What the Pigeons Knew

There is a PBS documentary called “A Glorious Accident,” in which a Norwegian filmmaker interviews a series of celebrated scientists and philosophers, including Steven Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist responsible for the documentary’s title. The question the documentary posed was, Why us? What is the glorious accident called man? One of those esteemed thinkers was a scientist who studied homing pigeons. He wanted to find out how it was that these birds could always find their way back to the same spot, apparently from anywhere on earth. Simple enough, he figured. He would simply experiment with them until he’d found a condition under which they couldn’t find their way home (blind, confused, etc) which would in turn tell him why they could. Trouble was, no matter what he did, the pigeons always found their way home. Always.

The last part of the documentary was a roundtable discussion amongst all the participants. Here these thinkers of various disciplines would explain why we were what we were. First, however, they had to deal with those pigeons. These thinkers were scientists, and so their thinking had a mechanical quality to it: this happened because of that. So the pigeons had to be able to find their way home because . . .

But there was no because. According to the scientist who’d conducted the study the pigeons . . . just knew. Of course, the other scientists all said, “But did you try X?” Yes, he tried X. And he tried Y. And Z, and A, B, C, D. He was no slouch. He’d tried everything. No matter what he tried, the pigeons just knew.

The esteemed thinkers spent an inordinate amount of time on the pigeons. Finally, they gave up and moved on to other ideas, figuring that someday someone would figure out the precise mechanical reason those pigeons knew what they knew.

I loved those pigeons. I wanted one to fly through that room of bearded men, with the beating of their wings asking, “Why did you become scientists?” The answer, of course—the only answer anyone can ever give to such a question—would be, “Because I wanted to.” And how did they know they wanted to be scientists? Well, they don’t know how they knew, they just knew.

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