The Cream Myth
A party conversation, April 16, 2005:
(Dialogue is an approximation. Some inebriation may be involved.)
C: You remember that show we taped?
T: What show?
C: The one with the birds. Stealing the cream.
T: Oh, yeah. Don't know if we taped it, though.
C (facing M): These birds, over in England, they... On people's porches, the milkman would leave people's milk? The bottles had little tin-foil tops on them and these birds learned how to peck through the foil covers and drink the cream. That was before the war. And then when the war came along they stopped delivering people's milk. For the whole war. Five years later they started again, and these birds, their life spans were only like one year or something, but after five years, when they started delivering the milk again, the birds knew how to peck through the foil and get the cream.
M: Wow. It's like there was a Bird Library. They went to the Bird Library and looked up how to get the cream.
C: Right. Somehow the knowledge was preserved.
M: Or they had legends. Bird legends.
T: Right. (after a brief pause.) The Cream Myth.
The Many Faces of Psychological Research in the 21st Century, Jane S. Halonen, Stephen F. Davis, Editors (2005?), Chapter 13, "Comparative Psychology and Animal Learning", by Jesse E. Purdy and Michael Domjan:
In 1949, Fisher and Hinde reported on birds (blue tits) that had been robbing cream from milk bottles delivered to the doors of English homes. Observers speculated that a single blue tit had discovered, probably quite by accident, how to peck through a bottle cap and consume the rich cream that floated on top of the milk. The occurrence of milk theft then gradually spread throughout the whole of England and into Europe through some form of social learning.
The Aggressor's Way, 2nd Edition (2004), by Francis Hardy:
The small British bird, the blue tit, has the annoying habit of pecking the covers of milk bottles that are delivered outside the doors of many UK homes, and then drinking the milk from the tops of the bottles. This practice was first reported in 1921 near Southampton in southern England, and observations over the years have shown that the habit has been slowly spreading from this area ever since. The evidence suggests that the technique was probably discovered by one particularly innovative bird and has been spreading by simple imitation. Of course, no one knows the exact circumstances of the initial discovery of this new source of food but it could have been a simple case of serendipity - as for example a bird pecking at an insect which had settled on a milk bottle cover and then finding that its beak went through the cover and into the delicious tasting liquid underneath. Many blue tits in the UK are now adept at exploiting this rich source of food - particularly in hard winters when more conventional food is scarce - and there is evidence that other bird species, such as the house sparrow and marsh tit, are also taking up the habit.
The Living Company, by Arie de Geus, 1999:
The United Kingdom has a long standing system of delivering milk in bottles to the door. At the beginning of the 20th century these milk bottles had no top. Birds had easy access to the cream which settled in the top of the bottle. Two different species of British garden birds, the blue tits and red robins, learned to siphon up cream from the bottles and tap this new, rich food source.
This innovation, in itself, was already quite an achievement. But it also had an evolutionary effect. The cream was much richer than the usual food sources of these birds, and the two species underwent some adaptation of their digestive systems to cope with the unusual nutrients. This internal adaptation almost certainly took place through Darwinian selection.
Then, between the two world wars, the UK dairy distributors closed access to the food source by placing aluminium seals on their bottles.
By the early 1950's the entire blue tit population of the UK, about a million birds, had learned how to pierce the aluminium seals. Regaining access to this rich food source provided an important victory for the blue tit family as a whole; it gave them an advantage in the battle for survival. Conversely, the robins, as a family, never regained access to the cream. Occasionally, an individual robin learns how to pierce the seals of the milk bottle. But the knowledge never passes to the rest of the species.
In short, the blue tits went through an extraordinarily successful institutional learning process. The robins failed, even though individual robins had been as innovative as individual blue tits. Moreover, the difference could not be attributed to their ability to communicate. As songbirds, both the blue tits and the robins had the same wide range of means of communication: colour, behaviour, movements, and song. The explanation could be found only in the social propagation process: the way blue tits spread their skill from one individual to members of the species as a whole.
In spring, the blue tits live in couples until they have reared their young. By early summer, when the young blue tits are flying and feeding on their own, we see birds moving from garden to garden in flocks of eight to ten individuals. These flocks seem to remain intact, moving together around the countryside, and the period of mobility lasts for two to three months.
