Great minds are interchangeable

The more one knows, the more one discovers that he doesn’t know. This is what makes “settled science” such a farce. You may take a photograph of nature, and think that you have captured it, but nature keeps moving. It has not agreed to hold still for you.

I noticed this in the days when I could use my balconata. No photographer, I was trying to depict a particularly glorious sunset, with the help of watercolour pigments. There was a moment when I felt quite chuffed. It seemed to me that I had indeed captured something, for a change. But by the time I had taken another deep draught of tea, the whole vision had been transformed. The colours themselves had been altered, and redistributed, dramatically. Now they were even better. It was as if God were telling me to give up the competition.

It is easier to follow a murmuration of starlings, or a school of fish. They may congregate in huge numbers, but having done so, they behave as a single, highly complex, beast.

Or a tree-snake, who combines the complexities, within the one reptile. I watched one climb a tree in a video. His body looped around the trunk, and every inch of it adjusted independently, wiggling the whole snake up to the branches, where the birds’ nests were. It was a dazzling rumba.

The geese in these parts — sophisticated birds, with Tory inclinations — have formal social conventions. Once or twice a year, they gather in their thousands, in coherent family groups, forming herringbone patterns. They skirt Humber Bay at an altitude of six feet or so — always counter-clockwise. It will be a day when the Bay is placid, so that its surface doubles them in its mirror. This procession circles, three miles or so, then they all ascend at the west end, to fly eastwards. Twice, from that same lamented balconata, I then saw them descend for another go-round.

(Ahem: the question is not why, but how did they decide on this encore?)

Who tells geese to do things like this? The whole activity looked quite gratuitously ceremonial — and grand, as any good ceremony should be. How did they all get the same idea, at the same time, to fly in from all over the Lake, and organize themselves so elegantly?

As I was just telling an Argentine correspondent: “great minds are interchangeable.” (Suddenly they all make the same mistake.)

On Friday, I mentioned Alister C. Hardy (1896–1985) in my Catholic Thing column: the great marine biologist, whom I have been rereading during Batflu lockdown. All his life, but more and more as it proceeded, he was fascinated by such collective phenomena — happening in immediate space and time, but also over long expanses of time through integrated evolutionary adaptations.

Recently, for instance, we have seen colonies of honeybees, discovering how to repel murder hornets (Vespa mandarinia). None have graduate degrees in chemistry, or physics, according to my best information; yet they unerringly devise new defences that should require them. Perhaps our honeybees have been receiving emails from their Asian kin, for hints cross the Pacific in record time. But the hints themselves are quickly revised, for circumstances over here. My favourite is collecting dung around their hives. They’ve learnt what scents drive murder hornets away. But which scents, in the dung? Their human students are still at the shovelling stage.

Predators also use science to assist them. One thinks of the “community organizer” whales, that combine to shape a school of herring into a ball, then shrink it until it is very dense, whenupon one of the hungry whales abruptly swoops in and gobbles them all down. Are they smarter or dumber than Newfoundland fishermen — who absolutely refuse to hunt in submarines?

Mr Hardy (once perfessor at Oxford and elsewhere) thought there must be telepathic forces at work, of a kind he could only hope to explain by their effects. Nature is populated with creatures who just know things they have no conceivable way of knowing; for the individual creatures are far less clever than the Newfoundland fishermen I’ve met.

But our human reason is one step up on the plant and animal kingdoms. We have the capacity to deny what we know. I don’t think the other creatures can do this. Humans, alone, have the ability to make fools of themselves, and achieve disaster, even when everything is going their way.