this bird must have gone to ucla: a comment on wisdom and mythology



when is an historical fable not just a fable? when the evidence suggests that it is not only possible, but experimentation demonstrates that it is, in fact, true.

meet a smart, problem solving crow. he must have attended ucla. (i say that because not only is he very clever, even tempered, and a problem solver, but it is apparently learning how to deal with the draconian, state-imposed 8% cuts to his water supply.) here, the crow literally reenacts the solution to the problem set forth in aesop’s fable, the crow and the pitcher. (click here to read the story.)

we’ve known for some time that birds in the corvus genus and the corvidae family (like crows, ravens, jays, and rooks) are some of the cleverest birds on earth, possessing problem solving abilities and experimentally demonstrated capacities for self-awareness (via mirror tests). poe has written about them, bernd heinrich and thomas bugnyar have spent years studying them, and of course, they are a great football team.

but from this story, i hope to convey a brief thought on wisdom. true, many of the stories preserved in ancient texts are mythological; they are grand tales of marvels from the past. but there was wisdom even in ancient societies. despite their lack of scientific method and a comprehensive understanding of the universe, they knew they simply could not invent stories and expect people to believe them. the skeptics have always been with us. thus, behind even the most incredible myth, there is usually some kernel of initial truth or observation. to be sure, the tales inevitably grow and are embellished over time, but these stories usually have some root in observable fact, a phenomenological event, or daily routine. etiological explanations are derived over time to explain these phenomena, and cultural wisdom is ingrafted into them over time to make them meaningful. the result is usually a remarkable tale accepted as truth by those members of the community that produced the tale, and as fantastic myth by those outside the group. thus, a culture’s wisdom comes to be conveyed not by scientific fact or experimentation, but by the communal tales told throughout the ages. these stories come to define the group’s history, values, beliefs, and cultures. and unlike modern technologies, which have a very short lifespan, stories have withstood the ages.

so the next time you read a remarkable story, acknowledge that most of it may be embellishment and non-verifiable speculation. but always remember that there were wise men and women in antiquity, and that these stories often grew from a some historical event, or, dare is say, truth. because as much wisdom as a fable from aesop might convey, he just as well may have witnessed history.

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