Masking a Beautiful Machine

In The Jealous Potter, Claude Levi-Strauss tells of an account of the ovenbirds. He quotes one Ihering as follows:

“The male cries out and the female immediately answers half a tone lower; two sounds of equal length thus alternate with such speed, such rhythmical accuracy, that the listener is filled with admiration, especially on thinking how difficult it would be fore humans to practice this kind of musical exercise at prestissimo speed”.

“A professional musician listening to a pair of João de Barro with me particularly admired the perfect timing of the second voice, achieved with no prompt from the first singer. Human musicians need the cues the conductor gives them with his baton, whereas these birds, even at some distance from each other, seem to answer automatically and instantly”.

Ihering and his companion approach the pair of ovenbirds in musical language. The duo’s feat is one of that could be rarely matched by even the most virtuosic of players. This is the source of admiration; that the ovenbirds are highly tuned musicians in their own right.

Or are they?

Robert Beverley MacKenzie, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, wrote scathingly of Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is a particular passage that highlights its function well. And yes, these are MacKenzie’s capitalizations: “…so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT”.

I repeat (via Daniel C. Dennett), “…the organisms it designs get the benefits of all their exquisite equipment without needing to understand why or how they are so gifted”.

These organisms have competence but no comprehension of said competence. Our ovenbirds are not aware of their musicianship and yet their timing and phrasing is deemed a little musical miracle. Why, they did not even have a conductor giving cues!

Dennett implies that the ovenbirds “…are endowed with behaviors that are well designed by evolution, and they are the beneficiaries of these designs without needing to know about it. This feature is everywhere to be seen in nature, but it tends to be masked by our tendency…to interpret behavior as more mindful and rational than it really is”.

While this mask we wear obscures, it can in turn make the world beautiful. Birds like the ovenbird are musicians! Oliver Messiaen, for instance transcribed bird songs for his own work. We can even go as far as inanimate objects. A subway is unaware of its musicianship and yet we can interpret it as a cacophonous orchestra.

If we can “interpret behavior as more mindful and rational than it really is”, then the world we inhabit can create a symphony without knowing it.


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