Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich is a renowned naturalist and emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont. His new book is The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy.

From his Q & A with Jed Lipinski at The Barnes & Noble Review:

Can penguins really feel love?

When I talk about penguins experiencing love, I'm talking about mechanisms that we have for attachment, for reproduction. And I don’t think that’s anthropomorphizing at all. It's not any more of a generalization than saying the muscles of a bird act the same way in moving a limb as they do for us. Of course, attachment is going to be very different between species, just as it is between individual humans.

But when I wrote as much in my Op-Ed on March of the Penguins for the New York Times, many readers rejected the idea of love as a chemically induced state of mind that many animals share. One reader seemed threatened by the idea that humans might not be special, that they might be just another animal. He felt love was an exalted feeling that only humans can have. Yet most biologists simply look at a trait’s functional aspects: what it does, what it's for, why it evolved. We're interested in the differences, of course, but also in the things we all have in common.

Why do you think "March of the Penguins" was such a hit?

Because people recognized aspects of our own behavior in them, for one. But I think it's a mistake to see them as archetypes of virtue, as many viewers did, because by that measure you'd have to hold up others as archetypes of evil. The male bird of paradise, for example, will mate with anything that comes along every few minutes. So if you hold up a penguin as something to emulate, then why not a bird of paradise? It's not that penguins are nicer or better than birds of paradise—they're just penguins. As humans, we tend to impose a moral framework on animal behavior, as we do on our own. We value that which doesn’t put a burden on society. But birds don’t have morals in the sense of emotional pressures to act in a certain way. They are what they do, and do what they are.

We have this idea that many birds, like swans, for example, are these ideals of monogamy. Is this true?

Monogamy among birds...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue