The Meaning of Humility

One of Hong Kong’s most unpopular politician, Leung Chun-ying, widely tipped to run for chief executive in 2012, has been making high profile public appearances recently to campaign for public support. Yesterday’s luncheon speech to the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation was one such example.

This time he tried to curry public favour by admitting that the election of some members of the League of Social Democrats (the most vocal opposition party in Hong Kong) to the Legislative Council was a clear message that some sectors of the electorate were unhappy with the social situation in Hong Kong, and the message had to be accepted by the authorities "in all humility". Such “admission”, however, should not be taken as the ambitious Executive Council convenor’s appreciation of the virtue of humility. It was rather Leung’s attempt at drawing a line between himself and the under-performing government. In any case, it defies understanding how an Exco member can distance himself from or be openly critical of the government which he is very much part and parcel of.

One appeal to “humility” that I whole-heartedly support comes from a study by Louis Lefebvre, professor of McGill University in Montreal. His findings, which are based on a study of reports in ornithological journals over the past 70 years, show that birds are highly intelligent and innovative. Some clever behaviours observed by birdwatchers include:

  • Vultures in Zimbabwe using a minefield as a frying ground, perching on the barbed wire to wait for the minefields to give them chopped antelope
  • Crows in Japan placing walnuts in the path of cars to have the shells cracked (they even learned to wait for the light to turn red so they could cross the road)
  • Herons dropping an insect on the surface of the water to attract fish
  • Tits, woodpeckers and magpies in England pecking open the caps on milk bottles

What can humans learn from Professor Lefebvre’s study? "Humility," he says. "Not necessarily seeing ourselves as at the very peak of the mountain. To understand how intelligence evolves, you've got to look at the differences within each group. You can't compare humans to monkeys, monkeys to birds, birds to octopus." To me, Professor Lefebvre’s reflection on humility much more convincing. I have always seen intelligence in animals, knowing that there’s so much we can learn from them.

What right do we stupid humans have to lord over them?

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