Thursday, April 19, 2012

What I've Learned from Watching Eagle Families

I have often taken offense to claims that Americans, or Christians, or Midwesterners, or our team are "the greatest" when we come to the aid of neighbors or are altruistic in any way.  If you watch (rare in the U.S.) television coverage of floods or earthquakes in other parts of the world, people act pretty much the same as they do in saintly U.S. of A.

Then there's the Christian claim that we would all be horrible people if not for their purported influence on our behavior.  They have been so brainwashed to believe that they're sociopathic rapists, killers, and thieves that without their Ten Commandments they'd be running rampant.  They blame the lack of prayer in the schools for whatever evils they see around them even if the actual amount has declined.  (such as the teen birth rate, except in fundy states, where it has increased).

So when I indulge my current addiction of watching eagle nestcam, I can't help but notice how many of their "instinctive" behaviors are as altruistic as some of ours.  Then I've been reading up on the species and found out some other facts.  I've especially learned about what good parents they are.

First, eagles mate for life. They are probably more loyal to each other than human couples are, and they don't have any Commandment about adultery to worry about.  They build a nest and raise clutch after clutch there, making the nest bigger each year.   If a nest blows down in a storm the next year they will rebuild, sometimes choosing a different tree.  This week a nest burned in a forest fire.  There was no hope for the babies, but the parents will probably return and start over next year.

They feed each eaglet equally.  They may feed one first, or a bit more during one feeding or another, but they don't play favorites.  None of this "Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated" shit.  Score one for eagles over humans.  (My brother was my mother's favorite, and don't let him tell you otherwise!)

They will take in eaglets that have been placed in their nests.  If a strange child showed up in a human home, it would be taken in.  Tie there.
The Decorah pair of certain roles but they share duties.  Dad does a lot of hunting and fishing.  Mom keeps the babies warm at night.  Dad watches over the nest from above while Mom sleeps.  Both of them will fight off raccoons or other animals that get too close.  One year the mom died and conservationists worried whether the babies would survive.  Dad took over the duties and the eaglets grew up just fine. 

The pair do some behaviors I would not have expected in birds.  Dad will bring home a fresh fish and start chomping away at it and then feed Mom the way he would feed an eaglet.   It looks real sweet, or perhaps he's learned to always give her the eyes of the fish or she'll peck him.  Yes, they bicker.  But they get over it.  They're adults.

They arrange their nest, usually just making sure the kids are warm unde mom.  But sometimes seem to bring in a twig or corn husk with no particular reason, then put it right in front of a baby.  "Here baby, play with this."  Of course, the baby will need to learn to manipulate twigs to make his/her nest one day.  The parents seem to "know" this.

When rain is on the way, dad will bring in extra fish.  When the rain arrives, mom makes sure all their little heads are under her (they're all too big to fit in the nest bowl they hung out in as newborns).  Does Dad know they need extra energy to fight the cold?  Does mom know that heat is lost through the head?  Do they know that the babies have down, which is not waterproof, before they have feathers?  Seems like it. 

Eagles are very large birds.  Are they "thinking" with larger brains than say, a chicken?  Well, I rather doubt that brain size is why they do all the "right" things.  Several years ago my zebra finches had a clutch of babies and they were also excellent parents.  In their case, Dad made sure that each baby got a little of each of the goodies I put in their cage:  bird food, hard boiled egg bits, chopped kale, and water.  He would do the rounds of all these goodies and then go into the nest and feed the babies.  Why did he do this?

Because being good to others (or at least our babies) is instinctive for many species.

...and then the babies are old enough to fly and eat on their own, and they have to leave and start the whole cycle over.  The parents don't send them to Hell forever for saying "I hate you."  They don't require the babies to follow artificial rules that don't make sense.  They're good  parents.

God "the Father" is a bad parent.  He lets his "children" starve.  He lets his children get cold.  He plays favorites.  He rejects the "children" of other gods.  He lets predators get hold of his kids.

Comparing the parenting qualities of eagles to the parenting of "God the Father," it's easy to see why tribes might worship an eagle god or goddess.  Wouldn't an eagle feather on your headdress be a better symbol of trust in a good parent than a cross pendant, the symbol of a parent who abandoned his favorite child and made him a sacrifice in exchange for the lives of his brats?  'Look how my good father chose to let his best kid suffer?  Whattaguy!

Who would you rather have as a parent?  God?  or an eagle?



Andy said...

I think any rational person would rather take fish from an eagle than the flesh and blood from the so called messiah.

Infidel753 said...

It's all relevant to where human morality really comes from, too. It's fairly obvious that most of these behaviors contribute to the eagles' reproductive success (that is, their likelihood of producing offspring that survive to produce offspring of their own), so genes which promote such behavior would be more likely to be passed on and become fixed in the gene pool than rival alleles which don't.

Human morality is basically an instinctive inhibition or revulsion against certain kinds of behavior which, if they were widespread and accepted, would be extremely disruptive to social groups. It's almost impossible to imagine a stable society in which murder, rape, theft, etc. were considered normal and acceptable behavior and happened routinely. Over time, as human social groups grew more complex and we became more dependent on their stability, individuals born without those inhibitions (the ones most likely to be "sociopathic rapists, killers, and thieves") would have been poor survivors, likely to be killed by neighbors who felt threatened by their behavior.

Behavior in many animal species resembles human moral or compassionate behavior because it's the product of the same evolutionary forces.

Chatpilot said...

Nice post LadyA, this is just one of many examples of evolution through the process of natural selection. Species who adapt to changes in their environments that are vital to their survival and continuity make it and those that don't just go extinct.

I have always said that humans as a species made some animals seem humane. We have done things to each other that you would never see occur in the animal kingdom.

Our ability to think and reason in my opinion in some cases has been more detrimental than good. Animals go on instinct and that instinct is usually geared toward survival. We kill for sport, entertainment etc. I think that as a species we can learn some things about morality from some animals in the wild.

B.R. said...

It's pretty clear that people tolerate flaws in their gods that they wouldn't tolerate amongst themselves. If OT god were a human dictator, no one would consider him a paragon of virtue. Quite the opposite. Would anyone protest his death at the hands of rebels? No. Yet we're still told that this odious being is the source of all morality, which is akin to saying that Hitler is the source of all racial equality and understanding.