The Parable Of The Smart Birds

This is not mine. Jim Bowery, a commenter over at The Inductivist (a blog I occasionally indulge), tells the parable of the smart birds manipulated by the genius birds. I link to it because it is very good in that way parables are supposed to be good: by illuminating ancient and immutable dynamics in human social relations and hinting at the lessons therein.

Once there were 3 classes of birds of a feather: Dumb birds, Smart birds and Genius birds. There was also a genius bird of a different feather hanging around. All summer the genius bird of a different feather went around to the smart birds of a feather telling them how ridiculous it was to fly south for the winter — that these atavistic instincts were a terrible legacy from “the bad old days” and gave very sophisticated-sounding arguments that the smart birds of a feather couldn’t quite understand but understood quite well that they’d better pretend to understand lest they be accused of being dumb birds.

Fall cometh. The dumb birds fly south to the derision of the smart birds. The genius birds of a feather think, “I’ve heard the arguments about flying south for the winter being only for dumb birds, but where really do these feelings come from? Could they have survival value? Could the genius bird of a different feather have a conflict of interest?” Even before thinking the answers through, the mere doubts raised were sufficient to motivate flying south. The smart birds of a feather, hearing these doubts raised by the genius birds of a feather proceeded to attack them as “dumb birds”. They felt superior to the genius birds of a feather. Some genius birds of a feather were even injured enough to stop them from being able to fly south.

Winter hits. The smart birds of a feather die. The injured genius birds of a feather die. The genius birds of a different feather turn out to have an adaptation to cold weather. Spring comes. An evolutionary dynamic reveals itself…

The smart bird parable has much to tell us about intergroup competition. “Flying south” is a stand-in for the metaphor of your choice — drug use, single parenthood, mass immigration — and the group can be however you define it, by class, race or religion. It isn’t a precise explication of contemporary social patterns, but what it does well is get at the rudimentary compulsion which drives group antagonism, and the expedient alliances that serve group self-interest and buttress group self-identification.

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