Honduras has been in the news, and I’ve been tempted to write a column about developments there, where a semi-demented, Castroist-Allendist-Sandinist-Hugo Chavez Marxist was elected on the usual multi-party split. Soon he was trying to install himself as dictator-for-life, in the usual way, by rewriting the country’s constitution. He enjoys the usual avid following, among the socialist crazies in his own country; and abroad, among those who still collect Che Guevara fashion impedimenta.
In the good old days, we could count on Uncle Sam to remove such persons, from what were once known as banana republics. Today, after the country’s own Supreme Court found unarguable cause to unseat El Presidente de Honduras, and directed the local army to the task, we have people with names like Obama and Clinton demanding he be reinstated.
Yes, I could write a column about that, but all the usual conservative pundits already have and, really, what is the point? One may grieve for the poor people of Honduras, many of whom fully appreciate what is being done to them by We Are The World Inc. But at the end of the day, they must take responsibility for having allowed such a monster as Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales to come anywhere near power. In the end, “everyone gets the government they deserve,” and those who only half-deserved get to share with those who deserved even worse.
Therefore let us contemplate bananas. These grow in considerable profusion in Honduras, and have, with human commercial assistance, been doing so for some time. It was to study the bananas, for a botany degree, that my late hero Alexander F. Skutch travelled to Honduras in the 1920s—about the time my late paternal grandfather also passed through, drawing geological maps for people contemplating oil. I don’t think they met.
But, whereas my grandpa continued in the cartographic line, Skutch became bored with bananas, and moved onto birds. He died, on the cusp of his centenary, in 2004, having become to my mind perhaps the greatest ornithologist of the 20th century.
My reader perhaps didn’t guess at the outset that today’s column would be on avifauna. It is summer, and I have been reading the works of Skutch, in a desultory way, while myself pining for the fields. I want to recommend everything the man ever wrote: several dozen books and innumerable papers, including well more than a hundred remarkably thorough life histories of tropical birds. (He made his principal home for many decades in a remote valley of Costa Rica.) The most suggestive and “philosophical” of his writings are the essays collected in Origins of Nature’s Beauty (1992) and Harmony and Conflict in the Living World (2000).
I recommend such works especially to those who have had their minds cluttered and abused by the sort of ideological indoctrination offered today, in place of real science, by the Darwinist biology faculties in most of our universities. Skutch persistently shows that there is more happening in nature than evolutionary obsessives can begin to imagine. For Skutch’s view of nature is founded in the traditional way, on direct observation, rather than in the post-modern way, on grand, arbitrary, utterly unprovable evolutionary hypotheses. That is to say, observation preceding theory, as opposed to theory preceding observation.
Perhaps the best shock treatment, for the confused young Darwinized zoologist, would be a close reading of Birds Asleep, Skutch’s pioneering investigation of what birds do with about half their time. It will be noticed that the author cites no statistics at all, conducts no banding studies, but nevertheless supplements his own acute observations with apt references to an uncommonly broad range of published literature.
I often celebrate chastity as a moral and intellectual ideal, and Skutch wonderfully exhibits what I mean when applying this term to science.
Why didn’t he do banding, for instance? Because it is a form of tampering that must necessarily give skewed results. Instead he cultivated the artist’s skill, through intense observation, to recognize individual birds, and a mind so empathetic to their habits, that he could follow them at a distance. This is how one learns, when one’s object is indeed to learn.
But he had also a mind instinctively free from presuppositions. Let me mention for instance his (ever cautious) embrace of the concept of “teleology.” In the dictionaries, this word means “purpose-driven towards an end.” Skutch grasped that “purpose” and “end” were not synonymous, and that all nature becomes invisible to us when purpose is excluded from our field of view, including nature’s most interesting evolutionary phenomena: principles of “selection” that operate beyond the species or group.
Similarly he indulged the Darwinist heresy of “anthropomorphism,” realizing that we penetrate into the behaviour of animals through analogy to our own psychic life, and not vice versa.
Knowledge expanding upon existing knowledge, through careful, open-minded observation: this is how real science is done. It is not, alas, how it is taught, in this age of scientism, and political folly, in which we get almost every judgment on how to proceed back-asswards.