Morality, Hawk-Eyed and Pigeon-Toed

by Theodore Dalrymple (April 2013)


There were scenes of ferocious violence not far from my house yesterday. They were unexpected because I live, when I am in England, in an ancient and peaceful close around a church. Next door to me but three is a charming sixteenth century timber-framed building on whose whitewashed walls are inscribed the words ‘In this house lived the learned and eloquent Richard Baxter 1640 - 1641.’ For a number of years I misread the words ‘learned and eloquent,’ as ‘learned and elegant,’ probably because I found them more interesting and – well, elegant.

Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691) was a Puritan divine who published 130 books in his lifetime. His productiveness was in part the result of, or at any rate his response to, the ill-health that pursued him throughout his life, for though he lived to a good age he expected from quite early on to die shortly of his many complaints, real or imagined. The fear of imminent death spurred him on in his literary endeavours:

   A Life still near to Death did me possess
  
With a deep sense of Time’s great Preciousness…

And:

   The frequent sight of Death’s most awful face,
  
Rebuk’d my sloth, and bid me mend my pace.  

As might be expected, Baxter inveighed against ‘Drunkards, Swearers, Fornicators, Scoffers at Godliness &c;’ though, as might equally well be expected, at least from the standpoint of three and a half centuries later, he did so with indifferent success. I regret to say that he did not think much of my townspeople, ‘a very ignorant, dead-hearted people’ full of ‘obdurateness.’ I daresay he was right; little has changed, probably, except that we might be more inclined nowadays to use the word obduracy than obdurateness (which, however, still does exist).

Baxter was only a moderate Puritan: he believed that God had given Man his five senses in order that such qualities as beauty might lead him to God, so that he was by no means as opposed to elegance as one might easily have supposed. That he was eloquent is sure; but perhaps in a restrained way he was elegant also, certainly in his prose. Here is a sentence taken at random:

No man is a wicked man that is converted; and no man that is a converted man that is wicked; so that to be a wicked man and to be an unconverted man is all one; and therefore in opening one, we shall open both.

Of course, it must be borne in mind that truth and elegance (or eloquence, for that matter) are most certainly not one.

But to return to the shocking scenes of violence enacted near my house yesterday: I am glad to say that they were not enacted by humans but by birds, sparrowhawks to be precise. These were the birds that the Duke of Wellington advised Queen Victoria were the solution to the problem of sparrows caught in Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, though he did not say what the sparrowhawks would have done after the elimination of the sparrows.

These birds, small raptors themselves sometimes the prey of larger raptors, were once endangered in Britain but have now recovered fully, possibly thanks to greater pesticide control. Yesterday, out of the blue, they attacked the pigeons in our church close that on fine days coo us gently awake, and took no fewer than seven of them, leaving scattered feathers on the grass where the unsuspecting pigeons had been peacefully doing whatever it is that pigeons do. This morning the pigeons – other pigeons, that is – were back, cooing as if nothing had happened yesterday. I suppose this is the avian proof of the old sayings that no one is indispensable and that life must go on.

Almost certainly the offending raptors were females, for the female of the species is much larger than the male and only the females are large enough to take pigeons. By all accounts even they are not powerful enough to kill a pigeon at a single strike; rather they capture their victim and it dies as they pluck its largest feathers and then tear at its flesh. This is a far cry from the kind of civilised behaviour we expect in our church close, though to do the sparrowhawks justice they airlifted their prey elsewhere to conduct the most savage part of their operation.

The attacks on the pigeons were so swift that one couple, walking in the close, did not realise what was happening. They looked up and, seeing some of the finer pigeon feathers floating in the air, mistook them for snowflakes, which they found strange because it was by no means cold enough for snow.

The strange thing was that I felt morally outraged by the behaviour of the sparrowhawks. I know that this is absurd, and I know also that I have animadverted previously on the poor behaviour of pigeons in my garden, that (or is it who?) self-importantly and greedily dominate the bird table and drive away the smaller birds to take all the seed for themselves, even though they seem to me quite fat enough already. But between self-importance and greed on the one hand, and outright murder on the other, there is quite a difference, at least in the sub-lunary world. It is the difference between sin and crime.

Now of course it will be said that the sparrowhawks have to live; they cannot be expected to understand Louis XIV’s famous riposte to the petitioner who said, ‘But Sire, I have to live,’ namely that he, Louis XIV, did not see the necessity. Sparrowhawks are not properly the object of moral condemnation for, like Luther at the Diet of Worms, they can do no other than they do. They are obligatory carnivores; you cannot expect them to commit species suicide or turn vegetarian.

