Paperback review: Bird Sense - What It's Like to Be a Bird, By Tim Birkhead
A bird-brained philosophy of science
Saturday 16 March 2013
Thomas Nagel's recent book, Mind and Cosmos, in which the philosopher (who is an atheist) criticises Darwinist reductionism, has provoked fierce attacks from scientists. It is interesting, in this context, to find that Tim Birkhead's ornithological primer, Bird Sense, features a discussion of an earlier Nagel essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), which argues that there is a subjective character to experience that cannot be explained by science alone.
Birkhead, a zoologist, shows that there is a great deal that science can – and does – explain. His survey of birds' sensory apparatus is fascinating: we learn that migratory species can navigate by combining their knowledge of landscape with a perception of the Earth's magnetic field; that oilbirds and swiftlets can echo-locate in the dark; that an owl's asymmetric ears allow it to pinpoint a mouse scurrying beneath layers of earth and snow. Birkhead tells us not only what is known in this field but also how we have come to know it, describing the often ingenious experiments that scientists have designed to determine the nature of birds' awareness.
He also recognises the limitations of science, though. Having demonstrated the immense strides we have made in understanding birds, he concedes that Nagel may well be right that there are particular things about other creatures that "we can probably never know". His willingness to consider a rapprochement between science and philosophy seems all the more winning in light of the shrill debate currently raging over Nagel's anti-materialist heresy.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food