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The Curate’s Egg


Curlew's egg

But before it became the curate’s egg it belonged to a mother giving birth to her baby.

Before it belonged to Biology it belonged to a particular curlew.

The original curate, faced with a rotten egg at breakfast, was too polite to point out the failings in the Bishop’s hospitality. Are contemporary curators in a similar position with regard to the Scientific establishment?

Naturally there are hierarchies of power. Scientific orthodoxy is vast and unassailable. So vast that no single scientist can understand even a tiny part of his or her own field.

Science is so ‘good in parts’, that the whole has become indigestible. It has become so efficient at producing knowledge that it has smothered wisdom.

There’s a time for humility of course but I must say I like the 1992 version of the curate.

The point about the curate’s egg, like the fly in the ointment, is that it cannot be good in parts. For something to be truthful it must contain no trace of untruth. To observe the world as it is we must either deceive ourselves that we are completely separate from it, exempt from its laws in some god-like way, or we must examine our own actions as an integral part of the system.

Science can never arrive at the whole truth as long as our personal motivations are not acknowledged. But in order to observe our own actions and motivations it is necessary to step back from them and observe them, rather than be swept along by them.
A practice which deliberately manipulates the world around it is not Science but Engineering. It does not lead to Wisdom, just Results.
Wisdom is difficult though. It requires the mind, heart and body. How much more challenging would our science be if we tried to examine exactly what was in front of us without any deliberate interference at all? What new skills would we have to learn?

It is necessary to refrain as much as possible from changing things in the world in order to observe the fine details of our actions.
This is the main reason for becoming a hermit. It’s like shutting the door to the lab. Or sitting quietly out in the field. Or studying in the library. It’s an opportunity to closely observe things without trying to re-arrange them.
Change does not stop of course. It is going on everywhere at every moment, with astonishing complexity. But its dynamics can best be observed by just letting them be.
Stay close, do nothing.

Oology was once up there with philately and numismatics. But it has gradually rolled down the ledge from serious science to respectable hobby to shady obsession to jailable offence.
The red-backed shrike went extinct in the 1980’s because its pretty, speckled eggs were so prized by collectors.
But egg collections have also provided valuable data. Samples going back many years have shown that recent human pesticide use has thinned peregrine falcon eggs to the extent that they crack before they can hatch. But perhaps that evidence would have been unnecessary if we hadn’t waded in with pesticides in the first place.

This particular egg once belonged to a Slender Billed Curlew, an extremely rare bird on the verge of extinction. There are perhaps only fifty left in the world.
‘British Birds’ magazine recently published a report of sightings in the Danube delta. ‘Four birds were present from 25th July to 21st August 2003, six were seen on 11th August 2004, and another on 12th August 2004’.

Nowadays it is much more socially acceptable to shoot and print than to shoot and stuff. As part of the same trend no one today would countenance the theft of a Slender Billed Curlew’s egg. I wonder if one day we might think the same way about collecting anything at all?
In that future what might the true union of humility and curiosity look like?
Hearing the curlew’s call, would a future scientist stop to listen to the music of Mother Nature rather than run to weigh and measure her egg?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Stephenson permalink
    30/07/2009 11:31 pm

    Did you collect eggs when young, Ansuman? I shot a dunnock when I was a child – almost by accident, as I didn’t believe in my own capabilities, like most children. Taking it’s life changed mine. The problem is not so much that we are convinced of our own power and influence in the world, just the opposite. We just don’t realise the extent of our individual power and influence, such is the level of our perception of self-esteem and worth. Why is that? Who is it that convinces us from an early age that our feelings, opinions and actions count for nothing? Is it ourselves?

  2. Henry McGhie permalink
    28/09/2009 10:01 am

    The Collections Development Panel, along with the director and the artist, discussed the Kiwi and cloak at a meeting on 3rd September.

    The blog responses and discussion were summarised as:
    “The Radio 4 Today programme recently reported an appeal for sightings of a number of rare species that in some cases have not been seen since the early 20th century – including the slender-billed curlew, which is believed to be extinct. This specimen would be of interest in the Sustainable Planet? Gallery which will deal with extinction. This is one of the most prized specimens in the collection.”

    The decision was to retain the object.

  3. Vandendriessche Maurits Modave Belgique permalink
    18/03/2012 4:58 pm

    Could you please tell me the egg size of slender-billed curlew (numenius tenuirostris)?

    Thanks in advance

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