Causation and the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

In reviewing Joel Greenberg‘s A Feathered River: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014), and in particular in noting his analysis of the causes of the mass disappearance of the passenger pigeon, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

[G]reenberg isn’t much interested in the mechanics of the bird’s extinction. Even if there was some other contributing factor, he observes, this doesn’t change the outcome, nor does it alter the moral calculus. Greenberg offers the analogy of a man who was pushed off a pier. If the man doesn’t know how to swim and ends up drowning, it might be said that the proximate cause of his death was his own ignorance (or lack of buoyancy). But, “culpability and the ultimate cause remain with the one who pushed.” [emphasis added]

 This example demonstrates well, I think, how causal analysis–and thus, the notion of “cause”–remains a pragmatic enterprise through and through. (The notion of an “ultimate cause” is incoherent, unfortunately.)

To see why, consider that despite being offered several “additional factors” that would explain the disappearance of the pigeons, Greenberg is interested in offering a story that has a conservationist moral: overhunting is a bad thing and ‘”conservation measures” can work.’ The various physical explanations offered–the size of pigeon flocks for instance–will not mesh with such a story and are therefore not suitable for consideration as causes. There is a “moral calculus” to be satisfied: for that, blame has to be assigned somewhere, and its subjects can only be agents of a kind. In this case, human ones.

Why would this be more satisfying for Greenberg? Well, the actions of humans are subject to discussion and critique; an assignment of blame and “culpability” and “responsibility” can provoke morally inflected discussion and lead to actions that can influence the relevant causal networks of humans and their actions in the right ways.

Greenberg’s example of the pier-pushing is interesting for just these reasons. We seek to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future, so talk of lack of buoyancy will do little to help. However, a morally inflected discourse might. Thus, we assign blame to agents again, whose beliefs and desires were the causes for their actions. Pushing people off piers is a bad thing and should be thought of as such, and so on. We could complicate the picture too, by assigning some blame to those who did not build protective railings or put up warning signs about not getting too close to pier edges. And so on.

(Incidentally, note that we could indict the lack of buoyancy of the human body as a cause too, and use it to motivate early lessons in swimming, but as a culture, we think this will have less impact than socially norming the pushing of people off piers as a bad thing.  Thus, causal analysis in that direction is a non-starter.)

Our discovery of a cause is, more than anything else, an announcement about our ends and the actions we consider will best help us to attain them.

Shakespeare, Drayton, and Birdsong, Then and Now

In his The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Peter Levi wrote,

[H]istory and family connection do as much to throw light on Shakespeare as a poet as academic criticism has done, and maybe more. The problem is that England and Stratford and the Elizabethan age are all somehow part of his great mystery, and all three are potently mythical. Every generation has to make its own attempt to get at the truth, and we shall not succeed unless we allow for the enormous differences that separate Shakespeare from our own world. Even the theatre…is ours and not his, and therefore a barrier as well as a link.

I want to put Shakespeare’s poetry in the context of his life and times.

As part of this putting-in-context, Levi attempts to describe, among other things, places and settings, Straford-upon-Avon, relying on contemporary descriptions. This leads him, to what, I think, is a particularly vivid and colorful description of one of the many differences between that time and ours.

In Chapter One, ‘The Background’, Levi draws on Michael Drayton‘s descriptions of Warwickshire in his ‘epic poem Poly-Olbion, one ‘worth a glance, because people sometimes imagine that Shakespeare, as a lyric poet, exaggerated the natural qualities of the place.’  But Levi doubts ‘Drayton wrote under his influence, being a Warwickshire man himself and having all England to cover.’  He goes on to note his ‘shaggy , warm-hearted feelings’ about the land, as evinced in the Forest’s speech about herself:

We equally partake with woodland as with plain
Alike with hill and dale; and every day maintain
The sundry kinds of beasts upon our copious wastes,
That men for profit bread, as well as those of chase.
Here Arden of herself ceased any more to show; 
And with her sylvan joys the Muse along doth go
When Phoebus lifts his head out of the Winter’s wave
No sooner the Earth her flowery bosom brave,
At such time as the year brings on the pleasant Spring, 
But Hunts-up the morn the feather’d Sylvans spring
And in the lower grove, as on the rising knole,
Upon the highest spray of every mounting pole, 
Those Quiristers are perched with many a speckled breast. 

Levi then goes on to note:

The verses about birdsong that follow are as clear and loud as the birds themselves. We must realize that it was ordinary for Drayton and Shakespeare to hear a dawn chorus of many hundreds of birds at once, and ordinary in summer to hear nightingales. Those were numerous in the elm avenues of Christ Church Meadow even in the late nineteenth century; as a young man thirty years ago, I have heard a deafening dawn chorus in the wooded Chilterns, on Shakespeare’s road to London.

When I read these pages, I was struck by how absent birdsong is in our cities, our modern lives, how it has been banished to ever more remote removes from our mornings. But sometimes, when I walk to work, as I have for the past six years, I walk past a colony of parrots–on which I intend to write a longer post someday–noisily and merrily raising a racket, and for a moment or two, I feel comforted, by this visible and loud reminder of the persistence and resilience of aviary sounds in our urban environs.