Updated: Oct 28, 2022
We were watching this nature documentary when it happened. Sitting on that gaudy red leather couch when the ground beneath my thoughts completely drops away plunging me into the world of thoughts and dreams; ideas and connections. The place where sheer chaos meets practical order. From somewhere beyond the television, everyone’s favorite wildlife enthusiast stands in some recording booth, sipping on lemon tea, as he masterfully narrates the scene. A drone shot of Wicken Fen gives way to a couple aerial shots of this beautiful grey bird gliding across the tree line with long feathers and piercing gold eyes. At first we thought it might be a hawk with those burning yellow eyes, that is, until the narrator starts in with his famous whisper narration.
“The common cuckoo,” the narrator says, “is technically, a parasite.”
Parasitic to a species of birds known as the reed warbler, the guy everyone secretly wishes was their long lost grandfather goes onto explain how Cuculus canorus might be Nature’s most ingenious con-artist.
Before some clockmaker decided to incorporate its distinctive two-tone mating call into one of his clocks, before the word came to be associated with someone crazy or “off their rocker” ornithologists have long been fascinated by this odd species of bird. Namely, because cuckoos are one of the few avian species that don’t bring up any of their young. Instead, what they do is, they trick another species of bird into doing all the work for them.
Ava sitting next to me, clutching that big blue bowl we only use for popcorn, she pulls up the plush blanket coiled around her feet and shoots me an uneasy look.
“Watching from afar, the cuckoo must wait patently for the mother to leave her nest, for when she finally does, the cuckoo will only have seconds.”
Completely transfixed by what’s on the TV, Ava and I watch as this rather innocent looking bird, about the size of a sparrowhawk, swoops down to an itty bitty nest perched above some flooded reeds and stands on its edge. Head looking both ways, we then watch as this golden-eyed trickster dips her head down into the nest only to resurface holding a spotted green egg in her bill seconds later.
Then, she tilts her head back.
Like a pelican, she jerks her head forward a couple times so she can swallow the egg all in one go, and if that weren’t bad enough, she even lays one of her own in its place.
“The whole endeavor takes less than ten seconds,” boasts the narrator, “and within that time, the cuckoo has just destroyed this entire family’s hopes of reproductive success.” Knowing where this is going, I reach for a fistful of popcorn and tell Ava, watch this.
The next shot is of some poor unsuspecting mother, about the size of a sparrow, coming back to her nest completely unaware that one of the eggs is not her own. What’s worse, this impostor egg she’s about to help incubate will be the first to hatch, and when it does, the first thing it’ll do is slaughter all its would-be brothers and sisters.
Just then Ava turns to me with arched eyebrows and says, “This is crazy.”
The way she’s sitting, it’s the same way you’d sit if you were watching a slasher flick. Legs tucked underneath her. Legs tucked off to the side. She’s sitting all the way up, blindly grabbing for popcorn, when the baby cuckoo on TV finally busts out of her shell. Naked and featherless, we both watch as this little creature walks on legs it’s never used before over to one of the four remaining eggs. There, using its back and its legs, it rolls one of the eggs up the side of the nest hoisting its foster-brother up onto its shoulders like it were Atlas about to move some furniture, when the cuckoo staggers back. She’s standing at the very edge of the nest now, the very place her mother stood eleven days before, but when the baby cuckoo finally goes to flick its “wings” the egg goes flying…falling to its demise.
“The cuckoo will repeat this process until there’s nothing left,” whispers the narrator, but even in that sultry British tone, these words still send a shiver down my spine.
Not even ten minutes spent on the other side of that shell and this chick has already committed a quadruple homicide.
Halfway around the world, sitting on that tattered leather couch, you almost can’t help but feel anger towards this little monster and nothing but sympathy for the reed warblers duped into feeding it. But, of course, this isn’t really the correct view.
First and foremost, let’s keep in mind that both creatures are only trying to do what their instincts are telling them to do; survive. And secondly, we actually have no reason to suspect that either party actually ‘knows’ what they’re doing. Which isn’t to say that birds don’t have some semblance of awareness. More like, they might be better thought of as being like unconscious robots acting largely on instinct.
“Clockwork robots” is the way the world’s leading evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, would describe it, but sitting at home, munching on popcorn, it’s just way more convenient to start making up stories.
To start picking sides and assigning agency.
To think, that somehow, this blind bird (no older than a few minutes) had some kind of diabolical plan etched on the inside of that shell, the first item of which read: Kill all your would-be brothers and sisters.
The baby cuckoo almost certainly doesn’t think that.
It doesn’t toss out all of its would-be brothers and sisters out of the nest because it ‘wants’ to, it does this because it was ‘programed’ to do this. Just as a newborn baby has instincts for sucking, a newborn cuckoo has instincts for bucking. For balancing an egg up atop the hollow bone in its back and then ejecting it off the side just as easy. In actual truth, the poor cuckoo never meets its real mother. It never builds its own nest or rears any of its own young. It’s never explicitly shown all the tricks behind successful brood parasitism—of which there are several—and yet in less than one year’s time, she too will make the return journey all the way from Africa to this same marshy area of Wicken Fen, east of Cambridge, to play the trick on another host family.
