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Crows possess higher intelligence long thought a primarily human attribute (statnews.com)
679 points by felixbraun on Sept 24, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 377 comments

I have a personal experience story regarding crows. This is completely anecdotal of course but, to me, compelling. I live on an island near Seattle, very quiet and rural. We have a lot of wild life. One morning I was woke by persistent crowing by... well crows. Black Crows (not the band).

Having been awoke from wonderful REM sleep I was understandably annoyed. So I went out to the street in front of my house and grabbed a handful of pebbles to throw at these poor little creatures.

I went out on my upper deck and these crows seemed very upset and were circling in a crazy pattern. I looked around, realizing that something was making them crazy, and they were making me crazy. Then I saw, I am not completely sure if it was a racoon or a badger but it was a small animal of some sort that was edging his way out on the limb of a tree where what appeared to be perhaps the little home of the crows and there babies or eggs or something.

So... in my groggy state, I reasoned that if I were to; instead of tossing my pebbles at the crows, I were to toss them at whatever that thing was, then the crows would shut up and let me go back to sleep. I admit, not the most altruistic of motives but, I had a goal.

So I tossed my pebbles at this thing (I am an engineer not a biologist so excuse my ignorance) but the little cat like creature scampered off and left the crows little home in the tree next to my house, alone.

I am completely fine with having crows as neighbors as long as they do not wake me at pre-dawn hours.

The very interesting thing is that since then, it really seems like they have become my little friends. Like little neighbors. OK, I could be a kook, if this had not happened I would think I was a Kook. But when I see them they bob their head. I crow back at them.

They were sitting on the ledge of my roof, and I went out on my deck and they scared me and I screamed. Then I waved at them like... OK it is you. Hi.

They were leaving some sort of bone fragments on my upper deck like a gift of some sort. I didn't know what to do, so I would pick it up and throw it in the trash. But it kept happening. So I eventually would leave it out there and just waive at them.

I have no idea if we are actually communicating but.. they seem highly intelligent to me.

Yep. You can make friends with crows, and they will remember you for a very long time. If you get shiny things, then you're the crow's meow. Bones maybe just "meh."





Furthermore, crows can be sneaky. A murder of them hanging out behind my mechanic's goaded the dork of the group into stealing a bag sunflower seeds on top of a rolling toolbox 30 ft / 10 m on the other side of the shop from the roll-up doors. It had to figure-out how to sneak-in, hop up on the toolbox, and sneak-out without being detected like a bloody ninja. The group of them had a sunflower seed party in the alley and one mechanic wondered where his snack went to. And there were 3 people in the shop at the time! xD

Not only will those crows remember you, but so will other crows that have never seen you before. There's growing evidence that crows are capable of social learning, teaching things to other crows in the murder (including subsequent generations).

I strongly suspect that one of these days we're going to discover that crows and their relatives are not only capable of using language, but already are speaking languages that we just haven't deciphered yet.

Instead of a full fledged language, they may have a more restricted language to communicate that "that" human is friendly - so the friendly crows you have never seen before may have seen you first, together with your buddy, and been informed of your friendliness. To recognise you as friend without ever meeting you before needs a lot more complex language.

Yeah: and likely much more complex language than I as a human would even be capable of, unless the person I am supposed to be friends with has some very notable physical feature.

Jays (another corvid) are fast, sneaky, and mostly silent until they screech. The funny part is they're great at mimicking sounds. Here's a jay mimicking a cat:


There is a saying here in Pakistan (India too perhaps) that when crows 'crow', some guests come.

I think it originated from the observation that they started crowing whenever they saw some new person coming.

Where I grew up (south Gujarat, IN) every year someday in September, families prepare multiple plates of good food and place them out on terraces for the crows to eat. They believe the crows eating this food to be recently deceased ancestors/family. The number of plates placed usually correspond to the number of deaths the family's witnessed in living memory.

I can attest that this saying is common in South India (Andhra Pradesh specifically). It doesn't necessarily the guests will arrive immediately after - it can be sometime during that day.

I have a woodworking setup in my garage and in summer I work with the doors open. The local crows know me and come by in small groups and I’ll throw a few peanuts for them.

One time recently, my shop vac’s 20-foot hose got clogged so I took it out into the back yard to unclog with a broom pole. Took me a while, and I had to shake it vigorously quite a bit before I was done. When I looked up there were more than a dozen crows quietly perched in the tree above me, watching closely. I realize that to them it might have looked like I was fighting a huge snake to the death! Afterwards I’m sure they all took turns to come check on me (or maybe get more peanuts, but they were definitely more attentive that day).

Magpies (unrelated to European magpies) are similar in Australia. There are stories of multi-generational respect (that is, the parents teach the next generation not to swoop and annoy the nice human). Wikipedia says they can remember up to 100 people.

Here are a few nice stories:


Magpies and Currawongs hold "court" and shun members who don't conform to local rules. And, administer punishment in exemplary fashion in front of the community.


> Wikipedia says they can remember up to 100 people.

Damn, that might be more than I can.

My mother feeds the local magpies, who turn up every morning for their free feed. One can argue about whether this is environmentally sound, but my mother lives alone and she enjoys the connection. She has them literally eating out of her hand.

This week she sent me a photo of a young juvenile magpie which had arrived for the first time, clearly brought along by the parents to learn the ropes.

I know an older lady who does this too, she just grabs beef mince from the fridge and feeds them every day. That probably isn't too harmful for them, at least it's not bread.

My grandma does the same thing. She'll come out and withold the food until it sings

Not just true of crows. I volunteer at a raptor conservation organisation in the UK. Many of the birds (eagles, vultures, owls, etc) recognise several people, especially those that fed them when they were being trained. They demonstrate this in the free-flying displays (where they could in principle just fly off if they wanted to) by routinely returning to the keeper, sometimes after flights where they travel some distance from the display area. They are also good at recognising and responding to signals, especially those that indicate a food treat may be forthcoming. In some cases the birds dislike specific individuals and will not work with them in a display.

Black Crows, REM, Kooks... I really kept reading this assuming it was a troll post, but still entertained by the anecdote!

I always love when reality and music collide in strange ways. It always drives my thinking into directions I don't expect.

I'm just glad he used Rocks instead of a Metal Crowbar as a Tool to fight off the badger

I thought it was a badge, but then realised it had spikes. Unfortunately the unwanted guest in my Porcupine Tree fought back, and being that this happened on the 14th of February is how I ended up calling this My Bloody Valentine.

When all else fails, there is always a Bullet for My Valentine, luckily it was February, if it was Novembers Doom you would have been in for a Life of Agony with the only way out being a Five Finger Death Punch inside A Perfect Circle. That would have been the Story Of The Year.

S L A Y E R!

There are other cases of them bringing shiny rocks and glass to humans as gifts.

I think this is well established.

Your comment reminded me of another article about crows. It sounds like gifting is a known phenomenon but isn't that well established or researched.


Is there a possibility of human-crow co-evolution? I really can't think of any other reason the crow would give gifts.

According to a book I read, Cheyennes divide birds into three groups: plain, great, and sacred. To my great amusement they count magpies into the sacred ones. They like them because they live close to humans, talk, and announce visitors.

There was a news story about dolphins bringing gifts as well: https://7news.com.au/news/wildlife/dolphins-bring-gifts-from...

Not sure this is required?

If crows are social and they have their own theory of mind it’s not a huge leap to suspect they’d make friends or try and give friends what they think are valuable gifts and that wouldn’t need to be limited to just other crows.

There is an idea about Crow-Wolf co-evolution. Humans could take the Wolf place quite easily IMHO.

The girl who gets gifts from birds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-31604026

Your life would probably look very different if you'd thrown those pebbles at the crows like you originally intended. Crows can carry grudges for a very long time.

crows and other birds are very good at recognizing faces so they absolutely know it's you

I do feel like they are my little buddies now. When ever I seem them I make a crowing sound. I think maybe they think I am a crazy bird. They are probably right. But, I weirdly feel like they are my friends. Hahaha.

Almost sounds like making offerings to a friendly god. How curious!

So am I am the god then ? hahaha Well, from a "devout" atheist, you tickled my funny bone :)

Ah, I am not so sure, crows consider humans gods. They kind of lack respect for that ..

I mean, it ain't like we humans are known for being consistently reverent toward our own gods, either.

some god -- they'd eat you if they had the chance

  What makes Corvids truly fascinating, is that their offspring will be taught to recognize them too.

Isn't it fascinating that even a different species must have some expression for "stay away from that Karen"?

I'll charitably assume that you're missing a comma and the crow-kid is called Karen.

And if you aren't, I'll ask you to take your mysogynist slurs elsewhere.

Can they recognize person? I highly doubt it because even humans, we are very good recognizing faces, still not very good recognizing faces from another race. I know birds can recognize themselves, from feather patterns and so on. I would think the way they see us would be similar to the way we see them, they probably look the same to us.

Crows recognize individual humans.


Why do you think people are bad at recognizing people of another race? When you rarely meet people of some race then maybe, yes, but I think it must be a matter of experience and you will get better. Think twins for example, after a little time with them you’ll differentiate them easily.

humans are terrible at faces. Chickens are much better at it.

Not kooky at all, I think that's eminently plausible. Surely there must have been similar "fetch" style interactions between humans and wild dogs before we tamed them?

It's great that you have a relationship with these crows! Surprise connections with the wild are one of those rare, special things in life that have deep power.

It happens quite often around me too. They like to heckle a fox. Crows are the neighborhood predator alarm.

Hunting them you get just about the same type of stories. Sometimes they realize a hunter has set a trap in the deep forest and they will lead their enemies to the trap. I seen them use tools, and talk to warn others or say "hey get over here!"

It seems they have the capacity for the principle of reciprocity, amazing!

One particularly early, groggy morning I was walking into work and there were a few crows pecking around the grass by the sidewalk. Lost in my thoughts I hear a raspy old man say, "good morning". I look around and don't see anyone, then I look at one of the crows and it looks me right in the eye and repeats, "good morning". I doubted my sanity for a few days before confiding in my wife what happened and was surprised and very much relieved when I learned crows could talk. I didn't read the article or have anything to add, I just wanted to share this.

I'm so blown away by the clarity of speech! After hearing him talk like that, hearing the normal bird noises almost sounds strange, like a human mimicking a bird, or like he's gotten impatient and wants us to understand his native language.

If you haven't watched it already, you should check out 'Dancing With The Birds' on Netflix. Maybe I'm biased being a huge bird lover, but man that movie left me in awe. This scene in particular... https://youtu.be/Eg0iSIHIK34

You might enjoy the superb lyre bird imitating sounds as mind boggling as a chainsaw--and when I say imitate, I mean I couldn't have distinguished the lyre bird sound from a real chainsaw. It's really mind-boggling to me.


