The Name's the Thing

I became an English major so that I could read classics and avoid laboratories. I wanted to write poetry, not research plants. I understood symbolism; I didn't understand cells. These were two incompatible worlds, a divided campus, Caliban spurning Ariel. Indisputable theory and playful imagination were impossible bedfellows. Which is why I was intrigued by a recent radio broadcast.

The program combined a touching narrative (a young girl named Claire is enchanted by a bird) with biological insight (the bird's evolutionary purpose). All was tied together with deep philosophical hypothesizing—mainly by me, while driving along the I-15.

The bird is called the honeyguide, and it lives in Mozambique. Its name is sweetly practical: this species actually does lead people to honey. To summon the bird, you must first master its sound, which was nicely demonstrated on the program: a long rolling rrr followed by a sharp humph. You whir and huff your way into the forest and soon, playful as Puck, out flies the little brown honeyguide. Follow it leaf by leaf, and you will discover luxuriant, edible, dripping gold.

According to the broadcaster, “Scientists believe that billions of years ago the bird may have evolved an innate desire to lead people to honey.” My first thought was that a chocolateguide would have been just as useful. But then the bird would have ended up in South America, never to be discovered by young Claire.

My second thought was this: prior to honing its innate desire, the bird surely evolved organizational skills and an altruistic instinct. In fact, a group of honeyguides could easily form a non-profit. On their continent, many important causes could be targeted: world hunger, micro-financing, and/or eco-tourism, to name just a few.

Third thought: My son could capitalize on this. He works for a company that helps non-profits to raise funds. By successfully marketing its services to the honeyguide, he could help his company expand internationally. Sam, declaring himself “the fittest,” could then muscle his way up the ranks. This natural selection would mean, of course, a hefty raise.

However, as we have seen, evolution is not without its hitches. There is such a thing as moral devolution, in which a progressive desire for luxury masks itself as biological Necessity. If it comes to this in Sam's case, I will have to keep an eye on him, maybe offering to do research—on, say, an all-expense paid trip to the Mediterranean.

But in the meanwhile, hats off to the honeyguide for sticking around all these years to make life sweeter for all of us. As Shakespeare would say (if interviewed by NPR) a bird by any other name wouldn't be nearly as interesting.