Learning from the Animals

In my ‘former-life’ before I became a minister I spent my life thinking about the life from a different angle, that of a scientist. My interest in the natural sciences hasn’t waned since becoming a minister, finding science and theology as complementary approaches to thinking about what makes life tick and why we are like we are. Two stories from the animal world caught my attention this week featuring chimps and birds.

The first story is about nine chimpanzees who were moved from the Netherlands to Edinburgh. It had been noted before that Chimps in the Dutch safari park they came from used a high pitched call to request apples, but the Scottish chimps used a contrasting low grunt. After three years being with the Scottish chimps, the chimps from the Netherlands had swapped to using the same low noises. It seems that they changed their accent to imitate those around them in order to fit in and be accepted. It’s not just chimps that do this is it. As a child I lived for a number of years in Suffolk, just a mile or so from Belsey Bridge where we’ve had weekends away as a church not so long ago. At that time I spoke in a broad Suffolk accent. When we moved back to near Ely my accent gradually changed so that it matched the Fen accent of my peers, if maybe not quite as marked. No doubt it has changed again and now has a touch of London to it. It’s not just our language that we adapt is it, our behaviour, thinking and values gradually adapt to mirror those around us don’t they – a challenge to those of us who follow Jesus who believe that we’re called to follow his ways and values which often contrast with the world we’re part of. In the chimps perhaps we have a lesson to be alert to how the culture around us shapes us without us noticing for better and for worse.

The second story came from a study of fourteen northern bald ibises who fly, like geese, in a distinctive V-formation. Why do they do this? As a cyclist I know why. By flying in a group like this the ones behind the front can save significant amounts of energy. Good perhaps for those at the rear, but not so good for the one at the front who has to work harder! Studies have shown what has always been suspected; like cyclists in a train, the ibisis take it in turns, working in changing pairs, to fly at the front of the formation and drive the flock along. By working in changing pairs, something called reciprocal altruism, the flock make sure that no one cheats and everyone gets a fair time in the body of the V and spends the same amount of time at the front. This cooperation enables them to fly faster and for longer. Again a lesson in mutual care that we can learn from. If as a family we all look out for everyone else, then as individuals we have a large number of people looking out for us! This is far more beneficial and effective than everyone looking out for themselves. An illustration of the reasoning behind Jesus’ teaching that we should love one another.

Church Newsletter 8.2.15


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