Introduction by Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns
The New Yorker
ran an article on November 28, 2016 examining the moral claims that
nonhuman animals – and maybe robots – have on us. In
“Not Our Kind,”
author Nathan Heller states that “Until we can pinpoint
animals’ claims on us, we won’t be clear about what we owe
I submitted a Letter to the Editor that was set to appear in the December
12 issue of The New Yorker, but then, at the last minute, it was
bumped in favor of something to do with Trump. I’m saving it for
In “Not Our Kind,” Heller quotes a passage from the
anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley, whose writings thrilled and
educated me deeply in the 1960s, when I discovered his book The Immense Journey. This book includes an essay called “The
Bird and the Machine.” After reading Heller’s article, I reread
“The Bird and the Machine” in my 1957 edition of the book.
I am sharing with our readers the experience that Eiseley relates, and his
meditation on his experience as a young scientist assigned to “get
them alive – birds, reptiles, anything. A zoo somewhere abroad needed
The Immense Journey
was first published in 1946 and is still in print. Thank goodness.
“Remembering those two birds and that blue mountain sunlight . . .”
The Bird and The Machine
By Loren Eiseley
I suppose their little bones have years ago been lost among the stones and
winds of those high glacial pastures. I suppose their feathers blew
eventually into the piles of tumbleweed beneath the straggling cattle
fences and rotted there in the mountain snows, along with dead steers and
all the other things that drift to an end in the corners of the wire. I do
not quite know why I should be thinking of birds over the New York Times at breakfast, particularly the birds of my youth
half a continent away. It is a funny thing what the brain will do with
memories and how it will treasure them and finally bring them into an odd
juxtaposition with other things, as though it wanted to make a design, or
get some meaning out of them, whether you want it or not, or even see it.
It used to seem marvelous to me, but I read now that there are machines
that can do these things in a small way, machines that can crawl about like
animals, and that it may not be long now until they do more
things—maybe even make themselves—I saw that piece in the Times just now. And then they will, maybe—well, who
knows—but you read about it more and more with no one making any
protest, and already they can add better than we and reach up and hear
things thought the dark and finger the guns over the night sky.
This is the new world that I read about at breakfast. This is the world
that confronts me in my biological books and journals, until there are
times when I sit quietly in my chair and try to hear the little purr of the
cogs in my head and the tubes flaring and dying as the messages go through
them and the circuits snap shut or open. This is the great age, make no
mistake about it; the robot has been born somewhat appropriately along with
the atom bomb, and the brain they say now is just another type of more
complicated feedback system. The engineers have its basic principles worked
out; it’s mechanical, you know; nothing to get superstitious about;
and man can always improve on nature once he gets the idea. Well,
he’s got it all right and that’s why, I guess, that I sit here
in my chair, with the article crunched in my hand, remembering those two
birds and that blue mountain sunlight. There is another magazine article on
my desk that reads “Machines Are Getting Smarter Every Day.” I
don’t deny it, but I’ll stick with the birds. It’s life I
believe in, not machines.
Maybe you don’t believe there is any difference. A skeleton is all
joints and pulleys, I’ll admit. And when man was in his simpler
stages of machine building in the eighteenth century, he quickly saw the
resemblances. “What,” wrote Hobbes, “is the heart but a
spring, and nerves but so many strings, and the joints but so many wheels,
giving motion to the whole body?” Tinkering about in their shops it
was inevitable in the end that men would see the world as a huge machine
“subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines.”
The idea took on with a vengeance. Little automatons toured the
county—dolls controlled by clockwork. Clocks described as little
worlds were taken on tours by their designers. They were made up of moving
figures, shifting scenes and other remarkable devices. The life of the cell
was unknown. Man, whether he was conceived as possessing a soul or not,
moved and jerked about like these tiny puppets. A human being thought of
himself in terms of his own tools and implements. He had been fashioned
like the puppets he produced and was only a more clever model made by a
Then in the nineteenth century, the cell was discovered, and the single
machine in its turn was found to be the product of millions of
infinitesimal machines—the cells. Now, finally, the cell itself
dissolves away into an abstract chemical machine—and that into some
intangible, inexpressible flow of energy. The secret seems to lurk all
about, the wheels get smaller and smaller, and they turn more rapidly, but
when you try to seize it the life is gone—and so, by popular
definition, some would say that life was never there in the first place.
