Science Book a Day Interviews Tim Low


Special thanks to Tim Low for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World

Tim Low is highly regarded as a biologist and writer. He is the prize-winning author of Feral Future and The New Nature, both published by Penguin, and Wild Food Plants of Australia. He is currently co-editor of Wildlife Australia magazine, to which he has been a long-term contributor. Tim also works as an environmental consultant, and his reports, books, articles and talks have contributed to ecological thought and environmental policy in Australia and more widely. – From Penguin Australia

Tim’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for Where Song Began?

I was exhausted after writing Feral Future & The New Nature and wanted to do something more cheerful than Feral Future, because some readers found it so negative they might not read another book by me. A bird book sounded relaxing (visiting national parks, wandering around with binoculars) as well as positive but it actually trapped me behind a computer for years. I wanted to write a book that helped connect people to nature and birds are easiest for people to relate to. I only had an inkling when I began about the emerging DNA studies.

#2 – You talk about a north-south hemisphere divide in science. How did this divide appear? And when did it start to be broken down?

It was always there – Europe setting the standard of what was normal and good, verses primitive marsupials and Aborigines and darkest wildest Africa – but sharpened in the early 20th century when biogeography – the science of origins – became a more important science, so that a belief in European and North American cultural superiority had a field in which it could flourish. Darwin did not help when he wrote that the larger joined landmasses in the north provided more opportunities for competition to produce superior species.

#3 – Australian birds seem to be unusually aggressive. What does this aggression say about their minds? Are they more intelligent? More cunning than Northern Hemisphere birds?

They are aggressive because it works for them, especially for large honeyeters surrounded by so much defendable sugar. The  most intelligent northern hemisphere birds (eg ravens) may be as intelligent as our most intelligent birds, but we have a larger proportion of birds that appear to be intelligent because we are so rich in large songbirds and large parrots. More of our birds should be tested to see, eg. black-cockatoos haven’t been tested because they don’t take well to captivity. Maybe our brightest birds are more intelligent but the research hasn’t been done.

#4 – How have ornithologists from outside Australia responded to the ideas in your book?

Too soon to say. Not released outside Australia but there are approaches to publishers being made. But Colin Tudge liked it a lot, as his quote on the cover shows.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I now want to focus on articles rather than another book, to become more of an essayist. There is an urgent need for people to reconnect to nature and the people in most need aren’t likely to read books about nature. I am also interested in writing about humans as animals to explain our social behaviours.

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