Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds

This capsule review appeared in Fortean Times No. 139, October 2000, p.57. For a while the magazine ran a sidebar in its review section called ‘Fortean Bookshelf’, in which “Each month FT revisits an out-of-print but still important classic.” Readers could send in brief accounts of books they felt had been neglected, and as at the time I was reading Edmund Selous’s Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds, I thought this a good candidate as it did not seem to have been much mentioned in the seventy years since publication.  Selous was trying to account for the remarkable abilities of flocks of birds to move in a coordinated way, in a sense as a single organism. He spent many, many hours in the field watching birds’ behaviour in flocks, and described his observations in obsessive detail.

As well as being a noted, and prolific, naturalist, Selous (1857-1934) had joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1891 and his book was reviewed by W. H. Salter in the SPR’s Journal dated January 1932. His elder brother was explorer and hunter Frederick Selous, a model for Allan Quartermain, who led a life of African adventure in marked contrast to Edmund’s sedate existence (the Rhodesian Selous Scouts were named after him).  The book was later referred to in a Fortean Times article by David Hambling in September 2006 with the  title ‘Hive Minds’, in which he discusses the mechanisms – the (or What?) – by which birds actually do manage these amazing feats.  While commonplace now, psychical research involving animals was ground-breaking in 1931, and even if mistaken in his conclusions, Edmund Selous deserves an honoured place as a pioneer of what has come to be known as anpsi.

Thought Transference (or What?) in Birds

Edmund Selous

Constable and Company, London, 1931

At a time when interest in animals’ possible psychic abilities is high, it is a shame that Edmund Selous’s book, the result of almost 30 years’ field research, has been largely forgotten.

By noting apparent instances of synchronised activity without an external stimulus, he attempts to show that birds of various species seem to display instances of telepathy, or, rather, the working of a group mind. He speculates that humans too may once have had this ability, but lost it through the development of speech (though elsewhere he declares himself convinced by the evidence for telepathy in humans published by The Society for Psychical Research).

There are problems with Selous’s observational approach: it is possible that although he could not see an external stimulus, the birds could; and although he may have thought that they flew off simultaneously, movements could have been sequential, though too fast for the human eye to perceive. Despite these reservations, his work represents what was a groundbreaking approach to psi in a neglected part of the animal kingdom.