On a slight tangent, but is it just me or is this video weirdly HD for 1080p on Youtube? It's incredibly crisp

Netflix are masters at video compression, great reads and insights if you’re so inclined:


Many compress quite a lot before uploading. For gaming for example, I noticed significant improvement if I uploaded the 100Mbps raw data from Shadowplay compared to say a 25Mbps intermediate version.

I also think the depth of field is helping a lot. By blurring out the background the bits can be spent encoding the details of the plumage.

Or maybe he decided, out of desperation, to drop the circus act for a second and try to beg the human to get that leash off of him.

I doubt the bird is that desperate considering it's being constantly fed.

This one is my absolute favorite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ickzGMtREFk

It's the most perfectly creepy thing you could teach a raven.

That's simply hilarious!

So can ravens, but all they know how to say is "Nevermore."

Quoth the Raven, "Eat my shorts!"

There is an American crow at a local wildlife rescue that will periodically say "American crow." I feel fortunate that I got to make a recording of it.

So you're just going to mention the recording without sharing it?

Heh heh... Was going to bed. Now that I've had some time to dig it out, here it is:


That's one of the American crows at Brukner Nature Center, Troy, OH US in 2019.

A whale 'speaking'. Perhaps whales are a kind of crow.


That sounds like the start to a horror story! I’d be terrified if that happened to me.

Wow. I thought this was a joke or tv show reference, and wondered why it wasn't downvoted like most jokes on YT. Then I saw the videos.

Quoth the raven, "mornin' bud".

My crow story, which I think I've mentioned on here before.

We have young children, and thus the back of our car is always a little disgusting with things like goldfish crackers littered all over the floor and in-between the cracks of their car seats. We got in the habit of throwing the crumbs out onto the driveway when we got home. It didn't take long for us to notice anytime we pulled in, the crows would be lined up on the power lines waiting for their free meal.

But it gets better. One of my kids loves watching the birds, so we go out there and do so a lot. Sometimes we throw them some crackers etc. for free entertainment.

We were outside one day and someone walked by pretty close to us. They didn't pose any (recognizable) threat, but apparently the crows thought we were in some sort of danger because several swooped down and attacked the person walking by. They were totally fine after the crow mauling, but I did read that crows do view people as friend and foe, depending on what they might be trying to protect.

This makes me wonder if this kind of stalking is the reason behind the association of ravens with war? Many cultures have mythologies of ravens protecting warriors in battle. Maybe they literally followed armies in the past, scavenging food, and attacking the foes of the army.

I understand that they eat carrion, hence their association with the dead. But that wouldn't explain the stories like this:

> According to legend, prior to one battle a gigantic Gallic warrior challenged any Roman to single combat, and Valerius, who asked for and gained the consul’s permission, accepted. As they approached each other, a raven settled on Valerius’ helmet and it distracted the enemy's attention by flying at his face, allowing Valerius to kill the enemy Gaul.


Easy food off corpses is my thought. Humans are very soft and tender if they aren't swinging at you.

I've seen several media instances of crows eating the dead.

Trail running one winter I would often see a coyote and a crow hanging out and sometimes playing together. Crows sometimes will team up with larger predators to hunt. The crow can survey a larger area to spot prey, and the larger predator has the ability to kill it.

That's amazing.

I used to swim with this eel and a bass(?) sometimes one summer. The eel would swim near the bottom and the bass would swim above him a foot or two. I imagine the eel would flush out prey the bass would eat. I'm not sure if the eel got anything out of the deal though.

Crows, being social animals, have a concept of friend already.

They also have a concept of foe. Crows are well-documented to wage war against red hawks (buzzards across the pond), and this goes further than just bickering over a tasty bit of carrion: they will actively gang up on red hawks whenever they see them. Which is risky business, red hawks being larger, with sharper beaks and talons.

It's pretty neat that they can extend those concepts to distinct humans!

I've seen crows and ravens chase away buzzards, ospreys and eagles. My family keeps chickens, and the corvids like to go into the coop to eat. Not a big deal since they get plenty of food, but my uncles don't like them and think they are too noisy. Once there was a dead raven in the coop, it must have got stuck and somehow hurt itself. My uncle nailed it on a pole; I thought it was horrible and removed it. That same week, one chicken was killed by a buzzard. I figure the ravens let it happen, so I made a deal with my mother to give offerings to the ravens and crows, entrails when we kill a chicken and such, to ensure they know that they have friends as well, and that it's welcome if they chase away the birds of prey. I always greet the ravens when they fly by. Magnificent birds.

A couple days ago I was sitting on my porch and heard an awful racket nearby, some crows were screaming and I didn't know why, until I saw the hawk sitting in the tallest tree around. They didn't let up for hours until it left.

Years ago, we had a dead crow in our yard. We think our dog did it, but we didn't see. My wife and I dealt with it, but had a lot of crow onlookers. They were pissed.

For the next year or so, every time either my wife or I would walk out the door, if crows were in the vicinity they would sound an alarm until they were happy we weren't going to attack them. They never seemed to do that for the dog, though.

That’s called “being framed” ;)

Our dog is definitely smart enough to try and pull a stunt like that.

This is a surprisingly well-documented phenomena: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/10/151003-anima...

Neat! I wonder if a biologist might describe this type of behaviour (attacking perceived threats to the creature that produces your renewable food source) as primitive agriculture.

Maybe the crows were just tending to your children like livestock? ;)

People talk about ants practicing agriculture, but sounds like maybe these crows are making a foray into it as well :)

That actually does make me wonder if crows could be trained to engage in conventional forms of agriculture. Can they learn to plant a seed and wait for it to grow into a source of many seeds? Are they capable of thinking ahead on those sorts of timescales?

It is possible that there was an attribute of that person that crows recognized as dangerous: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/grudge-holding...

Not only that, but crows can remember human faces and train other crows to treat that face as friend or foe.


Hopefully someone in the field will read this and be able to answer my question:

I've spent a lot of time googling research about animal intelligence, and I now know a bunch of things intelligent animals can do, but I have no idea where their limits are, what they can't do. Everything published uses such... nonflexible tasks.

If we're trying to measure general intelligence, why isn't anybody trying to teach corvids, octopi, macaques or dolphins a task that requires building towers of abstraction in their own mind, and then gives them harder and harder "levels"? I know at least octopi can use computer screens, and I know they enjoy hard puzzles that reward them with food, so it should be easy to teach them some computer puzzle game?

Say, we could build a four key keyboard that they can use, then teach them Sokoban, starting with extremely simple levels (walk up once to get a snack; walk up twice to get a snack; walk left twice; walk up twice, then down twice; walk up, then back down and right to get beneath the second crate, then up again...) and progressing towards actual Sokoban levels humans find interesting...

If they possess general intelligence this system could tell us a lot more about its limits than a series of experiments that each requires building a physical apparatus and spending a bunch of time perfecting it and then teaching it to the animals from zero?

Did I miss the answer when googling?

Is it that it's common knowledge among researchers that no animal possesses anywhere near enough intelligence to learn Sokoban (or 2048, or any non-real-time puzzle game with simple discrete controls, but I'm pretty sure Sokoban is a near optimal choice) so nobody even tries, nor bothers publishing it (or it's written in the basic textbooks that I didn't bother looking through)?

Do researchers in the field lack access to a technologist that could help them build something like Sokoban For Crows?

Or is it something else that I don't know I don't know?

> I know at least octopi can use computer screens, and I know they enjoy hard puzzles that reward them with food, so it should be easy to teach them some computer puzzle game?

I'm not sure it's that easy.

For example, suppose a race of hyperintelligent octopuses beam down and decide to study your intelligence. They notice in one test that if you begin scrambling eggs for breakfast and they cut off both your arms at the shoulder, your arms aren't able to finish scrambling the eggs.

"My, the intelligence in this species isn't very well-distributed," they and their tentacles agree.

> "My, the intelligence in this species isn't very well-distributed," they and their tentacles agree.

And then maybe they conspire to orchestrate your firing from that cushy corporate office job. They note that you then go home and start working on your career skills, in hopes of joining another company.

"My, the intelligence of this creature is quite distributed," the tentacles and central brain agree, of the corporation.

See: https://dague.net/2018/01/09/slow-ai/

I mean, they'd be right that my intelligence is not as well distributed as theirs. But that's a specific feature of their intelligence, that's not general intelligence.

If an octopus can beat me at Sokoban, I don't care whether it thinks with its brain or its arms, I would like to hire it as a programmer for my startup. If an octopus tries its best to play Sokoban, beats the tutorial but can't figure out the levels with actual puzzles, I won't consider it to possess general intelligence, even if it kicks my ass at say visual perception cognitive tests.

(Am I missing your point somehow? I think my answer is relevant but I'm not 100% sure)

I might be wrong, but I think the point of the parent comment was more along the lines of, the things we find to be 'general intelligence' may not be as general as we believe.

Something like your sokoban or 2048 example, which you view as a thing that any being with general intelligence should be able to solve, may not be such general intelligence thing and more of a 'human specific' thing and we're too wrapped up in our anthropomorphic view points to recognize it.

"General Intelligence" is a well defined term and there's a lot of literature on why it makes sense.

There are many human cognitive skills that seem to be very helpful for some specific tasks (e.g. noticing that someone is watching you, identifying the pitch of a strummed guitar string) but are not very useful in general, but others (e.g. analogous thinking) that we found to be relevant to a vast range of cognitive tasks. There are also tasks that require mostly the second kind of skill. An animal that can perform them well should be considered intelligent even if it doesn't have perfect pitch and can't notice that it's being watched. An animal that we can't get to perform them well may or may not be intelligent - perhaps we're not good at convincing it to try hard.

Some relevant links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G_factor_(psychometrics) and also, I guess https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_general_intelligenc...

That was kind of my point, all of that is through a human centric point of view. What if higher intelligence is something else?

Look at say plants, they've been shown to be intelligent in various ways.


Now, when you take an ecosystem like a forest, something interesting happens. The plants begin to communicate with eachother using electrical signals passed along the mycorrhizal networks of the fungi that live symbiotically with them.



So, these networks facilitate learning by individual plants within the network, they facilitate long term memory, complex coordinated long term behaviour. Now, a lot of these behaviours and things happen over spans of decades to hundreds if not thousands of years.

That sounds very much like some level of higher intelligence, yet those plants will never complete a 2048 or sokoban puzzle.

