newstom h hastings my zero sum hummingbirds

Tom H. Hastings: My zero-sum hummingbirds

Tom H. Hastings
(© Chelsea –

I adore “my” hummingbirds, arguably the best in-close flyers in the world, with reaction times so fast they zip in next to angry defensive bees to score a sip of sugar water despite the bees coming at them in a bee fury that would dissuade virtually any other critter, including me.

Two feeders full of sugar water hang not 40 inches from me, just outside my home office window. Who needs Netflix when I can turn to the Hummingbird Channel?

In virtuoso demonstrations of maneuverability, a tiny hummer can dart backwards and hover, waiting a human heartbeat for the bee to either peel off or charge toward it, and if the bee is serious, the bird might wheel and bug out, or might zigzag into another port of the feeder to see what the bee will do then.

Of course during that human heartbeat the little hummer’s heart beat some 200 times. They must perceive even the quickest human or bee as operating in slo-mo. No bee has ever caught any hummer at my feeders.

Watching the bird feeders is observing nature as endless metaphor for our human foibles.

Like hyper-intelligent humans with big cerebrums, hummingbirds fall for the zero-sum approach to sharing with others–at least the hummers who come to my feeders do. They seem to be convinced that whatever sips another hummer can take means that much less for them. Classic zero-sum thinking.

There are two feeders there, each accessible to them equally, with four ports on each. Eight hummingbirds could easily share all those. They never do. They expend enormous energy chasing each other in wild aerial acrobatics that make the Blue Angels, or the Olympic gymnastic events, look staid and clumsy.

Gosh, I guess their little brains can’t seem to learn what should be obvious. Human beings are at the top of the intelligence pyramid because we learn so much, so quickly, and advance so easily. We wouldn’t fall for the same sort of wasteful error that the hummingbirds do.

Um, yeah.

We barely survived four years of a regime led by the quintessential zero-sum thinker, Trump, who reminds me of a hog guarding a rotting carcass, chasing off other scavengers to keep all that delicious filth for himself. No matter what the comparator, he boasted that he was at the top, smarter about national defense than “his” generals, more intelligent than the US intelligence services, able to more brilliantly analyze the “China flu” problem than world-renowned virologists, and just generally a “very stable genius.”

But we can all fall into similar–if less world-stagey–logic traps. Overcoming our amygdala reaction to seeing someone else doing well is our daily challenge.

My zero-sum white man reaction to immigrants or refugees coming into “my” country might be, “You will not replace us!”

My evidence-based response would be closer to, “Welcome. Like any ecosystem, our diversity is our strength. Work, study, learn, be productive, pay taxes, create a future for your family here. Help us repair and improve our nation’s image around the world and with your homeland. We are glad to make this your new homeland.”

My zero-sum white man reaction to a person of color, possibly an immigrant, being hired by my employer might be, “Stealing our jobs! I gotta figure out how to undermine this one.”

My evidenced-based response would be more like, “Welcome. The most successful work teams are those that can operate well in a complex world economy. Let’s learn from each other and perform at our top potential.”

The hummers are fun to watch chasing each other. It’s like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, with Elmer Fudd chasing him and Daffy and the perspective showing a long hallway with many doors and all of them suddenly popping out of random doors with no idea of how they got there, all to the tune of Infernal Gallop (aka the Can-Can). The hummers go streaking past my window, then suddenly sprint downwards from above my window, and it’s pure entertainment for me.

But our human zero-sum analysis tendencies have a more malevolent outcome and show us often at our worst. From white nationalists to Vladimir Putin to anyone who feels like someone else’s misfortune is their gain, those stories are ugly.

Can we show that we are even smarter than a bird that weighs about the same as a penny? One wonders.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice Senior Editor, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court. 

Tom H. Hastings

Tom H. Hastings

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice Senior Editor, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court.

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