Saturday, September 22, 2007

Smart birds spur scientists to rethink intelligence

The remarkable feats of intelligence of some (not most) species of birds, effortlessly surpassing that of apes, is spurring a reappraisal of the origin of intelligence:
Alex, an African gray parrot who lived in a Brandeis laboratory and possessed a vocabulary of nearly 150 words. Yet as remarkable as Alex was - he could identify colors and shapes - he was not alone. The songs of starlings display a sophisticated grammar once thought the sole domain of human thinking. A nutcracker can remember the precise location of hundreds of different food storage spots. And crows in Japan have learned how to get people to crack walnuts for them: They drop them near busy intersections, then retrieve the smashed nuts when the traffic light turns red.

[ ... ]

The intelligence of birds, which sit far from man on the evolutionary tree, has also forced a reappraisal of where intelligence comes from. Scientists once assumed that intelligence evolved out of physical need - animals got smart in order to exploit natural resources. But the brainpower of birds suggests that intelligence is actually a byproduct of complex social interactions. Living in a group requires an animal to juggle lots of information about its peers. So it's not a coincidence that the smartest creatures are also the most social.
This sounds like a far more promising account of the origin of intelligence, actually.

I've long been skeptical of claims that intelligence evolved as an aid to survival. The vast majority of life forms that have survived for millions or even hundreds of millions of years did not require - or acquire - intelligence. The newer notion that intelligence is spurred by the need for complex social interactions seems a bit closer to the mark, though not entirely satisfactory. After all, many insects have achieved complex social interactions without anything like what we humans regard as intelligence.
Nicola Clayton and Nathan Emery, another researcher at the University of Cambridge, showed in 2001 that only western scrub jays that had previously stolen food from other birds would always re-hide their food. Jays that had never stolen before didn't worry about being stolen from.

"These birds are projecting their experience of being a thief onto other birds," Clayton says. "They are thinking 'Well, I've stolen food, so this guy might too.' It's a form of mental simulation."

That, of course, admirably explains one of the uses of intelligence - once the bird has it - but does not account for its origin. As we all know, many birds are fairly stupid, and would likely be better off if they were smarter. But they do not become smarter on that account. It is reasonable to suppose that many species of birds have become extinct on account of a problem with their environment that they might have been able to solve if they had become smarter - yet they did not.

Of course, we all love a good mystery, and this one should keep us going for a long time.

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