Those seem like great reasons to focus our efforts on things that are very close to us in their mode of being first, and expand from there as we learn more examples. Plants and fungi being broadly sessile means that their cognition, if they have it, will be expressed in radically different ways from ours. Whereas birds or dolphins are a lot like us: brains and bodies.

If plants were highly generally intelligent (as I suspect corvids are) and if I were able to convince them that they would get a prize they highly desire if they solve a difficult Sokoban level with controls they can use (which has been done many times with corvids) then I would definitely expect them to solve the level given a few decades or centuries, yes.

(I personally don't believe plants to possess general intelligence, but I would be delighted to discover I'm wrong)

What if the animal can't hear or is disabled? I know I sure can't tell what different pitches are.

I think you're agreeing with me?

I feel like you are hyper focused on the idea of general intelligence which is why you are not finding what you want. Most people studying intelligence don't buy into a general intelligence idea. It certainly isn't present in most people who perform transfer of knowledge tasks.

I've never met a healthy adult human being for whom I would bet against their ability to solve level 2 of this [1] given some time and motivation. Have you?

(I'm referring to the last sentence. I can accept that many animal intelligence researchers don't buy into the idea of a general intelligence)

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yix2AVVUwe0

> If an octopus can beat me at Sokoban, I don't care whether it thinks with its brain or its arms, I would like to hire it as a programmer for my startup.

You'd need to know something-- indeed, a lot-- about the entity in question in order to design tests to measure its general intelligence in the first place. Otherwise you're going to default to anthropomorphize the entity in question and misunderstand what it is you are measuring. E.g., vastly overestimating the language skills of a gorilla, or perhaps believing that ML algorithms somehow provide a higher level of objectivity than the data they were trained on:


Sokoban puzzles are very close to math-complete (in the same sense as in Turing-complete or NP-complete).

Ockham's Razor leads me to believe it's much more probable to find an alien (or animal or ML) entity good at math than an alien entity overfitted for complex Sokoban puzzles.

Now, I may undermeasure (maybe they're very intelligent but suck at spacial reasoning) but it would be hard to overmeasure (if they can do this kind of math, I'd like to hire them, period).

John Searle Octopus Test

I assume you're referring to this? https://www.aclweb.org/anthology/2020.acl-main.463.pdf

Gotta say in my opinion it didn't age well for a paper published in 2020 (but pre GPT-3). In practice, we have an O that is pretty good at describing how to build weapons against bears despite having absolutely no idea what "weapon" or "bear" refers to.

But also, I don't seem to understand how this relates to the discussion, so can you help me there?

It may not have an idea of a picture of a bear. But it certainly knows all kinds of words that would describe that bear. And it relates those to the bear and also to other things. So I would argue that there is some „idea“. It‘s just not a visual idea and there is not conscious reflection. As far as the first part is concerned, what about a blind person? I would argue they can have a very good idea, too.

In my understanding of the "Octopus Test" argument from the linked PDF, GPT-3 is exactly an octopus test, and has exactly the same information that the octopus would have about bears, so GPT-3 being able to perform this kind of task disproves the argument conclusively.

>Gotta say in my opinion it didn't age well for a paper published in 2020 (but pre GPT-3).

Agreed. The glaring issue with their argument falls out of their own introduction. What is the "linguistic intent" of the sentence "When was Malala Yousafzai born"? Well, it falls right out of a natural language training corpus which will, with high likelihood, be followed up with her actual birthdate! So there is some non-trivial signal within the training corpus of linguistic intent. Capturing this intent is then just a computational problem. But the objective function of predicting the subsequent word has within the space of solutions the linguistic intent of the writers of the training corpus.

I used to work at a university and helped build some code for a few neuroscience experiments to the question of lacking technologists - absolutely yes. They basically work with whoever the computer person is in the team/lab, and rarely budget for that as a specific part of their research because how do you even do that? These people are hyper specialized in their field.

This isn't 100% true everywhere, but for the average researcher I think it is true in almost all fields of research.

With my Linux knowledge I was able to turn our solar physics lab into a machine that could pump out way more data than it would have being built by a guy who mainly knew FORTRAN and VMS. (Paul if you are reading this, I'm exaggerating, you have a PhD and worked at the SuperComputing center and are a genius, but I hope you retired)

Even looking back, I could have done a whole lot more if I knew anything about AWS back then, which I didn't, so I used my budget on bare metal all the time, which was a huge waste of time and resources.

I also think there are other issues, because a lot of this research has to have a specific structure, you only get grants for what you propose, and they usually won't give you a ton of money for a wild new idea that's not based on some prior specific precedent.

The entire way we advance human knowledge is kind of fucked up but I don't have a better proposal :)

Definitely a neat idea! Your local cooperative extension service should be able to get you in touch with an animal behavior expert, since they are often affiliated with colleges.

Thinking about the project with corvids in mind, I’d suggest two nuances to your protocol.

1. Stick with plain mazes that have no crates in order to train the association with the onscreen character. Basically just spending more time with navigating mazes of increasing complexity before introducing crates at all. Then if they succeed with those, scale the maze complexity back down and add the crate mechanic.

2. Make use of audio. Birds have great eyes, but their natural interaction will be with their beaks, and I’m not sure how easy it is for them to track the onscreen motion while pecking. Using sound to signify “move to empty space” vs “tried to move into a wall” vs “pushed a crate” vs “got snack” could tighten the feedback loop for them and let you see them planning ahead: “I see I have to go ‘up, up, right‘ to get the snack, so I’ll press those buttons without checking the screen each time to confirm.” Might even be good for “move to empty space” to have a unique sound for each direction.

Thanks, these are great suggestions, I'll make sure to use them!

This isn’t really an answer to your actual question but I’m reminded about the Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher[0]. Humans have been noticing the general intelligence of crows for over 2,500 years!

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crow_and_the_Pitcher

@boltefnovor just commented about a related experiment [0]

> “Causal understanding of water displacement by a crow”

> https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZerUbHmuY04

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24587342

Here is a video of pigeons playing "sokoban", "talking" and playing "ping pong": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKSvu3mj-14&feature=youtu.be

The main problem mentioned in the video is that pigeons don't come with a repertoire that allows them to do those tasks naturally. So, the researchers have to teach them each of the behaviors independently. The pigeons then manage to put the behaviors together, in what is arguably a display of creativity.

I'll refer to what I assume you called the sokoban example, the "banana test" from part 2, which is the most relevant to our discussion. In it, a pigeon who has been trained that sometimes pushing stuff around is rewarded with food and sometimes climbing stuff is rewarded with food manages to solve a puzzle where it must push a box to below a banana and then climb the box to reach the banana.

First of all, thanks, that's a really cool video and exactly the kind of research I'm looking for.

However, I don't think it goes far enough to actually measure what I'm interested in. In the comments of this similar video [1] about a crow who has been trained to do each of A, B, C, D separately to get food doing A+B+C+D to get food, a comment captures what's wrong with it perfectly by saying:

> 2:20 The "use everything on everything" stage of playing a point-and-click adventure game.

Sure, we know birds can figure out that if step 1 is sometimes good and step 2 is sometimes good, then step 1 and then step 2 might be good. But that's not at all enough to solve, say, level 2 in [2], a video of a Sokoban game. If I trained a toddler to solve puzzles like level 1 (so it knows how to walk and it knows how to push crates), if could spend weeks moving and pushing crates around and not reach a solution. The repertoire of behaviors that allows them to play the game is just a foundation for a whole world of logic and planning that needs to be mastered to actually solve nontrivial Sokoban levels. Had I seen a crow solve level 3, I'd believe it is no less intelligent than some of my friends, and that if we put our minds to it, we could find a way to communicate, trade, and help our new corvid friends build a civilization not less sophisticated than our own. Based on that video, I see no reason to believe that about pigeons (yet).

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbSu2PXOTOc [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yix2AVVUwe0

There are at least two things I think differentiate human intelligence from other animals. One is the size of the brain. Just from this difference there is probably no way for a pigeon to ever reach human level intelligence.

The other part is perhaps more interesting. For much of human history I'm not even sure that humans could solve sokoban puzzles. In fact if you raise a human without social contact I suspect he would not be able to do it. This appears to indicate that we now have something in our environment (quite possibly what we call language) that allows us to be much more intelligent with the same DNA. Can other species with the same kind of brain complexity/power develop this? That's a very interesting question. This story [1] appears to indicate that at least raising other species as humans doesn't appear to work, but to me, this doesn't mean that there is no way of getting them to our level of intelligence, just that they don't have the same communication tools we do.

[1] - https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/guy-simultaneously...

I'm not sure how much I buy the "size of the brain" limitation, given the brain-size ratio between parrots and chimps hardly reflects their intelligence ratio as far as we can tell.

I tend to believe any creature who has the capacity to learn language also has ehe capacity to solve Sokoban and vice-versa, so testing the easier to test of the two should be the first step and figuring how to teach them a complex language should be the second.

(By the way, corvids pass such complex information that some people suspect they already have language, although I would bet against. We know of cases where people the crows hated left a place, returned years later to visit and all the local crows still hated them, and it was implied where I read it that it was long enough that it was all a new generation of crows.

Perhaps you might be interested in this project, orthogonal to your question: https://www.hungerforwords.com/

Orthogonal maybe: but it's still hard to see it as anything other than testing the associative memory of a dog, rather than intelligence. It's a step below problem solving.

But there's no grammar at all, at least in the video I watched once :-(

Well, we can teach animals vocabulary but I'm not aware of any success in teaching grammar where "eat banana" and "banana eat" convey different concepts. People have been trying for a long time without any success that I'm aware of in birds or other primates. What the limits are is very much an area of active research.

It sounds like you're starting off with the assumption that humans are inherently smarter than all other animals and that there are fundamental limitations on other animals' ability to think and you are trying to prove this systematically after other tests/measures (ability to use tools, have language) have failed.

No, I really hope to find that some animals can do abstract thinking, and then build the bridges to communicate with them.

Second time in the week I am doing this here, but I recommend you “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” By Frans de Waal. Maybe it can nudge you in the right direction.

Sounds like you've come up with a cool personal project.

I'd like to build it. But having an animal intelligence researcher consulting would be very helpful...

If you look up the researchers working on the stuff you think you might be able to help with - just email them. They may even have some budget to help you out. I've found most scientists to be super open to talking w/ interested parties, and often willing to let you help for free :)

Some are busy divas, or busy in general, or also teaching and busy, so it doesn't always work, but there are a lot of folks out there doing research, so just keep shooting!

echoing this. i find typically that academics in highly specialized areas are excited a member of the general public is this enthusiastic about the conceptual problem the academics are working on.