Rational as it is to view their behaviour as devoid of all moral significance whatsoever, and absurd as it would be to consider those birds as morally reprehensible, I find it almost impossible entirely to clear my mind of the irrational notion that the scene had a moral significance or meaning. If, for example, I had been able by some means or other to protect the pigeons from the unprovoked attack of the sparrowhawks upon them, I should have done so, even though saving the pigeons meant harming the sparrowhawks. It seemed to me terrible that the peaceful pigeons, bullies of my bird-table as they might be (though of course I did not know that these particular, that is to say individual pigeons, had ever visited it, and one should not infer the characteristics of an individual from his membership of a group), should have been subjected to so vicious an attack, and to so gory and painful a death.

I have experienced such visceral moral outrage, or at least revulsion, at the natural behaviour of lower creatures before. For example, on my land in France (I can hardly call it a garden) I once came across a snake that was in the process of swallowing a baby rabbit which, presumably, it had killed with its poison. I was furious. Not being a farmer, or even a gardener, I am still stuck at the Peter Rabbit stage in my attitude towards these creatures, viewed as a plague by those who must wrest their living from the land, or even with merely to grow a few vegetables. Though I am in the evening (the early evening, I hope) of my life, I still see rabbits as adorable, sweet and inoffensive furry animals, an adornment to any rural or pastoral scene; a fortiori are baby rabbits the objects of my affection.

Besides, I still have in my mind, ineradicably as it were, the view of life that I first learnt from Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopaedia. According to this view, Man was at the apex of a pyramid, and all forms of life below him were strictly graded in their moral worth in proportion to their nearness to him. Thus mammals were morally higher than birds, birds than reptiles, reptiles than fish, fish than insects, insects (and other arthropods such as arachnids and crustaceans) than molluscs, molluscs than coelenterates, coelenterates than protozoa. And I therefore thought, or felt, that it was wrong – morally wrong, against the moral order of the universe – that a lower creature should make a prey of a creature from a higher group than itself. In other words, reptiles should not eat birds, much less mammals; and likewise, birds should not eat mammals.

There was clearly (in my mind) a gradation of wrongdoing by animals. It was wrong for any animal to eat Man, of course, morally wrong; but – to take two recent cases – it was far worse for a python to have swallowed a boy in Indonesia than for wolves to have attacked and killed a boy walking home in Siberia. That is because pythons are much lower on the evolutionary scale than wolves which are, after all, close to dogs, sharing as they do 99.6 per cent of their DNA with dogs. And so I made the snake on my land in France disgorge its baby rabbit, though this could do the dead rabbit no good, to teach it, the snake, a lesson, a moral lesson that is. I was perfectly aware, I need hardly add, that reptiles are ineducable, that they are worse in this respect than the worst of congenitally antisocial humans; but anger or righteous indignation got the better of me.

What, then, of sparrowhawks attacking pigeons? Could I object to it on the same grounds as I objected to the snake killing and eating the baby rabbit? Here my evolutionary biology is a little hazy. Are hawks more highly evolved than pigeons? As far as I can remember, Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopaedia had nothing to say on this important question, for its evolutionary tree or pyramid was rather schematic and contained not many more types of creature than did the model Noah’s Arc that I had as an even smaller child (though of course they were all mammals of the larger sort, such as giraffes and hippopotamuses, rather than, say, shrews or voles, let alone centipedes or scorpions, which would have been difficult to coax up the gangplank). In a very crude way, I suspect predators to be more highly evolved than their prey; after all, the latter must have existed first for the former to have had anything to prey upon. I realise that there is something wrong with this logic, though; predators may have evolved first to prey on creatures lower on the scale than themselves, and then switched their attention to those higher.

In fact, I think there ought to be some kind of class solidarity – I mean Linnean class solidarity, not Marxian. Birds of a feather not only do but ought to stick together, and support rather than prey upon one another. This was another lesson I learnt when I was very young, when I was taught that, towards the end of the reign of the dinosaurs on earth, little mammals evolved and lived by their wits, rather than by brute force and ignorance as did the dinosaurs, who therefore not only did die out but deserved to do so for being so stupid and pea-brained. Mammals represented progress, and of course they were also the underdogs, if I may so put it, which made them morally attractive. Thus in our lessons about dinosaurs and evolution, as a mammal I cheered the mammals on to the victory that I already knew would be theirs. Like every other little boy, I loved Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus and Ichthyosaurus and Stegosaurus, but I knew that their disappearance from the face of the world was ultimately for the good of the world. They died that we might live.

The pigeons died, too, that the sparrowhawks might live; and there is no denying that the sparrowhawks are handsome birds. But handsome is as handsome does; and try as I might to empty my mind of the ridiculous thought, I cannot but see the conduct of the sparrowhawks in my church close yesterday as thoroughly wicked. If that is what they are prepared to do in full daylight, in front of witnesses, what must they be like in private?    

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.


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