Column Date 2006-02-26

Too dumb to survive?

Let’s start with the birds:

In case you missed it, scientists are now telling us that some seabirds have become too stupid to survive.

One bird they’re studying, way up in the Bering Sea, is called a red-legged kittiwake. Kittiwake populations have shrunk 50% in the last 25 years, which is catastrophic -- and the scientists say this is because of global warming.

It works like this: as the oceans heat up, some varieties of fish adapt by swimming away to cooler waters where they’re more comfortable (and where they can find more of the smaller fish and organisms that they eat).

In the Bering Sea, the fish that are leaving are “lipid-rich” – which means they contain biological molecules that are crucial for kittiwake chicks to develop properly.

The kittiwakes won’t starve: they eat other fish to fill their bellies. But since the new chicks don’t eat enough “lipid-rich fish,” scientists say they’ve become “cognitively challenged” (read “not too bright”).

To put it into simple, non-scientific terms: the new generation of kittiwakes are now too stupid to move and find the right food. And they are slowly dying out.

Disturbing? You bet.

But now, let’s look at people:

For decades, our kids have been growing up on diets filled with Coke, Twinkies, Big Macs, French Fries and double thick shakes.

Healthy, nutritious food is all around us, of course, but most of us pay no attention and let our kids eat what they want.

This has helped make us the most obese country in history. (And we’re not alone: as other countries have become more affluent, they’ve also become fatter, too – waddling in America’s footsteps, so to speak.)

So the big question is: is there some unknown, crucial ingredient that’s missing in fast food that is slowing down our development -- that might eventually make humans as stupid as kittiwakes?

Well, let’s look at some of our major global problems:

There’s pollution, of course. No need to remind you how lousy our air is, how there’s still acid rain killing our trees, and how scarce pure, clean water has become in many countries.

Then there’s our insane, self-destructive addiction to oil, which has not only fouled our air and oceans, but has been behind many of the wars going on in the Middle East for decades.

Irrational overuse of antibiotics is leaving the human population vulnerable to the newest evolutionary version of bacteria. (Oh, sorry, I keep forgetting that some of us don’t believe in evolution.)

And then there’s that pesky global warming thing. (Oh, sorry, I keep forgetting that, according to our current administration, it isn’t happening.)

These are major problems. And how are we solving them?

Well, so far, our solutions remind me a lot of what the kittiwakes are doing: lots of screeching and noise as they flutter about, but no real comprehension of how serious the problems are. And little action.

Most of us smile, figure somebody else will solve the problem, and go have another pint of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.

Too dumb to survive? The birds certainly are.

As for us, the jury’s still out.

©2006 Peter Tannen