Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1036:
RAVEN COOPERATION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1036.

Today, we meet a surprisingly generous raven. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

clipart raven Have you ever looked closely at Edgar Allan Poe's poem, The Raven? The raven that Poe gave us not entirely menacing. In fact Poe seemed to find some measure of charity in that sinister bird when he wrote,


Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

Now an article in the July 1995 American Scientist talks about ravens trying to survive a cold northern winter. Carrion is rare and precious. What does a raven do when he finds a carcass? Hoard the treasure for himself? Eat his fill and fly away?

What really happens is a surprise. The raven circles the find without landing. Then he flies away. A few days later he's back with forty companions and they fall upon the meal. By the time the carcass is finished, over a hundred ravens have shared it.

Biologists Bernd Heinrich and John Marzluff move into the New England forests to study this action. It's completely reproducible. They're not sure how ravens communicate their find, but their generosity in the midst of hardship is absolute.

Darwin originally suggested just the opposite -- that self-sacrifice acts against the survival of the fittest. Now survival proves to be more complex. Seeing to the survival of the group assures survival of the species. The individual also knows that, because he shares, he will eat when a companion finds food.

It is a system based on trust. It's the world we all wish we could live in. These biologists do their work methodically, systematically, measuring a hundred cases with tagged birds. The results come out with unerring consistency. And I go back to read a radical book by Petr Kropotkin: Mutual Aid, published in 1902.

Kropotkin had spent six years in Siberia observing animal behavior. He told about birds sharing in exactly the same way. Then he quoted an ancient Greek source:

A sparrow comes to tell other sparrows that a slave has dropped a sack of corn and they all go to feed upon the grain.

Kropotkin was horrified by the violence of Darwin's early followers. He wrote, "They have made modern literature resound with the war-cry of woe to the vanquished, as if it were the last word of modern biology." Now biologists are rediscovering what Kropotkin, and ancient Greeks, already knew: the fact -- obvious once you see it -- that generosity is our primary survival strategy.

And, at the end, Edgar Allan Poe misses the point.

Leave no black plume as a token ...
Leave my loneliness unbroken,

he cries to the raven. Poor man! He could have learned how needless his self-made loneliness really was, from that remarkable and generous bird.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Heinrich, B., and Marzluff, J., Why Ravens Share. American Scientist, Vol. 83, No. 4, July-August, 1995, pp. 342-349.

Kropotkin, P., Mutual Aid. New York: The McClure Co., 1907.



Photo by John Lienhard

Mutual Aid and Cooperation are Hallmarks of Animal Life


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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