The weather was grey, cold and still. Good gull watching weather, so I am told. Wandering, with only a general direction in mind we found a statue standing by one of the numerous canals in Amsterdam. Cast in bronze he was surrounded in a cloak peppered with parakeets and sparrows –immigrants and residents that make up this multicultural city.
Baruch Spinoza, philosopher (1632 to 1677). Spinoza’s ideas were too radical for the Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, which not only banned him from the city, but also their religion. According to Spinoza, ‘God has no plan or free will. God is in nature, the bible was made by people’.
This chance encounter last year made a lasting impression. Or perhaps it was the guide I chose that made the lasting impression; John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook. Fascinated by the rumour that Spinoza had a sketch book Berger pieces together small life events with exerts from Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’. In so doing he uses the process of drawing to underline that looking carefully at objects and people allows a person to question the world around them.
Birding is not just about lists and Berger’s approach translates well into the birding I enjoy the most. The chance encounter with something special like the Short-eared Owl on my patch the other evening.
I know I am looking at a Short-eared Owl. Its broad wings carry its light body across the field before it drops on an unsuspecting vole. The sun is low in the sky and when it lands it disappears into the grass the colour of a fairy tale’s secret.
I know I am looking at a Short-eared Owl. It conforms to my image of one, built up of a composite of all the ones I have seen before. This image is constructed in the mind. Any description of a species tries to provide the essence of that species. This one is clearly more yellow than the last one I saw, yet remains a SEO. To misquote Edward O Wilson who worked on ants, ‘when you have seen one Short-eared owl, you have not seen them all’.
About 350 years ago Spinoza proposed, “The human mind is the idea of the human body”. Two centuries before Darwinian evolution, Spinoza proposed that the starting-point for our thinking about the nature of humankind should be physiology and the process of life-regulation. No need for the eternal soul and the mortal body. Only now are we able to test some of his ideas.
Spinoza’s quest was to develop an ethical system that was both mindful of the force of biology and true to what we would now call the “enlightenment” principles of liberty and justice. He has a lot to teach us about ethics in the age of genetic engineering.