You want to talk about learned behavior vs. instinctual behavior?
About the ingenious tricks of survival crafted by eons of time and that righteous caretaker we call Mother Nature, then let me introduce you to Cuculus canorus.
By the time the nature doc was over, Ava turned to me with a face that didn’t know what it wanted to be—anger, fear, curiosity, respect—just a mishmash of conflicting emotions. And even though there weren’t any words exchanged I could still tell what she was thinking. She was thinking something to the effect of, “This is life?”
Then me looking back at her, feeling like an alien or some kind of robot trapped in my own skin, I force a half-smile. My eyes looking at the floor, then back up to find hers, I reply in kind.
Yes, this is life.
But for some reason this nonverbal response stirs up something dark in her, and in that moment Ava grabs the remote. Mashing the button with her fingers, she hits the button labeled “OFF.”
Here’s the thing, in six hours I will be dead. In less than six hours I will be nothing more than a memory in the minds of the few people that knew me and you’re going to have your whole life ahead of you, so don’t waste your time investing emotions into someone like me.
I’m no hero. I’m no saint. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when an idea just fell into my lap.
Correction: *our laps.
And then, well…life happened. I don’t want to boor you with the details, so let’s just leave it by saying that through no fault of my own I wound up getting trapped in a room without doors or windows.
Trapped in a place where if I’m not dead in six to eight hours, I’ll wish I was.
The story I want to tell, it’s only the greatest story of all time, because what you’re holding in your hands right now is the story of how we got here. And by “we” I don’t mean Ava and me, I mean it in the grandest sense of the word.
We meaning all life.
You know, in a perfect world, this would be the kind of story I’d tell you over the course of a few semesters, slowly but surely building our arguments from the bottom-up. But sadly, we just don’t have that kind of time. On account of me dying and all, we simply aren’t going to have enough time for me to answer every question, address every outlier, or go on every tangent, although, I can offer you the abridged version of how we got here.
Right about now, I’m sure you’re probably wondering why I’m even writing to you in the first place. I mean, you don’t know me…I don’t know you…but truth be told; that’s probably a good thing. Sometimes, you can be more honest with a total stranger than you can be with a friend, and for this story to work, I’m going to have to be brutally honest about something I regret.
Once upon a time, the way I used to tell this story was through a giant lecture series. Starting with a firm understanding about what evolution is, and then building upon that foundation with ever-increasing complexity. In fact, this whole thing used to be more like a laundry-list of facts than a story. It was this gigantic, monstrous, detail-ridden manuscript dog-eared with hundreds of those little yellow post-it notes and factoids, until one day, I caught a glimpse on how to make it shorter. The moment after that, the love of my life disappears and somehow I wind up here. Trapped in the kind of place you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.
I apologize about having to put the matter so bluntly but when you can literally calculate the number of seconds you have left in your head, you tend to stop sugar-coating the inevitable…I’m dying.
Dying I can live with.
What I can’t live with is the idea that I’d be breaking a promise I made to an old friend.
You see, a long time ago, I made a promise that whatever happened I’d figure out a way to share our research. “No matter what,” I said.
So, if I can’t somehow figure out a way to distill a decade’s worth of research into this one letter to you, then our entire life’s work will have been for nothing.
Where I’m trapped, Ava definitely isn’t here, and neither is that manuscript, however, in order to tell this story correctly, I’m going to have to imagine she is. In all fairness, I’m going to have to imagine that all of my mentors, teachers, and colleagues are standing behind me if I’m to make it through this thing. So if you ever catch me using the royal “we” as I explain something, just realize that, for me, everything about this story is a collective endeavor. Matter of fact, the only reason I’m even able to explain some of the finer points about consciousness or evolution is because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, who were once standing on the shoulders of giants, and I simply cannot stress that point enough.
Who I am, is seriously of no importance; what I have to tell you is.
That said, for the remainder of this thing I’m going to have to rename you to “Tom” if that’s alright. I realize that’s not your real name but calling you “Tom” will make some of our thought experiments go a lot easier, and in the interest of all fairness I’ll take on a pseudonym too. From here on out, you can call me “James.”
Back in the mid 1930s the father of modern ethology, Konrad Lorenz, was studying the “imprinting behavior” exhibited by greylag geese when he made a discovery of sorts. Just for context, Konrad Lorenz wasn’t the first person to discover that these little goslings imprint on the first moving object they see (like a pair of Wellington boots or a model train) but he was the first to really popularize this finding, helping to secure ethology (the study of animal behavior) as a legitimate sub-discipline of biology. In spite of all this, if you asked Lorenz, he’d tell you that his most significant contribution to science wasn’t the discovery of a new animal or a behavior, but rather, a new way of interpreting the facts. More specifically, it was Konrad Lorenz who first got a hold of the idea that instincts, or “fixed action patterns” as he called them, could be thought of as being like anatomical organs.