Robins, by contrast, are territorial birds. A male robin will not allow another male to enter its territory. When threatened, the robin sends a warning, as if to say "Keep the hell out of here." In general, red robins tend to communicate with each other in an antagonistic manner, with fixed boundaries that they do not cross.
Birds that flock, seem to learn faster. They increase their chances to survive and evolve more quickly.
Fact Eighteen: Blue tits used to open milk bottle tops to drink the cream. They stopping when semi-skimmed milk became popular.
The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future, by WM. H. Kötke, Book Two: The Seed of the Future, Part I. Creating a Whole Life, Chapter 13: The Principles of Life, "The Moral Basis of the Life of the Earth":
In Southampton, in 1921, a blue tit was observed to peck through the foil cap of a milk bottle, tear the foil back and drink from the bottle. The spread of this habit was recorded at regular intervals from 1930 to 1947. There are eleven species to which this habit has spread but it is most frequently confined to great tits, coal tits and blue tits. After the first observation of this "milk poaching," the habit was seen to spread rapidly through England where sometimes flocks of tits would follow milk delivery people through the neighborhoods waiting for the milk bottles to be put on people's porches. The detailed studies of this phenomenon show that the habit was independently "discovered" by individual tits 89 times in the British Isles. In the view of morphic resonance, this habit pattern resonated within the tit species and the pattern was then increasingly manifest by individual tits. During World War II milk deliveries in England stopped for the duration that was longer than the normal tit life span, yet when milk deliveries commenced again, tits all over England again began to take up the habit. After the war, "It seems certain that the habit was started in many different places by many individuals," researchers said. The habit also spread to Sweden, Denmark and Holland.
The Co-Intelligence Institute, "More on Morphogenetic Fields":
Experiment 1: In the 1920s Harvard University psychologist William McDougall did experiments for 15 years in which rats learned to escape from a tank. The first generation of rats averaged 200 mistakes before they learned the right way out; the last generation 20 mistakes. McDougall concluded that, contrary to accepted genetic science, such acquired knowledge could be inherited.
Experiment 2: In later efforts to duplicate McDougall's experiments in Australia, similar rats made fewer mistakes right from the start. Later generations of rats did better even when they were not descendents of the earlier rats. This wasn't genetics at work. It was something else. Nobody tested it further.
"Experiment" 3: In the 1920s in Southampton, England, a bird called the blue tit discovered it could tear the tops of milk bottles on doorsteps and drink the cream. Soon this skill showed up in blue tits over a hundred miles away, which is odd in that they seldom fly further than 15 miles. Amateur bird-watchers caught on and traced the expansion of the habit. It spread faster and faster until by 1947 it was universal throughout Britain. In a parallel development, the habit had spread to blue tits in Holland, Sweden and Denmark. German occupation cut off milk deliveries in Holland for eight years -- five years longer than the life of a blue tit. Then, in 1948 the milk started to be delivered. Within months blue tits all over Holland were drinking cream, a habit that had taken decades to take hold before the war. Where did they get this knowledge?
What is going on here?
Sheldrake has hypothesized a field of morphic ("pattern-related") resonance in which patterns of knowledge, structure or behavior of a certain kind of thing (whether a salt crystal or a human mind) become increasingly embedded as a "habit," an ingrained pattern of information which influences and is accessible to other members of that category of thing. In commenting on the rat experiments, Sheldrake said: "If rats are taught a new trick in Manchester, then rats of the same breed all over the world should show a tendency to learn the same trick more rapidly, even in the absence of any known type of physical connection or communication. The greater the number of rats that learn it, the easier it should become for their successors."
A minority of biologists have been suggesting the possibility of morphogenetic (form-generating) fields for decades. Sheldrake's unique contribution has been to create a testable hypothesis regarding such fields. Despite the fact that it seems to violate all broadly-accepted principles of science, the experimental evidence is rapidly mounting that, indeed, something of this kind is at work.
The Cream Myth: From the mind of Man, or from bird brains?
(Assuming there's a difference, of course.)