The Tragic Demise of a Rare Moustached Kingfisher, or Why Science Prefers Things Dead Rather than Alive

An ornithologist named Chris Filardi is coming under fire for “collecting” a rare specimen of moustached kingfisher during a scientific expedition to the Solomon Islands. “Collecting” in this case meant killing. And people were not very happy about it:

“Killing ‘in the name of conservation’ or ‘in the name of education’ or ‘in the name of whatever’ simply needs to stop,” [Marc] Bekoff [professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado] said. “It is wrong and sets a horrific precedent for future research and for children.” . . .

Some might see a touch of troubling irony, indeed, in the triumphant Twitter post by the American Museum of Natural History when the moustached Kingfisher was found. “These are the 1st-ever photos of a male moustached kingfisher! More on this ‘ghost’ species,” it said.

Yes. That particular specimen is quite the representative of a ghost species these days.

I too am upset that Chris Filardi has killed a rare bird, but not so much for conservational reasons. I’m upset that science is still stuck in the same cycle of pretended neutrality that requires everything it studies to be basically inanimate.

Let me unpack that. Science attempts to create objective knowledge. In fact, one of the meanings of the word science is objective knowledge itself. Most people consider science to refer mostly to a process or a method. But the goal of science is a complete knowledge: just the facts.

Here is the problem with the supremacy of facts and the idolatry of objectivity: they require death. Wherever there is life and change, there is uncertainty. For science to be certain, it basically requires the world to be fixed. Which is another way of saying “dead.” The easiest way to keep a bird from moving while you’re trying to study it is, you know, to kill it.

Are there other ways of gaining knowledge? Of course. Experience and intimacy, though they take longer and are more subjective, also provide profound insights into the world that are completely unavailable when you start killing things to study them without all the pesky uncertainties of life.