Of course, nowadays, we take this observation for granted.
Because this idea came before we were even conceived, it seems so blatantly obvious to us that we might be able to identify a species simply by watching their behavior, but at the time, this idea was still rather revolutionary. Like most great ideas, it seems so obvious to us in retrospect, but what Konrad Lorenz famously intuited back in the 1930s was that certain behavior patterns were innate while others were learned. Then, by some clever experimentation, he was able to show some of the limitations of these instincts.
Basically, it breaks down like this: Genes build bodies, we have tons of genes that contribute to the building and shaping of bodies through the processes of embryology, but when a gene exhibits a particular effect on a body, say slightly longer tail feathers or striped fur, we call those effects phenotypes. And what Konrad Lorenz bravely conjectured nearly a century ago was that these instincts or fixed action patterns, weren’t being consciously worked out by the individual; they were inborn. Or, put in another way, these rather stereotypical patterns of behavior weren’t being consciously passed down or imitated, because really, they were just phenotypic expressions of a certain gene.
For example, the way a bird constructs a nest isn’t by watching its bird parents or by going to some bird primary school. Rather, a bird builds a nest in much the same way it grows a liver or it grows a stomach; it just does it. A bird doesn’t have to know how or why it follows these highly stereotypical patterns of behavior when it comes to building nests, or bringing up chicks, and it doesn’t have to. The point is, these fixed action patterns once helped its ancestors to survive. These behavior patterns were subsequently ‘selected for’ which also means, that in our times, a bird can exhibit wildly complex patterns of behavior like brood parasitism or egg-smashery, without ever being shown how or why.
Why’d we start off talking about cuckoos and not human behavior?
In part, because instinctual behavior is a lot easier to spot in birds than it is in humans, but more importantly, it’s because the cuckoo story just happens to be the perfect vehicle for describing some of the more nuanced points about evolution.
With most birds, even the most severe skeptic could always make the claim that somehow the birds were teaching their offspring to ______ or __________, but not with cuckoos. With cuckoos, we can be certain the parents aren’t passing down any lessons to their young because by the time their chicks hatch, the real mother is already halfway back to Africa. Presumably, on her way to accept some kind of Mother of the Year award seeing as she just laid between eight and twenty-five eggs, while suffering none of economic costs involved in bringing up a family.
No nests. No child support. No visits on weekends.
What’s more, you know the foster parents never taught these cuckoos how to parasitize another host family, so how else do we account for this behavior?
This right here, this is just one of the many intellectual hurdles we’re going to have to leap over in order to fully understand what consciousness is because, believe it or not, there are unconscious forces operating within us that drive the majority of what we do.
In all honesty, we’re not even aware of most of the learning that shapes our behavior.
Over the course of this thing, I hope to be able to explain the differences between instinctual behavior and learned behavior; between unconscious cognition and conscious cognition. But, being that this is the big elephant in the room when it comes to the subject of consciousness…I thought you two should meet. The real problem is, our brains are so skewed with the way we think and the way we learn that we often have a hard time comprehending unconscious learning and unconscious behavior.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of a big deal seeing as 95-99% of your cognition is unconscious.
For the sake of clarity, we should mention that most experts fall into the 99% camp, but seeing as there are some who’ve low-balled the estimates of what the subconscious is capable of, I suppose we’ll grant the conscious mind a little footing before we systematically start yanking out all the carpet it’s standing on. Also for clarity, please note that we’ll be using the words unconscious and subconscious rather interchangeably. But don’t let the prefixes “un” or “sub” mislead you into thinking that somehow these processes are beneath you. Truth is, these unconscious processes give rise to you and your thinking, and with that in mind, we may now draw our first line in the sand together.
On one side, I want you to imagine there to be all the conscious aspects of consciousness (that which you’re aware of and can see). On the other, a buzzing flurry of electrical activity (that which you have no awareness and cannot see). Arguably, this is the side of consciousness that’s of most interest to someone like me, for without these unconscious processes I wouldn’t be able to walk in a straight line, pick up a glass of water, or even write a letter to a stranger, such as yourself. As amazing as the conscious mind is, it really does fail to compare against what the subconscious is capable of, and to explain this massive massive point, we’re going to have to flashback to the first time you could say I really “met” Ava.
Back when I thought I knew everything but really didn’t really know much of anything.
For the record, I still don’t think I know anything, but what little I do know, I’ll tell you in exchange for a favor. A question, really.
So there you have it, everything I know about the subject of consciousness in exchange for one little favor. If that’s not a deal of a lifetime…I don’t know what is.