Pecking order

Peter Lennox keeps chickens, and they have taught him a great deal about behaviour, ethics, evolution and the psychopathic nature of modern ‘efficiency’

All chickens are not born equal. If a few more philosophers had had a little more empirical interaction with chickens, John Locke may have reconsidered his notion of tabula rasa, the idea of the incipient individual as a blank slate embarking on a course of self-authorship. Chickens are born with certain personality traits, and these endure in a remarkably stable fashion throughout their lifespans (which can be as long as 15 years).

Of course, chickens are not born fully mentally formed – you can watch them learn by discovery, doing, copying and sometimes even adapting and improving. Eventually, older ones end up teaching younger ones. You don’t see that in the battery farm, but put some in the garden and you soon do.

Watching chickens is a very old human pastime, and the forerunner of psychology, sociology and management theory. Sometimes understanding yourself can be made easier by projection on to others. Watching chickens helps us understand human motivations and interactions, which is doubtless why so many words and phrases in common parlance are redolent of the hen yard: “pecking order”, “cockiness”, “ruffling somebody’s feathers”, “taking somebody under your wing”, “fussing like a mother hen”, “strutting”, a “bantamweight fighter”, “clipping someone’s wings”, “beady eyes”, “chicks”, “to crow”, “to flock”, “get in a flap”, “coming home to roost”, “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”, “nest eggs” and “preening”.

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