The wheels and the cogs are the secret and we can make them better in
time—machines that will run faster and more accurately than real mice
to real cheese.
I have no doubt it can be done, though a mouse harvesting seeds on an
autumn thistle is to me a fine sight and more complicated, I think, in his
multiform actively, than a machine “mouse” running a maze.
Also, I like to think of the possible shape of the future brooding in mice,
just as it brooded once in a rather ordinary mousy insectivore who became a
man. It leaves a nice fine indeterminate sense of wonder that even an
electronic brain hasn’t got, because you know perfectly well that if
the electronic brain changes, it will be because of something man has done
to it. But what man will do to himself he doesn’t really know. A
certain scale of time and a ghostly intangible thing called change are
ticking in him. Powers and potentialities like the oak in the seed, or a
red and awful ruin. Either way, it’s impressive; and the mouse has
it, too. Or those birds, I’ll never forget those birds—yet
before I measured their significance, I learned the lesson of time first of
all. I was young then and left alone in a great desert—part of an
expedition that had scattered its men over several hundred miles in order
to carry on research more effectively. I learned there that time is a
series of planes existing superficially in the same universe. The tempo is
a human illusion, a subjective clock ticking in our own kind of protoplasm.
As the long months passed, I began to live on the slower planes and to
observe more readily what passed for life there. I sauntered, I passed more
and more slowly up and down the canyons in the dry baking heat of
midsummer. I slumbered for long hours in the shade of huge brown boulders
that had gathered in tilted companies out on the flats. I had forgotten the
world of men and the world had forgotten me. Now and then I found a skull
in the canyons, and these justified my remaining there. I took a serene
cold interest in these discoveries. I had come, like many a naturalist
before me, to view life with a wary and subdued attention. I had grown to
take pleasure in the divested bone.
I sat once on a high ridge that fell away before me into a waste of sand
dunes. I sat through hours of a long afternoon. Finally, as I glanced
beside my boot an indistinct configuration caught my eye. It was a coiled
rattlesnake, a big one. How long he had sat with me I do not know. I had
not frightened him. We were both locked in a sleep-walking tempo of the
earlier world, baking in the same high air and sunshine. Perhaps he had
been there when I came. He slept on as I left, his coils, so ill discerned
by me, dissolving once more among the stones and gravel from which I had
barely made him out.
Another time I got on a higher ridge, among some tough little wind-warped
pines half covered over with sand in a basin-like depression that caught
everything carried by the air up to those heights. There were a few thin
bones of birds, some cracked shells of indeterminable age, and the knotty
fingers of pine roots bulged out of shape from their long and agonizing
grasp upon the crevices of the rock. I lay under the pines in the sparse
shade and went to sleep once more.
It grew cold finally, for autumn was in the air by then, and the few things
that lived thereabouts were sinking down into an even chillier scale of
time. In the moments between sleeping and waking I saw the roots about me
and slowly, slowly, a foot in what seemed many centuries, I moved my
sleep-stiffened hands over the scaling bark and lifted my numbed face after
the vanishing sun. I was a great awkward thing of knots and aching limbs,
trapped up there in some long, patient endurance that involved the
necessity of putting living fingers into rock and by slow, aching expansion
bursting those rocks asunder. I suppose, so thin and slow was the time of
my pulse by then, that I might have stayed on to drift still deeper into
the lower cadences of the frost, or the crystalline life that glisters in
pebbles, or shines in a snowflake, or dreams in the meteoric iron between
It was a dim descent, but time was present in it. Somewhere far down in
that scale the notion stuck me that one might come the other way. Not many
months thereafter I joined some colleagues heading higher into a remote
windy tableland where huge bones were reputed to protrude like boulders
from the turf. I had drowsed with reptiles and moved with the century-long
pulse of trees; now, lethargically, I was climbing back up some invisible
ladder of quickening hours. There had been talk of birds in connection with
my duties. Birds are intense, fast-living creatures—reptiles, I
suppose one might say, that have escaped out of the heavy sleep of time,
transformed fairy creatures dancing over sunlit meadows. It is a youthful
fancy, no doubt, but because of something that happened up there among the
escarpments of that range, it remains with me a lifelong impression. I can
never bear to see a bird imprisoned.
