Birds and Fish

I am fascinated by birds and fish in their flocks and schools. I'm confident that if I watched them very closely and for long enough, I'd see individual animals misreading the group movement and plowing into their neighbours, damaging the overall pattern. But I don't have a sufficiently discerning eye. To me, it looks planned, as the waves of birds or fish ripple, or turn, or fold in on each other in complex, fluid shapes. What do these animals think as they are acting in this remarkable, unchoreographed dance? I suspect that they are following an instinct so basic that it goes unnoticed. I think we human beings do the same thing.

Consider an uncontroversial example: fashion. Fashion twists and turns, and in each of its permutations, it is difficult to resist. Even people who claim to resist it are really drawn along by it. Almost nobody wears kilts or cloaks or beekeeper hats or goggles or any of the things that have obvious value in terms of comfort or utility but are just weird. Why is this? Because, through a force no one can quite understand, we move together.

The more interesting case, the one that is controversial in every generation, is moral fashion. As John Gray writes in Straw Dogs, "Today everyone knows that inequality is wrong. A century ago, everyone knew that gay sex was wrong. The intuitions people have on moral questions are intensely felt. They are also shallow and transient to the last degreeā€¦ Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats." In the Victorian period, everyone was a colonialist. The decent view, the view of a good man, was colonialism. That is why when Rudyard Kipling, the great poet of the empire, wrote Recessional, which made the patently obvious point that the British Empire would not last forever, he was condemned for a moral rather than a factual lapse. And so it goes today for those who question the new orthodoxies which, it seems, have an ever shorter gestation period. I'm not sure we have to take Gray's bleak view; I think the Church and some disciplines at the university have timeless foundations. But if they do, for that very reason they are permanently out of step with the times.

Everyone knows the trope where the popular scientist reveals that this or that familiar thing - love, friendship, patriotism or whatever - is merely a manifestation of some evolved, animal urge. The point is usually to take love, friendship or patriotism down a peg or two, to roll it around in the mud of our animal origins. This is often followed by a proclamation of whatever is morally in fashion. For example, patriotism is unmasked as 'mere' tribalism, and then it is noted that tribalism stands in the way of increasing diversity. You have to read a pessimist like Gray to see anyone comment on the fact that ideas like diversity have popped up as moral imperatives a handful of years ago and for reasons that would be difficult to state in non circular terms, I mean, without invoking diversity in the explanation. Here, it seems to me, we see the human as animal most clearly, as a herd animal. As I suspect is the case with birds and fish, the patterns we make mystify no one so much as their creators.