Brilliant idea right there. Just reach out and see if any want to get involved to further their own research?

a vending machine for crows:


The headline of the article, as is often the case, overstates what the actual research shows. Here is the actual claim made in the abstract of the paper:

"We show that single-neuron responses in the pallial endbrain of crows performing a visual detection task correlate with the birds’ perception about stimulus presence or absence and argue that this is an empirical marker of avian consciousness."

In other words: when crows who are trained to look for something show behavioral evidence that they see what they are looking for, the researchers can correlate that with neuron firings in their brains. Which, compared to the overblown claim of "higher intelligence", equates to "whoop de freaking do".

The significance of the study is explained here: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6511/1567

As I understand, this study proves that birds have something equivalent of a cerebral cortex which has been considered exclusive to mammals. Cerebral cortex is critical for awareness, consciousness, thought, memory, and language.

I don't know what's that got to do with "higher intelligence" though.

> this study proves that birds have something equivalent of a cerebral cortex

It shows that they have a brain area that is in the same general location, anatomically and developmentally speaking, and that that brain area shows neuron activity that correlates with behavior cues that they see an object they have been trained to look for.

> Cerebral cortex is critical for awareness, consciousness, thought, memory, and language.

It is in humans. But humans provide a huge amount of behavioral evidence for these capacities, far beyond that brain area showing neuron activity when we give a signal we were trained by conditioning to give when we see something we were trained by conditioning to look for.

The actual exercise sounds more like short term memory than the sort of introspection the article hints at with 'know what they know'; there's an obvious evolutionary benefit to being able to link two events 2500ms apart and anticipate/respond accordingly. How non-mammalian neurons handle it might well be interesting, but it sounds like the sort of thing that maybe hasn't been observed in non-mammals mostly because it hasn't been looked for...

Thank you.

I read the article, and I was like, "so they remembered a light flashed and got rewarded?"

A basic lstm will do that - GPT-3 will do far more.

How does that have anything to do with higher intelligence?

You can tell how much smarter crows are just by going to feed the ducks.

The crows watch YOU and your arm, predict where you'll throw and move there in advance, often catching things in mid-air. It's not just reaction speed, they're watching really carefully and making guesses. The ducks are next on the spectrum, they spot it first (after it lands) and geese are the dumbest, the feed can hit them right in the head, and even once they realise what's happening some other duck will usually get there and eat it before they do.

Dragonflies execute predictive flight patterns to catch prey mid-flight with 95% accuracy, so that ability alone may not be a good proxy for intelligence: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26684-dragonflies-ant...

Dogs can catch all kinds of things mid-air. Mine has started doing so with rocks (sigh)...

Dogs are pretty smart though. My one dog is very smart and can easily nab things out of the air. My less intelligent dog can't tell his ass from his elbow and things hit him in the face all the time.

What breeds are your "very smart" and "less intelligent" dog?

(Asking because people tend to equate predatory behaviour to intelligence, which is both not accurate and rather alarming)

Not the poster, but:

Smart: Collie, Springer. Not so smart: Greyhound/Lurcher.

I've had collie puppies successfully herd cats.

When I was young, we whould go to my grandpa's place during summer school holidays. He would go to the porch of his cottage every morning, call out to the crows shouting "kaaa... kaaa... kaaa..." and tossed pieces of bread in the air. Whole bunch of crows. They would be ready for this daily feeding frenzy and would catch every since piece of bread in the air without fail. It was a free animal acrobatics show that I never got tired of watching.

And after the geese, there are the scientists: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/5418462023483022/

Actually all you've really said is that a crow is a predator and ducks/geese are not.

I’ve mentioned this previously but it’s on topic and still amazes me, so I’ll just copy & paste:

I know someone who works at one of the London airports and is responsible for keeping the runway operational. One of the jobs is keeping the birds well clear, and if necessary, sadly, may resort to shooting. The crows know the score though. This acquiantance says the crows know to disappear if they see the bird clearers. What's "clever" is that they only take flight if it's one of the shooters. They recognise the veichle(s) despite them being all the same fleet. So if someone else is driving round to check something else, the birds completely ignore. If it's the "bird guy" then off they go with little encouragement.

Corvids are an issue for agriculture, because they eat seed and small plants. The Swiss agriculture bureau has a file for them, explaining how to handle them, and it basically boils down to "you can use a number of different measures, but corvids are smart, they learn and don't forget, so there is nothing that actually works". - https://m4.ti.ch/fileadmin/DT/temi/caccia/documenti/Scheda_C...

At one airport in the US, I learned about how this is accomplished with what sounds like a shotgun. Apparently this is a propane cannon[1] and there are a wide variety of such "scarecrow" devices.

I would guess crows prefer hunter-gatherers over horticulture/agriculture societies of humans! A weird twist.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_scarer#Propane_cannons

I’ve always thought this was confirmed with the video of one snowboarding down a roof.


Amazing. It carries its "sled" back up to the top, stands on it, and pecks it get it started.

Whenever I see stuff like this, I can only think about this[0] (normal operation in US and AU at least), and how absurd it is that we treat animals like this, knowing how intelligent they are.

[0] https://i.imgur.com/ucJNZoX.png

Yeah I guess "sledding" is more accurate than "snowboarding".

Imagine if these were dogs in the photo. People would lose their minds.

Something that is also super interesting is how cats or dogs react to e.g. cat-face filters when they see themselves and their human (with a transformed face) mirrored on a smartphone screen. You might want to search videos of that. I like the one where the cat turns around and gives their human ... a paw to the jaw :D

Here's one such compilation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jto2peSOLac

In a similar vein: a cat discovering it has ears in a mirror.


This is fantastic and reminds me of when I learned that crows look like this in eastern europe and other places, not all black like in the US :)

I've wondered about the difference in behavior of crows when they encounter humans at different kinds of places.

I put peanuts out on the rail of my deck for the squirrels (I've got Eastern grey squirrels and Douglas squirrels) and the Steller's jays. If I see crows around, I'll give them some too.

If I'm actually outside on the deck, even far away from where the peanuts are, the crows will not come get them. They wait for me to go in, then get the peanuts, then fly to a nearby tree to wait for me to come put out more peanuts.

I have never been aggressive in any way to the crows, and will toss peanuts to near the foot of the tree they are sitting in. They have also seen me giving peanuts to squirrels. The Eastern greys will run up to near me, and the Douglas' would take them right out of my hand if I let them, so the crows have plenty of evidence I'm happy to give away peanuts. But they will not get close.

Yet at nearby supermarkets and fast food places, they will walk around the parking lot looking for food and come right near people. They seem completely indifferent to people there, only reacting if someone happens to be walking or driving right toward them, then they casually move to the side.

They don't seem worried at all about the humans at those places. So why are they much more cautious about me at my house?

I wonder if they recognize houses are human nests, and so we might be a lot more touchy about other animals in the area, and so the crows are much more cautious than when they encounter us at the supermarket?

Maybe the opposite: Someone mentioned up above that crows and larger animals sometimes team up to hunt (they mentioned coyotes), the crow finding prey and the other animal killing it for both of them.

Maybe staying away is the default state, but the grocery store is a hunting ground where they're teaming up with humans in a similar way?

After moving to Portland I've become enamored with our local corvids. Lots of Crows, Scrub Jays, Steller Jays. I toss them peanuts and they peek in the window looking for me.

Its fun to compare how cautious and skittish a murder of crows is compared to a mating pair of Scrub Jays. The little blue birds will swoop right in, feed a foot away from me, out of my hand, occasionally they've even hopped in the front door.

Meanwhile the crows will miss out on lots of tasty peanuts just watching the smaller birds show off their bravery and acrobatics.

That said: there are a lot more crows than scrub jays. The caution pays off.

They're fascinating to watch, the signs of intelligence are so clear, but at the same time they feel alien. They are very much not like us.

I have been repeatedly impressed at how clever crows, ravens, and certain parrots are whenever we figure out how to test them. I've seen videos of Cockatoos figuring out multi-step puzzles, and IIRC, ravens have been able to figure out puzzles with 5+ steps.

I'm not even sure if I can solve a puzzle with 5+ steps :)

One thing that is remarkable about crows is that they are most likely more intelligent than primates, despite having a much smaller brain. It looks like they evolved high intelligence separately, using different brain circuitry from ours.

Imagine what could happen if you scaled up the space efficient crow brain to human size.

It's really sort of weird that a mammal ended up becoming Earth's first technological species. Birds all have the good neuron scaling that in mammals mostly only primates have. They have high energy intensity lifestyles where the extra energy cost of a big brain isn't a insuperable obstacle as with our pursuit hunter ancestors but not most other mammal lifestyles. Also they've got unidirectional rather than tidal lungs which might not be important for intelligence but is really cool. Without the end-Cretaceous meteor we'd probably have had intelligent dinosaurs a long time ago.

All good points, but the opposable thumb probably played a big role.

Can you expand more on the significance of the lung style?

So, in tidal breathing air goes into and out of lungs from the same opening. So there tends to be some air at the bottom of the lungs that sticks around and the whole thing could be more efficient. In a bird air enters the lung at one end and leaves from the other so there isn't any stale air that stick around.

The capability attributed to crows is that they think about (analyse) their own thinking.

The article arrives at that conclusion using two methods: 1. Behavioural analysis. 2. Reverse engineering neural circuitry.

Is "thinking about thinking" rare, or remarkable? Is it the defining trait that elevates humans above all other animals? The article tells us that the trait isn't unique to humans, because crows have it too.

> Is "thinking about thinking" rare, or remarkable? Is it the defining trait that elevates humans above all other animals?

Sadly, I've seen people who do not have such capabilities. They seem normal until you think why they act like they do. Then you realise that you could replace their thinking processes with some simple if-then, sometimes wired very strangely and counter-intuitive.

Peter Watts Blindsight has some interesting commentary upon this in the form of a science-fiction story and some extensive notes [1]. It arguably is feasible to manifest sufficient behaviors to "pass", but the behaviors are not deeply introspected like you noticed. We suspect our subconscious already does a ton of heavy lifting without that introspection, so some of the theses Watts popularizes from the book's bibliography are interesting in that light.

[1] https://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm#Notes

I'm a total layman in this field, so these are just unsupported thoughts.

It seems to me that a brain going meta - thinking about thinking - could be what leads to a sense of self and thus consciousness.

So, do these results imply those things about corvids? This has implications for AI, I believe.

Yes, that’s what “consciousness” is. Self awareness.

All living organisms have it, including unicellular.

I do not understand why this is about consciousness. My take of this study is that they establish that there are two type of neurons: (i) those recording whether there is a signal ("neurons signalling stimulus intensity" (ii) those recording how to react on the signal based on a rule ("representing the crows' percept").