We came into that valley through the trailing mists of a spring night. It
was a place that looked as though it might never have known the foot of
man, but our scouts has been ahead of us and we knew all about the
abandoned cabin of stone that lay far up on one hillside. It has been built
in the land rush of the last century and then lost to the cattlemen again
as the marginal soils failed to take to the plow.
There were spots like this all over that country. Lost graves marked by
unlettered stones and old corroding rim-fire cartridge cases lying where
somebody had made a stand among the boulders that rimmed the valley. They
are all that remains of the range wars; the men are under the stones now. I
could see our cavalcade winding in and out through the mist below us:
torches, the reflection of the truck lights on our collecting tins, and the
far-off bumping of a loose dinosaur thigh bone in the bottom of a trailer.
I stood on a rock a moment looking down and thinking what it cost in money
and equipment to capture the past.
We had, in addition, instructions to lay hands on the present. The word had
come through to get them alive—birds, reptiles, anything. A zoo
somewhere abroad needed restocking. It was one of those reciprocal matters
in which science involves itself. Maybe our museum needed a stray ostrich
egg and this was the payoff. Anyhow, my job was to help capture some birds
and that was why I was there before the trucks.
The cabin had not been occupied for years. We intended to clean it out and
live in it, but there were holes in the roof and the birds had come in and
were roosting in the rafters. You could depend on it in a place like this
where everything blew away, and even a bird needed some place out of the
weather and away from coyotes. A cabin going back to nature in a wild place
draws them till they come in, listening at the eaves, I imagine, pecking
softly among the shingles till they find a hole and then suddenly the place
is theirs and man is forgotten.
Sometimes of late years I find myself thinking the most beautiful sight in
the world might be the birds taking over New York after the last man has
run away to the hills. I will never live to see it, of course, but I know
just how it will sound because I’ve lived up high and I know the sort
of watch birds keep on us. I’ve listened to sparrows tapping
tentatively on the outside of air conditioners when they thought no one was
listening, and I know how other birds test the vibrations that come up to
them through the television aerials.
“Is he gone?” they ask, and the vibrations come up from below,
“Not yet, not yet.”
Well, to come back, I got the door open softly and I had the spotlight all
ready to turn on and blind whatever birds there were so they couldn’t
see to get out through the roof. I had a short piece of ladder to put
against the far wall where there was a shelf on which I expected to make
the biggest haul. I had all the information I needed just like any skilled
assassin. I pushed the door open, the hinges squeaking only a little. A
bird or two stirred—I could hear them—but nothing flew and
there was a faint starlight though the holes in the roof.
I padded across the floor, got the ladder up and the light ready, and
slithered up the ladder till my head and arms were over the shelf.
Everything was dark as pitch except for the starlight at the little place
back of the shelf near the eaves. With the light to blind them,
they’d never make it. I had them. I reached my arm carefully over in
order to be ready to seize whatever was there and I put the flash on the
edge of the shelf where it would stand by itself when I turned it on. That
way I’d be able to use both hands.
Everything worked perfectly except for one detail—I didn’t know
what kind of birds were there. I never thought about it at all, and it
wouldn’t have mattered if I had. My orders were to get something
interesting. I snapped on the flash and sure enough there was a great
beating and feathers flying, but instead of my having them, they, or rather
he, had me. He had my hand, that is, and for a small hawk not much bigger
than my fist he was doing all right. I heard him give one short metallic
cry when the light went on and my hand descended on the bird beside him;
after that he was busy with his claws and his beak was sunk in my thumb. In
the struggle I knocked the lamp over on the shelf, and his mate got her
sight back and whisked neatly through the hole in the roof and off among
the stars outside. It all happened in fifteen seconds and you might think I
would have fallen down the ladder, but no, I had a professional
assassin’s reputation to keep up, and the bird, of course, made the
mistake of thinking the hand was the enemy and not the eyes behind it. He
chewed my thumb up pretty effectively and lacerated my hand with his claws,
but in the end I got him, having two hands to work with.
