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.
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.
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.