This is cool, but what does this to have to do with consciousness? They mention that they're not sure either about "phenomenal consciousness" and "access consciousness", but I wish they elaborated further on this.

I don't think it does unfortunately. It's an interesting study but this article — either through the original research or its coverage — is distorting appropriate interpretation. It's common of a lot of neuroscience research. The task, too, taps an ability/process that's thought to be key to intelligence, but isn't that distinctive, and is found in a lot of animals. Again, interesting study, crows are smart, but not exactly what it's being billed as, like you say.

Agreed. I'd be inclined to blame the coverage rather than the researchers for the 'coarse' interpretation (after all, the original title talks about a 'neural correlate' of consciousness)...

I've had some magpie issues for years, and after trying various things I ended up shooting a couple because they were getting aggressive. It worked and the rest buggered off.

During the entire time a local couple of ravens watched the entire process from afar. Theyv'e never been an issue so I haven't paid attention to them, but to this day, I swear that those two ravens come by with every chick they hatch, watching when I practice shoot teaching their kids to stay away from me if I have my rifle. Otherwise, they mostly ignore me.

If you have an interest in these truly fascinating animals, there is an interesting and well-written blog at https://corvidresearch.blog/#content

> a clueless hedgehog across a highway before it becomes roadkill

Before watching the linked video I thought this was describing crows deliberately placing hedgehogs in harm'ss way so that they could eat the resulting roadkill

I would urge caution in interpreting motive from animal behaviour. To my eye that crow could just as easily be attacking the hedgehog as helping it.

This is a sensible caution, but we should also be careful not to do the opposite and assume an animal is incapable of sophisticated motives and intelligent planning.

But if we take time to consider that animals may posses intelligence and rich inner lives, then we may also have to consider that our treatment of them is monsterous. Can't have that.

I don't think it's monstrous to eat an intelligant animal. Pigs are very intelligent and sensitive animals. And yet, I eat pigs without remorse because being born on a planet where animals eat each other is not something I chose, therefore I do not feel guilty about it.

Also, it's still mosquito season in Greece where I'm currently located and I've been feasted upon often enough myself to know that refusing to feed on another animal is a peculiarly human exceptionalism. In fact, I believe its sole purpose is to place humans apart from (indeed, above, morally speaking) every other form of life on this planet.

> And yet, I eat pigs without remorse because being born on a planet where animals eat each other is not something I chose, therefore I do not feel guilty about it.

You were born on a planet where rape and murder[0] is common in the animal kingdom too, yet quite rightly we humans have collectively decided that they are monsterous practices. "It's the natural order" is not a good basis for reasoning.

[0] which we will here distinguish from killing for food, for example intra-species killing over territory, mates, etc.

Thanks for the reply. I think you understand my comment as making a point about the "naturalness" of eating animals (I certainly did not use the expression "natural order"). I'm rather making a point about universality. As far as I can tell, all animals eat other living things- be it plants or other animals. Humans eat both plants and other animals. This is not my choice, so I don't feel morally responsible for it. It's how I found things when I came into this world.

I would rather things were different. I would rather not have to kill anything in order to feed. However, this is what we do. We kill other animals and eat them. We kill plants and eat them. Well, at least we usually eat them (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surplus_killing). Note that I find killing for sport morally unjustifiable.

Rape and murder are not universals. That is, some animals rape and murder their own and some cannibalise their own, but not all animals do. In any case, I personally have never felt a compelling need to rape or murder anyone, so I can attest to the fact that it's not a universal experience for humans to rape and murder (assuming I'm actually human and not some weird mutation eh).

Edit: As a summary of my views, I recommend "that's how it works" over "it's the natural order", which has connotations of a moral imperative that I don't recognise.

We can make up for it by uplifting their species with our technology.

I sincerely believe we should be doing this - it's a core premise of one of my favorite novels: Sundiver: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundiver

Yet another way to dominate over the animal kingdom... lifting them up with tech increases their reliance on us, all while we reserve the right to take it away again

A very reasonable point, but I guess in my mind it would not be a master slave relationship, we should uplift them into sentience and allow them to use that technology to choose their own path. Obviously there is a lot of hubris there, but as a now ... semi sentient species, I prefer this over being eaten, and I think animals might express the same sentiment, as long as they don't murder us all for our sins :)

humans are not yet beyond enslaving each other, which i do not feel bodes well for our treatment of an uplifted species; however, as concept fiction it allows exploration of ideas in interesting ways and i tend to like settings with “intelligent” animals.

all impossibly anthropocentric obviously. is being made more human even “up” or a “lift”? maybe things are supposed to be as thingy as possible (in a platonic sense) and this whole conversation is like looking at a fish and criticizing it for not being arboreal.

When and if we are in the position to uplift species, it will be on their terms not ours (my opinion) and the exercise in doing so will uplift ourselves (metaphorically and literally - why would we help engineer higher consciousness in other animals and not ourselves? We haven't even begun to tap our own potential as a culture of living creatures on this planet)

edit: in pockets we are above enslavement, but just barely, and I think we need to really grit through to the next stage of our humanity, but there are a lot of road blocks before that happens, and as is the general sense, it's a razor's edge between advancement and annihilation.

Thanks for your comment, because I thought the same thing, but couldn't be bothered to watch the video. The article author definitely could've done a better job of wording that sentence in a less ambiguous way.

Researchers Find Crows Smart Enough Not To Let On How Smart They Really Are: https://www.theonion.com/researchers-find-crows-smart-enough...

"Man has always assumed that he is more intelligent than dolphins because he has achieved so much--the wheel, New York, wars and so on -- while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But, conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons." --Douglas Adams

Ha, loosely related but not the same subject...

It reminds me of when David Brin was trying to say Dolphins might not be that smart.


I believe it.

We keep discovering that more and more animals are far more intelligent than we thought. It makes me question the very idea of eating meat.

That is why I don't eat octopi, despite finding it delicious. On the other hand, ive raised my own cows and have no problems eating them. But they also only exist for the purpose of food and would not survive in the wild naturally, atleast around here, and aren't really all that smart despite being semi-trainable.

Douglas Hofstadter writes about intelligence being the reason behind his (almost) vegetarianism. If I recall correctly, he doesn't have any qualms about swatting a mosquito because on the sliding scale of intelligence they're somewhere near the bottom, being about as sophisticated as some software he could write himself. He doesn't think twice about deleting software, so why hold reservations about killing an insect? It makes you wonder at what point in sophistication we should think twice about deleting our software.

To take your point further, I wonder as we move closer and closer to artificial general intelligence, would deleting software or even a piece of code be truly 'ethical'? You are destroying intelligence, after all. I have zero doubt that we will have AI that's at least as smart as a dog within our lifetimes, if not true AGI

Deletion is one thing, but what about even turning off an AI? GPT3 cost 12 million dollars to train - I'm not sure how much it costs to run, but certainly more than your average human being. Who pays for that?

Even further, once AI is sufficiently smart enough, we can start eliminating ourselves.

Perhaps in the future there will be death penalty arguments for bad AI? Or insanity arguments "judge I had some faulty RAM which caused the malfunction of the policing robots - if proper maintenance had been done this tragedy could've been avoided"

How about the ol' nature or nurture debate? "Judge, I was trained on a biased dataset!"

Various levels of TL;DR:


> Now the birds can add one more feather to their brainiac claims: Research unveiled on Thursday in Science finds that crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and analytical thought long believed the sole province of humans and a few other higher mammals.

Science mag:

> Humans have tended to believe that we are the only species to possess certain traits, behaviors, or abilities, especially with regard to cognition. Occasionally, we extend such traits to primates or other mammals—species with which we share fundamental brain similarities. Over time, more and more of these supposed pillars of human exceptionalism have fallen. Nieder et al. now argue that the relationship between consciousness and a standard cerebral cortex is another fallen pillar (see the Perspective by Herculano-Houzel). Specifically, carrion crows show a neuronal response in the palliative end brain during the performance of a task that correlates with their perception of a stimulus. Such activity might be a broad marker for consciousness.

Abstract of the paper:

> Subjective experiences that can be consciously accessed and reported are associated with the cerebral cortex. Whether sensory consciousness can also arise from differently organized brains that lack a layered cerebral cortex, such as the bird brain, remains unknown. We show that single-neuron responses in the pallial endbrain of crows performing a visual detection task correlate with the birds’ perception about stimulus presence or absence and argue that this is an empirical marker of avian consciousness. Neuronal activity follows a temporal two-stage process in which the first activity component mainly reflects physical stimulus intensity, whereas the later component predicts the crows’ perceptual reports. These results suggest that the neural foundations that allow sensory consciousness arose either before the emergence of mammals or independently in at least the avian lineage and do not necessarily require a cerebral cortex.

I feel that the title oversells this a bit.

This research demonstrates that crows know whether they saw something or not. It doesn't demonstrate that they are on a par with humans when it comes to introspection.

It's a pretty big feature, relatively speaking, to have a brain that can implement if(){} else{}, rather than simply if(){}

An ant can implement if/else.

This is something a bit more than that; they knew that they saw a light and could remember afterwards that that had happened.

The intelligence of crows takes part in many folk tales in India. Even the venerable kids mag "Tinkle" picked up on this in the "Kalia the crow" series.

Crows are also fed by staunch Hindus in the belief that they represent the souls of their ancestors. The crows catch on this behaviour and pretty soon start asking for food at the right place and at the right time to the right person.

> I was woke by persistent crowing by... well crows

actually, roosters crow and crows caw, so you were awakened by cawing, and now you are woke.

Just a couple of weeks ago, northern summer, I saw two pairs of crows near the peak of a rooftop about forty feet apart. One of the birds had a round plastic lid in its beak and appeared to be trying to get the attention of the other, picking up the lid and setting it down, while the other pair looked on from a distance. When the second crow (equivalent of a teenager in my mind, because it had the body language of someone trying to figure out what to do with their hands) stopped acting distracted, the first crow set down the lid and stood on it, slightly lifting its wings. This happened a couple of times, and then the first crow flew away. While the two apart watched, the second "teenage" crow picked up the lid, set it down, and then stood on it like the first. I'm looking forward to snow this year.


>“Besides crows, this kind of neurobiological evidence for sensory consciousness only exists in humans and macaque monkeys.”

Well, the fact that animals can remember things for more than a second or two is pretty good evidence that they have this kind of sensory consciousness. The ability to say you saw something and the ability to act on having seen something seem to be intimately tied together in every case we can probe. We only seem to be influenced by subliminal stimuli for a second or two, for instance. And there are people whose vision systems are cut off from their consciousness, they can pick up objects in front of them but not say that there's an object in front of them. A normal person can close their eyes then remember where an object was and pick it up. They can't.

