Incurious curiosity

Over at the NY Times op-ed page, Verlyn Klinkenborg regularly produces rhapsodic musings about his little patch of ground somewhere in the eastern U.S.  I am seldom impressed by the perspicacity of his observations or the poetry of his writing, but his latest effort is worse than boring. It is insulting.  He has noticed that the swallows in his barn have departed for their fall migration, and he wonders various things about this. He wonders these things but does not show any evidence that he has tried to find out whether science has provided explanations.

He starts the piece as follows: “The swallows have gone, and I do not understand it. How do they arrange to depart? ”  Then he  wonders: “Do [migratory birds] leave during a flight they’re already making, or do they somehow gather themselves together beforehand?” The answer? They “gather themselves,” undergoing hormonal changes and laying on fat that will fuel their journey. Only when they are ready will they go.

VK then muses: “Something within them changes in response to something external, the light perhaps.” Yes, there are massive physiological changes, and yes it is in response to the light, day length in particular, although there is evidence of an annual rhythm of migratory tendency that exerts itself even in constant conditions.

These things have been studied for decades, as even a quick glance at Wikipedia would have shown.

VK then mopes: “It is that something within them — instinct, presumably, as opposed to what we would see as conscious thought — that I don’t understand. Humans have always had trouble understanding instinct. If we experience it, we do not recognize it as such. Even the wisest of swallow-watchers, Gilbert White, the 18th-century ecologist and clergyman, could not decide what to make of instinct.”

Well at least White, who mused rhapsodically about the goings on in his patch of England, tried pretty hard to get answers to his questions. Later, the field of Ethology, established in the 20th century by people such as Heinroth, Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch, Hinde, Thorpe, Griffin, Baerends, Barlow, Marler, and many others, has made a bit of headway there.  The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch in 1973 for their contributions to the scientific study of instinct.

What exactly is the point of curiosity if one is content to remain blind? What is the point of poetry in the service of such willful ignorance?  Those are rhetorical questions.  Here is a non-rhetorical one:  Why is such juvenile, incurious nature writing as Klinkenborg’s published in a paper with such a stellar track record of science writing as the New York Times?

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About ethologist

Professor in the Zoology Department at Michigan State University
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