He was a sparrow hawk and a fine young male in the prime of life. I was
sorry not to catch the pair of them, but as I dripped blood and folded his
wings carefully, holding him by the back so that he couldn’t strike
again, I had to admit the two of them might have been more than I could
have handled under the circumstances. The little fellow had saved his mate
by diverting me, and that was that. He was born to it, and made no outcry
now, resting in my hand hopelessly, but peering toward me in the shadows
behind the lamp with a fierce, almost indifferent glance. He neither gave
nor expected mercy and something out of the high air passed from him to me,
stirring a faint embarrassment.
I quit looking into that eye and managed to get my huge carcass with its
fist full of prey back down the ladder. I put the bird in a box too small
to allow him to injure himself by struggle and walked out to welcome the
arriving trucks. It had been a long day, and camp still to make in the
darkness. In the morning that bird would be just another episode. He would
go back with the bones in the truck to a small cage in a city where he
would spend the rest of his life. And a good thing, too. I sucked my aching
thumb and spat out some blood. An assassin has to get used to these things.
I had a professional reputation to keep up.
In the morning, with the change that comes on suddenly in that high
country, the mist that had hovered below us in the valley was gone. The sky
was a deep blue, and one could see for miles over the high outcroppings of
stone. I was up early and brought the box in which the little hawk was
imprisoned out onto the grass where I was building a cage. A wind as cool
as a mountain spring ran over the grass and stirred my hair. It was a fine
day to be alive. I looked up and all around and at the hole in the cabin
roof out of which the other little hawk had fled. There was no sign of her
anywhere that I could see.
“Probably in the next county by now,” I thought cynically, but
before beginning work I decided I’d have a look at my last
Secretively, I looked again all around the camp and up and down and opened
the box. I got him right out in my hand with his wings folded properly and
I was careful not to startle him. He lay limp in my grasp and I could feel
his heart pound under the feathers but he only looked beyond me and up.
I saw him look that last look away beyond me into a sky so full of light
that I could not follow his gaze. The little breeze flowed over me again,
and nearby a mountain aspen shook all its tiny leaves. I suppose I must
have had an idea then of what I was going to do, but I never let it come up
into consciousness. I just reached over and laid the hawk on the grass.
He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on
that blue vault above him. It must have been that he was already so far
away in heart that that he never felt the release from my hand. He never
even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass.
In the next second after that long minute he was gone. Like a flicker of
light, he had vanished with my eyes full on him, but without actually
seeing even a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that
towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to
penetrate. For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him.
The light was too intense. Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing
I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that
cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured;
for, by shifting my position against the sun, I was now seeing further up.
Straight out of the sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring
restlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up,
ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such
unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and
tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.
I saw them both now. He was rising fast to meet her. They met in a great
soaring gyre that turned to a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once
more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of
question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the
valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere into those upper regions
beyond the eyes of men.
I am older now, and sleep less, and have seen most of what there is to see
and am not very much impressed any more, I suppose, by anything.
“What Next in the Attributes of Machines?” my morning headline
runs. “It Might Be the Power to Reproduce Themselves.”
I lay the paper down and across my mind a phrase floats insinuatingly:
“It does not seem that there is anything in the construction,
constituents, or behavior of the human being which it is essentially
impossible for science to duplicate and synthesize. On the other hand . .
All over the city the cogs in the hard, bright mechanisms have begun to
turn. Figures move through computers, names are spelled out, a thoughtful
machine selects the fingerprints of a wanted criminal from an array of
thousands. In the laboratory an electronic mouse runs swiftly through a
maze toward the cheese it can neither taste nor enjoy. On the second run it
does better than a living mouse.
“On the other hand . . .” Ah, my mind takes up, on the other
hand the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a
torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out
with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off,
over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of
heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and