance’s last blog post..Adventure: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Tom Maurer | Simple and Spiritual May 5, 2009 at 5:28 am

Sounds like an Ishmael reader’s words to me. You read it David?

Tom Maurer | Simple and Spiritual’s last blog post..I Nearly Quit This Blog But Rebirthing Saved Me – For Now

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David May 5, 2009 at 6:31 am

@ Tom — No I have never read Ishmael. Daniel Quinn? I will check it out.

@ Lisis — Isn’t it amazing how that works? Mother Nature has given the male bower bird good reason to spend his life building Tah Mahals out of twigs and flower petals.

@ Ann Elise — Ah, I was going to mention influenza but I forgot. Very good point. I suppose there are some times when one organism’s success can be a real danger to us, but it is just a tiny animal trying to survive.

@ Chris — For sure, animals are a lot more skilled than us in a lot of ways. If you want to know how to enjoy life, observe a cat.

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Laurie | Express Yourself to Success May 5, 2009 at 11:02 am

Thanks for the introduction to Bowerbirds; interesting what they do.

I kind of think humans try to be more like the other animals. Take my cat and I, for example. I’ve spent years learning to meditate and be present and she’s just done it all her life. No worries, no sleepless nights, no grudges or resentment. She’s really got it made and I’m still trying to do what she does naturally.

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Tom Maurer May 5, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Yeah Daniel Quinn. It’s a great book, totally changed the way I thought about life. But it seems like you have reached the same conclusions by yourself anyway. Awesome!

Tom Maurer’s last blog post..I Nearly Quit This Blog But Rebirthing Saved Me – For Now

{ Reply }

David May 5, 2009 at 4:55 pm

@ Laurie — Cats embody so many qualities I would like to have. They’re calm and precise with their movements, and they enjoy the simple pleasures so easily.

@ Tom — It’s been added to my (long!) to-read list.

David’s last blog post..Same Purpose, Different Styles

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Ian | Quantum Learning May 6, 2009 at 7:20 am

Great post David. Very thought provoking and some lovely stories. And I notice it even gave Jay a pro-carnivore argument (though a weak one, Jay. I’m sure you can do better!).

While we may not differ functionally, I believe mankind has developed something that does set us above plants and animals – consciousness. As far as I know, we are the only species that can peer far into the past and the future, can contemplate our existence and wonder about the meaning of it all.

I don’t think this makes us ‘better’ or ‘superior’ than any other form of life – just higher up a scale of development. In the same way life is a more developed (complex) form of existence than matter – mankind is a more developed form of life than other forms we know. There may be some hidden surprises around us … but for now I think this is the case.

Have you read any of Ken Wilber’s work? He’s someone you either love or hate, but whatever opinion of him personally he does have some very interesting things to say about this whole area.

Ian | Quantum Learning’s last blog post..Falling in love does not make you telepathic

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Will May 8, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Ranking up there with bowerbirds are elephants.

Using their trunks to grip brushes, they paint. Beautifully.

Observe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He7Ge7Sogrk

{ Reply }

David May 8, 2009 at 6:20 pm

@ Will — Wow! That is quite incredible. Thank you for sharing that.

@ Ian — We definitely have a greater ability for conceptual thinking than any other animal, but I’m not sure that constitutes a distinct difference. Pavlov showed that animals can associate and conceptualize too. If anything, we’re very good at thinking so much that we make ourselves unhappy.

Ken Wilber is now on my ridiculously long “to check out” list, thanks Ian.

{ Reply }

Roger March 17, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Oh, I’ve read 24 Raptitude pages so far, and this is the first post I don’t agree with. Humans are different, not better, not worse, just that different, we are “special because of this, we try to improve our life (yes other mammals do that) but, we let a record of this. Thinking about time makes us different. Past, present and future, we worry about other people (this page is a wonderfull example).

{ Reply }

Roger March 17, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Oh, I’ve read 24 Raptitude pages so far, and this is the first post I don’t agree with. Humans are different, not better, not worse, just that different, we are “special because of this, we try to improve our life (yes other mammals do that) but, we let a record of this. Thinking about time makes us different. Past, present and future, we worry about other people (this page is a wonderful example).

{ Reply }

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