Romance and Survival
Love, romance, sex. That's what the "birds and the bees" are supposed to be about. Yet recently the birds and the bees are providing us very different lessons about regeneration, the rapid process which keeps us and all the other living things alive - lessons that affect our own survival.
It Only Takes a Pigeon...
The mathematician-humorist Tom Lehrer, singing in 1960's about how little it took to poison pigeons, probably did not expect one of the great nature filmmakers to subject pigeons to eight hours of television. Yet that's what David Attenborough just did. Pigeons were forced to watch eight hours of his documentary "The Life of Birds." Yet they were only allowed to watch with one eye and were kept awake through their usual afternoon nap.
Attenborough's experiment was on sleep and the brain. Later that night the pigeons, whose slow wave sleep is similar to humans, were found to have much more intense deep sleep in the parts of their visual cortex that had been stimulated during the day.
The brain took the visual information and reworked it. That's just one important sleep process - rewiring the brain. Information is combined with all the old information in memory to create new brain paradigms that inform the body's continuous regeneration.
How much did the pigeons learn about other birds? That's still unclear. I hope they gleaned more than humans usually do from television. Yet other lessons from today's birds are more ominous.
Jackdaws dying in the hundreds in Sweden; starlings dead in the streets of Constanta, Bulgaria; blackbirds "falling from the sky" in Arkansas. The new forms of rapid bird demise has brought international attention to the latest "Aflockalypse," as humans try to find a common cause for avian destruction.
Sometimes the causes are elusive. The Swedish jackdaws apparently were run over by motorists (clearly the Social Democrats are no longer in power,) while the Bulgarian starlings drank themselves to death imbibing "grape merc," the leavings of wine making.
The case of the Arkansas blackbirds, including the hated agricultural pest the red winged blackbird, is perhaps more telling. The most current theory is that they were killed by New Year's Celebrations - fireworks. Pathologists have found numerous hard injuries as birds, apparently trying to escape the noise and noisome chemical of holiday revelers, smashed into buildings and trees.
Yet such numbers of bird deaths are apparently normal and routine. One US government estimate is that between 97 million to a billion birds die in this country each year by slamming into buildings.
Birds around the world are very stressed out. And they're not alone.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Honeybees pollinate one third of human food, yet have been dying "like flies" throughout the world. This global disaster is named Colony Collapse Disorder.
Recently the New York Times reported that a University of Montana researcher, aided by the US military, had potentially found "the cause" - that a combination of virus and fungus might be killing the bees.
However, it turned out that the same researcher, Jeremy Bromenshenk, had first proposed that pesticides were killing the bees, and apparently after changing his mind received major grants from Bayer Agriculture, which makes some of the most popular pesticides (he says he simply went with the evidence.)
There is very good evidence that agricultural pesticides weaken and kill bees while making them act as if drunk. The active agents are neonicotinoids.
Yes that's right - the agents which give smokers their high are in slightly varied form killing off agricultural pests by the trillions - and may also be killing off animals that yearly feed $15 billion to the US economy and act as a linchpin to our food supply. Weakened bees may be prime game for viruses and fungi that ultimately kill them - just as pneumocystis carinii and other "rare" pathogens kill off humans immunologically weakened by AIDS.
The Linear Delusion
People tend to see many changes as gradual. We slowly grow from infants to adults. We progress from elementary school to secondary school to university. We mature, often get married and have children, and start on the slow, encroaching chronic diseases that eventually kill most of us. We have a tendency to see phenomena go up and down in relatively straight lines.
Yet this picture of human development is often false. Human history has dramatically changed through epidemics, which frequently begin or follow wars. Our history is punctuated by rapid changes and accelerated events.
Nowadays people think of "Black Swan" as a ballet horror movie, but the term also means statistically unlikely events that are nonetheless sufficiently common to cause common havoc. Financial crises and infectious epidemics show that while "linear causality" may work as a model most days, the feedback loops and deeply intertwined systems of the human and natural worlds are also wracked by quick, sudden, and accelerating shifts.
Things can blow up quickly and that is what we face today. The common sense models we use to get through each morning, where the weather is a bit colder or a bit wetter, the traffic heavier or less intense, do not prepare us for major volatility - yet such volatility is ever present.
Right now our climate changes appear gradual. However the history of the planet is replete with rapid, extreme climate change of the type that would upend regular human life. And we are destroying habitats and species with a speed only previously seen during catastrophic events like huge asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions.
The truth is that individually and collectively we live closer to tipping points that many of us think. That's one thing the birds and bees are telling us - they are very stressed out, struggling to survive. It is also true of us individually as we face aging, heart disease and cancer, unknown chemicals and rapidly evolving infectious agents, economic, political, and ecologic crises.
Planning the Future
Fortunately for us AIDS and other epidemics tell us what humans have known for a long time - chance favors the prepared mind and body. AIDS killed far more quickly in Africa where people suffered from frequent intercurrent infections and weaker immunity. The healthier you are the better you adapt to sudden and unexpected change. The more you lead a life that helps regenerate body and mind the better you resist disease. But you always need to plan for unexpected events.
That's another lesson the birds and the bees are giving us - if we'll listen.