Today, we meet a surprisingly generous raven. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Have you ever looked closely
at Edgar Allan Poe's poem,
The Raven? The raven that Poe gave us
not entirely menacing. In fact Poe seemed to find
some measure of charity in that sinister bird when
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance
Now an article in the July 1995 American
Scientist talks about ravens trying to
survive a cold northern winter. Carrion is rare and
precious. What does a raven do when he finds a
carcass? Hoard the treasure for himself? Eat his
fill and fly away?
What really happens is a surprise. The raven
circles the find without landing. Then he flies
away. A few days later he's back with forty
companions and they fall upon the meal. By the time
the carcass is finished, over a hundred ravens have
Biologists Bernd Heinrich and John Marzluff move
into the New England forests to study this action.
It's completely reproducible. They're not sure how
ravens communicate their find, but their generosity
in the midst of hardship is absolute.
Darwin originally suggested just the opposite --
that self-sacrifice acts against the survival of
the fittest. Now survival proves to be more
complex. Seeing to the survival of the group
assures survival of the species. The individual
also knows that, because he shares, he will eat
when a companion finds food.
It is a system based on trust. It's the world we
all wish we could live in. These biologists do
their work methodically, systematically, measuring
a hundred cases with tagged birds. The results come
out with unerring consistency. And I go back to
read a radical book by Petr
Kropotkin: Mutual Aid, published
Kropotkin had spent six years in Siberia observing
animal behavior. He told about birds sharing in
exactly the same way. Then he quoted an ancient
A sparrow comes to tell other sparrows that a
slave has dropped a sack of corn and they all go to
feed upon the grain.
Kropotkin was horrified by the violence of Darwin's
early followers. He wrote, "They have made modern
literature resound with the war-cry of woe to the
vanquished, as if it were the last word of modern
biology." Now biologists are rediscovering what
Kropotkin, and ancient Greeks, already knew: the
fact -- obvious once you see it -- that generosity
is our primary survival strategy.
And, at the end, Edgar Allan Poe misses the point.
Leave no black plume as a token ...
Leave my loneliness unbroken,
he cries to the raven. Poor man! He could have
learned how needless his self-made loneliness
really was, from that remarkable and generous bird.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds