Today, we find creative invention where we would
never expect it. 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.
Something very unnerving
just happened. I came home and found my wife
playing the TV for our dogs and cats. That much was
usual. They love the sounds of nature shows.
But as I walked by, something very odd was
happening on the TV. A thrush was trying to get a
grub out of a hole in a tree. First, the thrush's
beak was too wide. It wouldn't fit into the hole.
Then the thrush did a most astonishing thing. He
flew off and found a dry twig. He broke it off and
came back to pry the grub out. No luck. The twig
was too short.
So the thrush went back and broke off a longer
twig. This time he could poke the grub but he still
couldn't get it out. So he went back and broke off
a third twig, the same length but curved. Now he
worked the twig under the grub and slid him out.
We've all grown up with the idea that humans are
the only tool-makers. Now I've just watched a bird
function in a completely intelligent way. He not
only used tools but selected them as well. Then he
actually designed a fairly sophisticated tool and
worked with it.
Who hasn't learned how the opposed thumb and
prehensile hand set us off from the beasts? But
this bird used its prehensile beak to wield a twig
with the skill of a painter using a brush.
Now the announcer drops the biggest bombshell. It
seems that this is a learned technology -- some
birds get the hang of it. Others never do. This
isn't dumb instinct. This is inventive creativity
of a kind we like to believe is ours alone.
So I think about beasts -- whales who sing, cats
who dance for joy or sulk in defeat. I have a dog
who rearranges the pillows to make the colors
match. Creativity is there.
Of course I've never seen an animal design a rocket
or write a book. Our capacity for language lets us
build on our inventions in some seemingly unique
way. Still, I saw that bird try out one geometrical
solution after another to solve a complex
configurational problem. I watched unmistakable
Maybe what we share in common with animals is not
our worst propensities at all, but our best ones.
Dylan Thomas once wrote four lines that've hung
upon my ear for forty years. He said,
For Thomas, our beasthood is that which
is holy within us. And that strikes a chord in me.
For, when I am alert, I see the most elemental human
trait in animals. I see the very creativity that I
once thought was unique to my species.
... animals thick as thieves
On God's rough tumbling grounds
(Hail to His beasthood!).
Beasts who sleep good and thin.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds