During a Beacon Hill walk on Sunday, December 27, I came across a mid-sized tree whose top branches were occupied by five or so crows and one gloomy bald eagle. Clearly, the crows were keeping a close eye on the eagle. They were ready to gang on the proud urban predator as soon as it left the tree.
"The standoff has been going on for a while," said a mesmerized woman dressed for winter. High-flying clouds were in the darkening sky. A cold sun was setting on West Seattle. She stood on a part of the sidewalk that ran along the front yard of a bungalow whose backyard contained the denuded tree with the birds and their beef. The woman knew the bald eagle very well. It comes around all of the time. Particularly likes this street and a nearby park. "It's amazing. The bald eagle. It's just so beautiful," she said to me again and again.
The eagle was not trying to impress anyone. The big and powerful bird's whole mind was on the nettlesome corvids sitting on the branches above, adjacent, and below it. These nagging crows. These city crows with nothing better to do that day. Crows too smart for their own good. Why can't they just let it be? Why take what comes naturally to the eagle (predation) so personally? The eagle exuded this kind of frustration. But who would go first? The eagle or the crows? After ten minutes, I left the birds exactly as I found them on that tree.
But I did not leave that avian drama at dusk (which came early that day—around 4:30 pm) without considering the sociality of crows and the rugged individualism of eagles. What we find in birds—and also in large areas of biotic nature—is the tendency for strong animals to form weak social connections with their kind, and weak animals to form strong ones with their kind. This is a tendency and not a law. Also, when crows do not have a common goal, such as making life difficult for a bald eagle, they tend to be pretty nasty to each other. Who has not seen one crow chase another because it got to a bit of street food before it did? There is no such thing as stealing among crows. Theirs is a sociality that's activated by an external threat.
But if we consider humans, we find that much of our cooperative behavior, which is richer than crows by far, is grounded by our weakness as individuals. We are the animal that became stronger the weaker we physically became. Our victory over other animals can be attributed to this counterintuitive evolutionary development. This process is sometimes described as human gracilization.
In the 2003 French post-apocalyptic film Time of the Wolf, the end of the world atomizes humans. They are dispersed in the woods and countryside. And life becomes the double of Hobbes' "bellum omnium contra omnes." And the only way for a human or a family to survive in this brutal world ruled by laws of raw force is by joining a group, tribe, a village dominated by a few physically powerful males. If the strong refuse to protect you, you are shit out of luck. You must fend for yourself. But in fact this is not at all how life after the collapse of civilization (or simply capitalism) would pan out. What will most likely happen instead is that the weak will murder the strong, because the strong tend to weaken or compromise or imbalance the strength of the whole. Ours is an animal whose strong individuals are not a product of nature but culture.