Greed Overcomes Intelligence

A Quality Only Too Common in Many Species
Black and white bird sitting on a branch

Magpies have a reputation for being very smart birds—but now I am not so sure. Last night, as I walked by the enclosure that holds the five orphaned foxes we are preparing for release, I was startled by an enormous commotion. I couldn’t believe my eyes: a frantic flapping of wings and terrified panting revealed eight magpies caught inside the enclosure, desperately banging against the wire mesh as they tried to get out. How did they get in? And if they managed to get in, why couldn’t they get out?

It was a late summer evening, rapidly getting dark, and I was alone. How could I get eight magpies out without letting the foxes out, or having a panicked magpie fly to the fox-filled ground? I eventually managed to open doors in various combinations, but by then, it was dark and they were so panicked that they didn’t see the openings. As I tried to guide them, I tripped over the logs and rocks in the fox enrichment garden, which didn’t help—it just scared them further. They repeatedly pushed their heads through the small openings of the mesh, trying to squeeze out. Eventually, I got them all out—including the last one, who seemed to have lost all his wits.

I couldn’t imagine how it happened.

Early the next morning when I walked by, there were four magpies trapped inside, frantic, panting, and trying to get out. They may even have been the same ones.

I think the answer to the situation is that magpies are smart, but they are also greedy. They saw all this food for the foxes on the ground of the enclosure and couldn’t resist. They went in, so focused on the food they didn’t pay attention to how they got in. There was a small gap on the north end of the enclosure where the roof meets the sides over a supporting pole, but once inside, they didn’t see the gap as a way out. We sometimes find remains of magpies in fox pens, coyote pens, wolf pens—the leftover crumbs of food are just too tempting. Greed overcomes intelligence. Apparently, that is a quality common to many mammals.

Need I note that our enormous human intelligence is apparently also easily hijacked by greed? Our biological wiring for immediate gratification has been known to overcome good sense in our species. We are so easily captured by our drive for food, sex, status, and territory!

If we humans are unable to become more disciplined than magpies, we and the rest of Life face a rough future. Discipline means changing cultural values to support self-regulation rather than self–indulgence (a difficult sell until an emergency arises) and strengthening our relatively weak forebrains (where discipline, foresight, and long range thinking abides) through cultural support and mindfulness practices. We have been given incredible abilities to create—which is both positive and negative—but without the interconnected laws of nature reining us in, which helps the rest of life adapt. We must guide ourselves through a voluntary cultural evolution with ethics as an essential, non-negotiable baseline for how we operate. Doing so will allow us to develop strong social institutions that help us stand up to not just abuses by others, but also against our own inner impulses when we are weak. We have to overcome the tendencies of our biological history and wiring and find our own way now that we have gone beyond the boundaries provided by nature (for now).

This is all very hard work. We have the wiring to do it, even if it is still not fully developed. It’s essential that we support one another as we strengthen our ability to rewire and reconnect.

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