So you would tend to expect this in any animal capable of remembering things.

Two observations where I thought that crows are really quite smart (both related to adapting to city life):

(1) Crows picking up chestnuts from under trees, and throwing them on the road under traffic lights. Traffic light goes green, cars drive over chestnuts munching them into a yummy (for crows I guess) little porridge blobs. Wait till traffic light goes red and enjoy the meal.

(2) I was wondering why some areas near trashcans are so extremely littered and thought "pfft humans", until I watched teams of two or three crows making that mess: one jumps into the trashcan and throws out everything it finds in there, the other team mates sort through the trash to pick out the goodies.

Also crows ganging up on kestrels is very interesting to watch. The crows are employing deception and ambush tactics (although kestrels aren't dumb either).

This video is a startling verification.of the crows mental capabilities.

“Causal understanding of water displacement by a crow”


This is fascinating - similar to octopuses. But I am not sure if its arrogant of our species to assess intelligence in this way (absolutely no disrespect to these great scientists BTW) : surely there must be a better way; and perhaps our notion of "intelligence" / "consciousness" is primitive and our current assessment is backwards?

Also, if we were to make contact with an alien civilization, hopefully we have something better than "let's see how they open this tightly closed jar underwater?" or "flash them a few red/green cards and see what happens".

I wonder could you breed crows like you do dogs or livestock by selecting for the largest brain in each generation? At least physiological changes seem to be pretty profound but maybe the brain is harder to coax to grow.

It depends on the variation being present in the population. In the absence of mutation all you can do is increase the average brain size (or whatever attribute you are selecting for) within the range that was already present. But of course if done over a sufficiently long time then mutations might allow a real increase.

Surely the same would apply to any animal. But who has the time, resources, and interest to do it? Considering that we have been breeding animals for several thousand years here are remarkably few animal types that have been subjected to long term artificial selection over the thousands of generations necessary. Dogs, cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, and a few more. None of them have been selected for general intelligence as far as I can see and anyway no farmer wants independently minded sheep.

I suspect that the biggest problem would be that it takes many human generations to do it not just many generations of the target animal.

Just yesterday I was out by the beach, seated on a bench and observed a crow darting around by the seawall as pedestrians passed by.

It was finding some scraps to nibble on, but it kept getting closer and closer to me giving little glances.

Finally when it was just a bit over arm's length I looked it in the eye and said, firmly, "No, I don't have anything for you."

SURPRISED SQUAWK and flight to the wall. I was like, "Hey, it's okay." Still upset by being around this human, it buzzed by the next pedestrians to get away, making them remark on the "aggressive birds".

I love crows, their simply amazing. I have always befriended the local crows every time I move. Feeding them primarily. But the most amazing experience I have had with crows is. About 6 years ago I was walking behind the Albertsons next to my apartment. I quickly notice two younger crows watching me and flying ahead to where I was eventually going to be walking. So I'm walking along when I see 2 heads peek over the edge of the roof about 50 feet a head of me. I kept walking when all of a sudden this thing falls directly in front of me. It literally barely missed the pill of my hat. When I look down to see what it was I was shocked. It was a nail an old rusty nail. I've been seeing there this nail has been on this roof probably since the roof was put on. it had rust stuck and sticking off of the sides of it. I looked up and saw what could really only be described as a couple of a teenagers pulling a prank on somebody walking by. Here's where it gets crazy. Directly ahead of me at the end of the alley that was behind the Albertsons comes this older Crow. It flew straight at these two younger ones making a loud racket as if it was an adult young at a couple of kids because they just saw them pull this prank. I gave a little chuckle to myself as it kept walking. By the time I got around to the front of the store the crew that basically yelled at the younger ones flies twords me. Now I'm walking down the middle part of the driveway in front of the store so I've got parking to my left business to my right and customers going in and out of the business because it's right around 11:00 in the morning. The crow then flies just about arms reach away from me. It then what's up this light gentle little sound followed by my only guess is an apology. I smiled at the crow how did my head said it's all right. That's what I realized that about eight maybe nine people that were around us going in and out of the store are just standing there staring at me and this Crow as I walk alon. Crowbthen flies away and I get about another 10 ft before three different people go *what was that???" I didn't know what to say so I said sorry but that was a private conversation and kept on walking. Crow are so much smarter than we give them credit for. Remember crows are the only animals in the world that are watching us studying us and anticipating our actions. There's simply amazing birds. Thanks

Out here, the ravens are our neighborhood watch. They have certain blocks that they patrol, always one spotter (from a tree or building), and one on the wing or walking about.

Ravens are about the size as a 4 year old human. They love McDonald's french fries, alas: they will sort through the refuse bins, and aren't too careful about putting the trash back.

I often wonder about encouraging them to pick up litter and recycling. I am sure they could handle the job. There's at least one instance documented of getting corvids to pick up trash...

A couple of crows at our local railway station have apparently learned, possibly the hard way: The very carefully pick through the litter bins, making an obvious effort not to spill anything on the pavement.

A less conscientious mate of theirs has impressed me in a different way. Surveyed a bin, chose a papercup and threw it on the ground. Extracted crumpled plastic bag from cup. Straightened bag, went around to the bottom end, picked it up, and determinedly shook out remains of sandwich. All extremly controlled and clearly planned, no hint of trial and error.

> Ravens are about the size as a 4 year old human.

Are we talking mass here? Our local ravens are much bigger than crows, but they don't look _that_ much bigger.

A 4-year-old human is around 20kg and a meter tall. This seems very large for a bird.

A bird of the same volume or height would naturally be much lighter, being mostly feathers and having hollow bones. It does seem like a bit of hyperbole, though.

I'm still baffled about the concept of consciousness still being used in the sciences.

It's such an ill defined concept that makes me think that one of three possibilities exist:

- consciousness is the wrong concept

- anything that has some degree of self-reference is conscious.

- there is no consciousness, just computation.

I'm erring on the side of it being just plain wrong or uninteresting.

I don't believe that there's anything supernatural about it, it must be a result of computation, but for some reason we ascribe a special status to it.

I highly recommend this PBS special largely dealing with the intelligence of crows: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-introducti...

They might have had some other specials too, but in one they show them completing complicated multi-step challenges using tools to get food.


From the atlas obscure article: > Hindus believe that crows are the link between the worlds of the living and the dead; ancestors, it is said, visit the living in the form of a crow.

Anyone who met a crow knows this. MFs are sneaky smart and get up to anything and everything. Like if you gave a group 16 boys wings.

Crows pass the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test . This alone is quite impressive.

Intelligence is not contained wholly within an individual of a species but includes relationships with fellow species and the biosphere.

Just this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uXiAe7Oc-I if someone in doubts.

I am reminded of the animals in Feersum Endjinn, with their intelligence countered by their inability to understand the past and future tenses.

Or: Humans possess higher intelligence long thought a primarily animal attribute. That would be better, less anthropocentric.

Watch a weaver bird weave its nest and you will no longer doubt the intelligence of birds.

If Humans somehow make themselves extinct, I bet on crows being the species to take over.

I'll place my bet on cephalopods. Wonder how the two civilizations would interact after discovering each other.

And if we don't go extinct, perhaps one day we'll uplift both species.

They'd have to overcome both very short lifespans and adversarial behavior.

If we, through some miraculous circumstance, avoid making ourselves extinct, then maybe there's a small chance the crows won't overthrow us and take over.

Obligatory mention of 'SILVERSPOT, The Story of a Crow ' from 'Wild Animals I Have Known'


> crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and analytical thought long believed the sole province of humans and a few other higher mammals.

I've always found the common thought that only humans and a select few of other animals are the only ones that posses higher intelligence to be incredibly arrogant of our species. Why wouldn't they have higher intelligence? As far as I can tell, it's because there's no simple test that could be applied to confirm or deny whether higher intelligence exists within an animal, so we then jump to the conclusion "Because I can't prove that they do have higher intelligence, then they must not have higher intelligence" - logic doesn't work that way! Glad to see some people are willing to dig a little deeper and take the time to show that crows do have this capability.

Humans were effective in their intelligence and rule the world with it, no other animal has shown anything approaching something like that. You judge them by their results.

I don't necessarily completely disagree here, but I'm always thinking of the Douglas Adams quote in Hitchhiker's Guide on this:

"For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons."

Dolphins have a rough start, it's so hard to build anything in the ocean other than just have it biologically.

It's just so unfair. Just imagine if our brain is the same but we are fish and swim. How will civilization ever develop? Everything from bronze age up is pretty much impossible. That and we'd have no hands.

It's tool use and language that differentiate us. Other species have one but not both. Learning is much more efficient when communicated rather than done in an isolated vacuum and all the knowledge in the world is useless if you lack fine motor control manipulation to take advantage of it.

How do you know crows and dolphins lack language? Because they don’t use a syntax like ours?

A theory is that dophins communicate by transmitting 3D information. They see with sonar and can use the same mechanisms to transfer 3D information. Probably vastly superior to the grunts of us apes for many tasks.

I think the implication was dolphins have language but not tool use.

But this type of reasoning went out the window, as soon as humans started killing dolphins in large numbers (see tuna nets), and the dolphins had no way to defend themselves or otherwise dissuade humans from doing that.

This is one of the big lessons in history. The civilizations that use their intelligence to make tools and weapons end up screwing civilizations that "muck about, having a good time".

That's uncomfortably close to Eurocentric claims of superiority that point to their colonization and exploitation of other countries in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century.

I don't necessarily buy it. A pacifist civilization might be "dominated" by a violent civilization, but they might still choose death over becoming violent themselves.

I agree with your post but it’s worth noting it does not apply to dolphins. Dolphins are not pacifists[0].

[0] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160204-cute-and-cuddly-dolp...

They can be pretty brutal to sharks and themselves. Also on a more bizarre note they can get rather rape-y esp. on hallucinogens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prmx0lYBTko

I do not read that the previous poster meant that the superior one was morally superior. Only superior in terms of violent power.

You're not buying it but they're not selling it?

The nets aren't a plot to subjugate the dolphins though; for the most part humans would rather not have dolphin bycatch. They're just something that dolphins haven't collectively figured out how to avoid.

That’s like saying humans aren’t intelligent because they can’t avoid car accidents in the rain.

Even if you were super intelligent, i bet you’d get fucked up in a net if you had low visibility in the water, you were traveling at high speed, and you didn’t have opposable thumbs to untangle yourself.

If I was an sonar-equipped aquatic mammal that was also superintelligent, I'd expect generations of losses might have taught my civilization not to swim near boats.

