Monday, December 27, 2010


Programmed for Optimism

Bernd Heinrich, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (New York: Ecco, 2003; rpt. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), p. 315 (on the golden-crowned kinglet, Regulus satrapa):
Lucky for a kinglet, it does not know the odds stacked against its individual survival. Presumably it could not contemplate its fate, regret about mistakes, or fret over injustice or lost opportunities. It does not worry about the future, or about life and death. Why can we presume this? Because these mental capacities could only compromise, not aid survival. They could not activate the bird to effective action, because there is so little, if anything, it could do to change things in its world where the relevant things—ice storms, a subzero night, winds, food scarcity—are ruled by chance. Undampened enthusiasm and raw drive would matter. I do not and cannot ever know the combination of happiness, hunger, or emotions that energize a bird. But whenever I've watched kinglets in their nonstop hopping, hovering, and searching, seen their intimate expressions, and heard their constant chatter of tsees, songs, and various calls, I've felt an infectious hyperenthusiasm flow from them, and sensed a grand, boundless zest for life. They could not survive without that in their harsh world. Like us, they are programmed for optimism.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, § 32:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Hat tip: my daughter, who gave me Heinrich's book as a Christmas gift.

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