Between visits by Physios and Occupational Therapists (good for the limbs, fingers and associated brain areas), I have been listening to Bach (soothing and good for the blood pressure), and to the audio reading of Steven Pinker’s splendid How the Mind Works (good for the mind), a book that should forever banish the bizarrely widespread prejudice against Evolutionary Psychology. I’ve also been watching the DVD of Life Story by David Attenborough. What a hero that man is – and so are his intrepid and almost superhumanly patient cameramen.
It’s hard to withhold the accolade “hero” from the Barnacle Goslings of Greenland who, only three days after hatching, hurl themselves off the towering cliffs on top of which their parents perched their nest: for safety from predators. The cost of that safety is that, if the goslings are to escape starvation, they must – long before they can fly – launch themselves into the void in search of grass, and plummet down the cliff to the scree, where they go on tumbling, head over heels, buffeted almost senseless on every rock they hit on the way down.
The instinct which impels these tiny hatchlings over the edge is what Steve Pinker would call a mind module. It is built into their brains by the nonrandom survival of ancestral genes. Every one of their ancestors, for countless generations back, was among the elite minority who survived the same baptism by precipice. Every gosling who funked the leap starved. Many of those who dared it perished violently. But enough survived to preserve the genes promoting the daring mind module, which is why modern ones make the leap.
Also in the same Attenborough episode were jerboas: rodents who have fascinatingly and independently evolved the kangaroo gait. They hunt by night listening for prey with their gigantic ears – proportionally the largest in the animal kingdom. The unsentimental “Nature red in tooth and claw” “selfish gene” message, about which Steve Pinker is so refreshingly clear, rings forth from every well-turned paragraph of the Attenborough script. For example, the greatest danger to the humpback whale calf is males violently and competitively trying to mate with its mother: why should they care, since it is unlikely that any of them is the father?
I have to stop: typing is really hard but the therapists have told me I must practise it, however hard. Sorry if this doesn’t read as fluently as it should. Maybe I’ll be better tomorrow. Many many thanks for all the delightful and kind messages of support and encouragement.