(Unless we're positing that running the risk of being trawled is an essential part of mucking about and having fun, or a scientific experiment, or dolphins having enough imagination for some of them to speculate warnings about boats are a conspiracy to keep them from the best fish :D)

Boats go where your food is. Avoid boats and you'll have to avoid the most plentiful food sources. Either starve or run the risk that you might stumble upon a boat and someone from your group might get tangled.

> humans aren’t intelligent because they can’t avoid car accidents in the rain

A reasonable exhibit one for the presently observable limits on (at least collective) human intelligence.

Where did anyone say anything about superiority? If anything, the implication is that the humans are stupid for not mucking about and having a good time, and that even though the dolphins may be “superior” in this regard, it’s a race to the bottom since the more violent species wipes out the fun-loving one.

Well, species success is measured in periods of time orders of magnitude larger than recorded human history.

It’s an open question whether our aggressive strategy will be successful past anything but the very short term. (Currently it’s not looking that good.)

> (Currently it’s not looking that good.)

I dunno. There is a real, if dwindling and not that large, possibility that mankind breaks free of earth and establishes itself elsewhere.

You can't say that for any other species except perhaps some microscopic extremophiles.

It's only so easy to be cynical about this because of how close we are to something greater, because of how much we are poised to lose.

Exactly. There are species that have been successful for millions of years.

Modern humanity has certainly impacted the ecology dramatically over the past couple hundred-thousand, but calling us successful is premature. When we're as old as bluegreen algae (or hell, even Araucaria araucana), I'll happily revise my position.

Aha, so when an interstellar empire comes around and fucks up our planet -- if not outright just sending an asteroid our way, it's justified because we are of a lower technological level?

The humans and proto-humans of the past weren't 'stupid'. And even if they were comparatively, 'stupidity' isn't a justification for committing harmful actions, degrading, or otherwise treating the recipient as lesser. This sounds like a philosophy that encourages "well I'm going to hurt you and it must be right because you can't stop me or dissuade me".

> it's justified because we are of a lower technological level?

No, it isn't. Just like killing dolphins isn't justified. But it probably means that the interstellar empire in question is very likely to be more intelligent and/or advanced than us.

> even if they were comparatively, 'stupidity' isn't a justification for committing harmful actions, degrading, or otherwise treating the recipient as lesser

I don't think the GP was saying it is. I think he was trying to look at it from the dolphins' point of view: he was proposing that the fact that they didn't use any of their intelligence (assuming they have it) to construct ways to defend themselves from other intelligent species, like humans, was a mistake on their part.

Why are you assuming that previous poster aimed to justify that behaviour? I don't see that that was implied.

what would be the next trump card above intelligence for survival/evolution/procreation/whatever the "goal" is?

I think the ability to 'reprogram' oneself. We are currently more or less stuck with the genetic code we receive at birth. A species which is able to modify their code at will would be incredibly adaptable and would likely surpass us very quickly.

your comment reminds me of something that I secretly do which I personally used to think was kind of bizarre. when i stumble upon evidence or signs that a certain way of my thinking is incorrect, i like to confirm that suspicion and dedicate time to go into a meditative state where i take my findings and effectively attempt to reprogram my mental algorithms/principles. this takes anywhere from 15m to several hours depending on how fundamental and low level the change is. obviously, the perceived roi is immense.

for instance, this is how i converted from religion to atheism (arguably still a religion)... a product of my nurture that i decided to shed. other examples include my interaction model with others which included tenets such as curbing my decidedly unjustified high level of empathy for all others, controversial as it may be.

1. reprogram in the sense of mental models and thoughts or in a literal cells and atoms sense?

2. potentially depending on your definition and scope of `reprogram`, wouldn't that be a subset of intelligence, as opposed to something higher order or different?

3. what kind of behaviors/habits do you think humans (like you or I, not high-funded corporations) could employ now to get as close to achieving your second sentence as possible?

hey we might be there in a couple hundred years

Self knowledge and self control.

Omnipotence. Or something approaching it.

We didn't come to rule the world with our intelligence... we came to rule it with fire.

Fire, control over it and the ability to make it, is the one thing humans have that no other animal has. We may (or not) be more intelligent, have a more complex capacity for language, etc., but those are differences of degree. Only fire is truly a difference of kind. We are the animal that makes fire.

Fire is literally what made us what we are... it is probable that increased availability of food calories from cooking was what allowed us to grow our big and calorically expensive brains. So fire comes before our vaunted intelligence. And then fire made us the most powerful creatures on earth, and enabled what we call civilization and technology and progress, each new stage in our development enabled by ever greater dissipation of energy gradients... mostly through fire. Although we did also harness other energy sources throughout history, such as wind and running water, and lately, nuclear fission, always fire was primary, the real driver of our dominion over the planet, even today.

And as it looks, fire will be our end as well, as we use it to release the fossil energy nature stored up over millions of years in mere decades and turn our lovely earth into an inferno.

The alternative for intelligent species without fire is to evolve fancier biochemistry; it's hard to know where this might evolve but several species have independently produced harsh acids, venoms, and even combustion (bombardier beetle). When it comes down to it you can grow your tools or you can make them out of the environment, and arguably being able to grow effective tools is superior (which likely means it's more complex and why it didn't evolve before fire use).

My bet would be on the cephalopods; they've already got ink and venom and intelligence and prehensile limbs with chromatophores that could potentially evolve into tiny manipulable chemical factories. They would probably also need to evolve the longevity and social and communication abilities to pass knowledge on in a society.

I really do wonder how humans would've adapted had we been aquatic animals. Energy usage via fire is not possible, and it seems other energy usage under water is much harder than simply creating fire, so we could still have the same level of intelligence as now, yet be so far behind technologically than we are now.

Water is crazy competitive. Octopi ate probably pushing the limits on useful intelligence.

I wonder if the Black Kite will ever come to rule the world one day then.

Except for Australian Hawks, who use wildfire to flush out smaller animals.

Do the hawks create or aid the spread of fire? One could say Redwood trees are similar for having evolved to take advantage of fire.

IIRC, Australian hawks intentionally spread fires by dropping burning pieces of wood. They do this cooperatively, too. (Don't piss off Australian Hawks, I guess ;)


Probably neither. The evidence for any of this is about as strong as the evidence for Bigfoot. A bunch of tall tails from people who swear they're sincere.

Maybe the longer term results are different. If the Fermi Paradox is a thing, perhaps our brand of intelligence - the combination of brains and dexterity and environment that let us quickly advance from sophisticated tool building to a global industrial economy - is an evolutionary dead end and species that have gone down this path destroy their ecosystem and themselves along with it inside a few thousand years.

Whereas other intelligent species that lack the environment or manual dexterity to even light a fire will keep on going long after we're extinct.

The opposite could also be true:

Our brand of intelligence - the combination of brains and dexterity and environment that let us quickly advance from sophisticated tool building to a global industrial economy - is precisely the rare Goldilocks combination of features that allows a civilisation to spread throughout the universe.

Because that combination is incredibly rare we might very well be the first to be poised to attempt to do so.

This is the strong anthropic principle at play, which of course could be taken with a grain of salt. Still, this scenario nicely answers the question "Where is everyone?", too.

This reminds me of the discussion a while ago about how efficiency and robustness are at odds.

It's the same thing, but on a much grander scale.

On the other hand, the best of our inventions and discoveries seem to have been just barely within our grasp, and it took modern Homo sapiens 200 thousand years to reach this level of domination of the planet.

A slightly less intelligent species (or perhaps one lacking just the right body type), such as our own ancestors or perhaps our extinct close relatives, might have taken 10 million years instead of 200 thousand, or just never have done it at all.

Would our physical abilities not play a role in our ability to "rule" the world? We're relatively large animals, blessed with arms, finger, thumbs and a remarkable degree of physical dexterity. These physical abilities collectively enable us to physically manipulate the world.

Or in other words, if dolphins had arms and thumbs (or generally any physical attributes that allows them to manipulate their environment as humans do), would it crazy to suggest that they could dominate the seas, as humans dominate land?

Besides lacking thumbs, dolphins would also have a pretty hard time harnessing fire as a tool. This probably truncates their tech tree severely.

> Besides lacking thumbs, dolphins would also have a pretty hard time harnessing fire as a tool.

I keep reading about this, and I don't see it as a major problem.

Sure, it might take a while for them to even grasp the concept of fire. Much like it took us a while to grasp relativity.

However, once they know it to be possible, it's an engineering problem. They can build their forges above water. Holding breath to operate them (until they can do it remotely) is inconvenient but they are pretty good at it.

There's also a fair bit of construction they could do without even resorting to that. Humans can weld underwater. They could too.

> Holding breath to operate them (until they can do it remotely) is inconvenient but they are pretty good at it.

Nitpick: Dolphins breathe air.

Humans can weld underwater - with equipment that they built on dry land, using materials that they created on dry land. Could they have created the materials underwater? It would have been hard, even knowing how.

Dolphins are mammals like us. They're holding their breath when they're underwater like us :P

It would truncate the human tech tree. It's anybody's guess what a Dolphin-based tech tree would look like, given their environmental constraints.

True, but perhaps they could harness technology we never thought of as valuable. Perhaps they could build structures around sea vents, or use sticks and weeds to build pens in which to farm fish. Many possibilities exist. They could even be doing agriculture right now and we wouldn't even know it.

I like your ideas but without dexterous extremities it at least a very versatile mouth it seems you'd be very limited in your capacity to control or shape your environment.

Dolphins do have a versatile mouth. Even seals have been trained to do fancy things with their mouths. But staying on the dolphin theme, check out these dolphins blowing air rings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bT-fctr32pE

I'm endlessly grateful that Raccoons aren't more intelligent.

Yet. Coexisting near humans, it's likely that the environment will incentivize smarter raccoons.

I think it’s the opposite. Any idiot raccoon can raid a trash can and get lots of calories. And unlike rats we are generally not out there looking to kill them.

I think the argument goes both ways. Chimpanzees are (roughly) as intelligent as our toddlers, but we haven't necessarily been treating them as such. That said, if we never mentally developed past being toddlers we might not even have invented speech, let alone civilization. Animals possess intelligence well above what people used to give them credit for, whoever they are still far and away from where people are.

Hah! Rule the world? Have you read the news lately? If human intelligence is judged by results, we'd score quite poorly. We are well on our way to causing a 6th mass extinction, which may very well include our own demise.

Tell that to Orcas. They rule the seas.

Used to. Then humans invented boats and spears.

They largely still do. The Oceans are huge, both in terms of surface area and then in terms of depth.

Cockroaches, ants and plankton rule the world, depending on your definition.

