Bird brains or ‘feathered apes’? Why intelligence matters.

Given I wrote Monday’s blog post on the Wood Pigeon over a month ago, it was a happy coincidence that Twitter today flagged up a fascinating article on bird intelligence. It is a piece that emphasises why this is not a trivial question, so I’d urge you to read it.

Intelligent?

Intelligent?

The report by Jeremy Hance of The Guardian was looking at Nathan Emery’s new book Bird Brain: An exploration of avian intelligence. Something I will have to get and read.

Among a number of really interesting ideas, one point I thought worth emphasising is that we tend to think of intelligence in quite a binary way. Something is intelligent, or it is not. But actually intelligence isn’t such a straightforward concept, and relates to the evolution of a species for a specific environment.

So a bird may not have a brain that is complex in the mammalian sense, but this may be a factor of the course of its evolution. The brain may be wired differently allowing a different type of intelligence to emerge.

Intelligent?

Intelligent?

The fact a chimpanzee or a crow might out-perform a human child in a certain task doesn’t mean any of the three are more, or less, intelligent. It’s contextual. Similar to the point I made in the wood pigeon piece, different sets of abilities have formed, and you cannot just compare things on a linear scale. A pigeon cannot write a blogpost, but I cannot navigate for hundreds or thousands of miles based on electromagnetism and landmark maps in my brain.

Towards the end of the article there is another excellent point. By dismissing the intelligence of an animal it makes it easier for us to treat it inhumanely, or slaughter it outright. So studying intelligence, and thinking of intelligence in a complex way that appreciates subtleties, is actually important for conservation too. If it makes people rethink the ethics of culling corvids, it’s a good thing in my world.

Intelligent?

Intelligent?

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2 Responses to Bird brains or ‘feathered apes’? Why intelligence matters.

  1. Emily Scott says:

    People are also quick to dismiss the idea that certain animals feel emotional or even physical pain. I often wonder if this is because it’s more convenient to regard them as painless, making it less morally questionable to mistreat them. Do we really know what the lobster feels when it goes in the pot or how a pig is affected by never seeing daylight?

    • David C says:

      Physical pain is measurable, we can look at nerve responses and things like that. Even the effects of keeping animals in the dark are measurable (and they are negative).

      Emotional intelligence is much more difficult, and an excellent point to raise. It’s interesting just how much more complex we now know animals social and emotional connections to be. There was a tendency through to the 1960s to dismiss such ideas as anthropomorphism. Researchers would often dismiss women in particular because they couldn’t emotionally separate themselves when studying animals. But the intervening 50 years have really shown just how much is really going on, and how the big differences we like to think exist between ourselves and the rest of the animals are really man-made myths.

      The 19th century notion of an evolutionary ‘ladder’ with us at the top is nonsense, we know now that complex intelligence exists not just in birds and mammals but also in invertebrates such as cephalopods.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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