Strictly for the Birds

Dalrymple’s monthly piece in New English Review has been published. A description of the birds in his garden, it displays the temptation, and then a refusal, to extrapolate their conduct to that of man.
The list of people who have thought that the examination of the conduct of animals sheds profound light on the human world is a long one. I remember that, in my days as a student, the studies of Konrad Lorenz were all the rage, at least until it was discovered, or at least publicised, that he had been a Nazi. This led to a different, and less favourable or credulous reading of his book on aggression, though of course whether what he said in that book was true or not had nothing to do with his political past.

For quite a long time, when I was a more frequent reviewer of books than I am now, I used to be sent books on ethology and evolutionary psychology for review, and many of them were indeed fascinating. But it seems to me that they shed no light on human life, just as a rigid Laplacean determinism does not help us to live. When I come to a T-junction, it may well be that whether I turn left or right has been already determined by the whole of the previous history of the universe (although it sounds a bit grandiose to put it like this), but the fact is that, when I come to the T-junction, I still have to think about whether I am going to turn left or right. Consultation about the whole of the previous history of the universe will not help me very much, and indeed would turn me into a kind of Buridan’s ass.

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