Or sourdough: https://xkcd.com/2296/

On the other hand, there are more kangaroos in Australia than people...

Or if that doesn't tickle you, how about: cockroaches!

Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

> Humans were effective in their intelligence

Well, another thing humans have going for them is hands

Eh, I'd argue beavers come close, especially when compared with paleolithic humans.

if it's "results", the dinosaurs "ruled the world" much longer than people, and likely that record will stand.

effective -> selfish seems equally scientific

That's not a measure of our intelligence, only our ambition and aggression. The two may not even be correlated.

So crows could build a jumbo jet, they're just lazy? It's pretty obvious that animals lack any type of intelligence even close to human ability. It's not even in the same ballpark.

What motivation does a crow have to build a jumbo jet?

Furthermore, the vast majority of humans have no idea how to build a jumbo jet, and throughout the vast majority of human history, there were no jets - jumbo or otherwise - does this mean that we only have higher intelligence in today's world, now that we are able to build jumbo jets? For the vast majority of human history, we only had the simplest of tools and if we compared those humans to today, by your standards, these humans do not possess higher intelligence. However, evolution has not progressed nearly as quickly as our ability to work with tools has; as such, the human brain really hasn't changed all that much in even the last 10,000 or even 100,000 years! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_human_intelligenc...

Finally, you have no proof that crows would be incapable of building a jumbo jet, you've simply asserted that they couldn't. To be clear, I'm not arguing that they could, merely conceding that because they haven't done so, does not mean that they are incapable of doing so.

Crows have only been around in one form or another for 30 million years give or take, so if they haven't done anything more interesting than adapt to their environment and use basic tools since, I don't think it is unreasonable to assume that the reason is because they are incapable of it, not because they have chosen not to.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to prove a negative, so no I can't show you off hand that a crow can't actually conceive of this or that or the other thing

I think the point is that we assume that because other animals don't have this kind of engineering ability, we assume that they don't have capabilities like self-awareness or higher-level thought. But we can't see into their minds, so we don't actually have direct evidence of that.

What we do see in more intelligent animals such as orcas, orang-utans, elephants, parrots, crows, octopuses, even cats and dogs, etc is sophisticated planning and inventive use of their environment. We also know that early humans were likely anatomically similar to modern humans (and may well have

Are there areas where humans are smarter. Almost certainly. But is the difference as great as the outward achievements as judged by human standards would indicate. Almost certainly not. And there may even be aspects of cognition that other animals excel at that we are completely unaware.

Language seems incredibly important, it may actually be the basis for our ability to build abstract concepts, not to mention share knowledge.

Agreed. I wouldn't like to assume that other animals don't have language though. Dolphins/Whales in particular seem pretty likely to have true language that we just can't understand.

Crows absolutely could build a jumbo jet, they just have no need to because they can already fly.

Would they build a submarine then? Or a rocket capable of reaching orbit?

More realistically: have they mastered fire? There are caloric efficiency benefits to eating warm/cooked food[0]. Have they mastered writing? There's compound interest in terms of civilization development sitting right there, in the ability to put thoughts into a form that outlives individuals without degrading.


[0] - At least for humans; IANABiologist, but I'd guess this would be true for other animals too, including birds, and at the very least it would expand the range of foods they can consume.

It took us 1000s of years to do that. One might ask, why did we master fire in the first place? Maybe to cook? To stay warm and go north? Do crows need to cook or can they just eat what humans cook? Do they need to stay warm?

Perhaps intelligent animals are just too well adapted to their world and don't feel the needs we do.

Or perhaps crows only have two claws that also serve as feet and a beak, making it harder to fashion tools?

Perhaps living underwater, like octopuses do, makes it quite hard to master fire?

Or perhaps measuring intelligence is hard, and focusing only on engineering outcomes is a fallacy.

It's also not like most humans would be able to build even a steam engine, let alone a jumbo jet.

Well, humans just started to build jumbo jets in very very recent history. That’s not a very fair benchmark.

If we remove ourselves from the world and let it sit for another few million years, there might be a dog or elephant or crow society, sure. And while that’s interesting to imagine it also shows that a fair benchmark is indeed simply which species makes it there first.

What would you consider the bare minimum act to be judged at human-level intelligence?

Remember, for most of the history of our evolutionary ancestors, we were hunter-gatherers that used extremely crude tools. Not really better than crows. Discoveries happened a whole lot slower back then, like the eons between making fire and starting agricultural towns. Given a few millennia, crows may be making their own fires to cook.

> What would you consider the bare minimum act to be judged at human-level intelligence?

Lex Fridman discussed this topic with Françoit Chollet in his recent podcast episode "Measures of Intelligence" [1]. I highly recommend it. Lengthy but really worth it.

[1] https://youtu.be/PUAdj3w3wO4

Maybe they are smart enough to realize that jumbo jets would ruin the planet? /s

Of course they could, but they can already fly. See? Intelligence.

See, there's your arrogance again. They may have no interest in doing so or anything leading up to it and desire is not a measure of intelligence.

OK, so how about the fact that they haven't figured out how to heal broken bones? Is that my arrogance again, or is it that they would just prefer to flop on the ground until nightfall and then be eaten alive by coyotes?

And how are crows supposed to defend wounded fellows from coyotes? Or carry them to safety?

How about the fact they can apparently build compound tools from parts?

Your example isn't just about brains. It requires both proper bodies and arguably complex social behaviors, which are quite separate from intelligence itself.

I agree with missedthecue that this response is kind of ridiculous. We know things about anaesthesia, blood clotting, soft tissue, and our physical actions are informed by an amassed body of knowledge and an ability to reason from that knowledge and apply it with a degree of sophiscation that crows don't apply, even within the domains of things that are easy for them physically to do.

This is so ridiculous that I'm wondering if I'm missing the point. Is this sarcasm? Is this playing devil's advocate to prove some kind of point?

Edit: TDLR - There are many affirmations, assumptions, and a lot of confidence in those in many of the responses here. And I seriously doubt most of them are supported by anything more than gut feelings and certainties of unknown origins.


> We know things about anaesthesia, blood clotting, soft tissue, [...]

Actually, most of us don't know much, if anything, about any of this. Heck, for all most of us know, it could actually be wizardry powered by small elves running in hamster wheels.

> and our physical actions are informed by an amassed body of knowledge and an ability to reason from that knowledge and apply it with a degree of sophiscation [...]

That really doesn't match most of human behaviors I can observe around me, online or in the street. Actually, it seems that implementing informed and vaguely rational decision-making is a great way to improve many things.

It often feels like we merely are pompous and arrogant monkeys who are lucky some of their ancestors built most of what's around us.

> This is so ridiculous that I'm wondering if I'm missing the point.

That's my fault. I'll try to make it clear.

- Intelligence is hard to measure.

- Our biases, as individuals and as a species, are huge.

- Our knowledge, as individuals, on other living things' perspectives, is laughable.

- Objectives and desired outcomes are relative.

- Outcomes' prerequisites are many, diverse, and often unknown.


-> We really don't know much,

--> Unless approaching the subject with a scientific method and an open mind, any opinion could only be founded on pre-conceived notions, gut feelings, limited personal experience, and unfounded "common sense" and "cultural knowledge.


---> Having and expressing any personal opinion on this subject, based on anything else than scientific experience, is both pointless and presumptuous.

And now we can go into the credit we should give to science, the limits of the scientific methods, and probably many other things.

What you're pointing out is human culture, not the wits of human individuals. For the vast majority of human existence and for most humans alive today there is no such knowledge or practice.

I don't think this rebuttal holds much water. Humans are capable of doing things that our bodies cannot. We domesticated beasts of burden in order to move heavy objects from one place to another for instance.

But consider very basic advancements. Communication for instance is something humans mastered from the outset. We are able to store and pass down information beyond the instinctual for generations, something no other animal has done. Imagine if humans needed to rediscover mathematics every generation!

There are plenty of examples I could give that would provide crows with an immediate improvement in the quality of life. I think the reason they have not done these things is because they cannot, rather than because they have chosen not to.

> I don't think this rebuttal holds much water.

I don't know if it does. But I surely ain't convinced by gp.

> Humans are capable of doing things that our bodies cannot. We domesticated beasts of burden in order to move heavy objects from one place to another for instance.

I would be curious as to how a crow is supposed to domesticate an ox. Or even a dog. Birds are extremely fragile.

As for communication, well, it's both a matter of intelligence and sociability. And they do seem to be able to communicate information "beyond the instinctual" (such as how to identify specific human individuals [1])

As for "can't vs won't", my point isn't that they don't want to. I don't know. I don't know what they can or cannot do. I don't know how their minds work. And I don't know what are the actual prerequisites for our species accomplishment.

And that is exactly my point: assuming anything about such radically different creatures, or the actual prerequisites for our species', solely based on our limited experience and insights, is both vain and presumptuous.

[1]: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2011.095...

Can you heal a shattered leg all by yourself with no one around? I guarantee you’ll lay on the ground until nightfall and probably be eaten by coyotes (since you’re a human, they /might/ leave you alone).

If you have someone with you, maybe they can carry you. Crows can’t carry other crows. If they wanted to fix the other crow, they’d have to do it where the crow fell. It would still get eaten by coyotes. They can’t protect the downed bird, so it will still be eaten. Ergo, why bother trying to heal the bone?

I think what's really at the core of this is whether crows would figure out such advances given sufficient evolutionary pressure to do so. One could reason that crows are smart enough to avoid most situations that would cause broken bones but if something forced them to adapt, would they for example evolve thicker, stronger bones. Or if their common predators disappeared, would that allow them to build more permanent communities where they had the spare time to learn about their environment enough to manipulate it?

Humans by and large, especially in less forgiving environments with harsh winters, are helpless without the ability to manipulate their environment seeing as they are hairless apes who without modern medicine could die from an infection from a mere scratch.

Basically, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Why crows haven't invented stretchers to carry fellow crows to safety? Making a stretcher doesn't look more complicated than building a nest.

A crow can carry about 1.5 lbs in flight. A crow weighs at most 4.5 lbs. Let's assume a stretcher that can carry a crow by more than one crow to weigh another 1-2 lbs. At most, the total payload would be ~5 lbs which requires at least 4 crows. I don't think that kind of coordination is possible with that kind of turbulence in such close quarters.

So why bother?

Humanity couldn't for 99.61% of its existence either and apes in general couldn't for nearly 100% of their existence. If we were to rely on your criterion, then all humans before a few thousand years ago would be deemed unintelligent, whereas we know they are essentially identical to us.

Occam's razor suggests that "not capable" is a better explanation than "not interested in", when considering things that are clearly an immediate and strong benefit to a life form.

Then you must be fundamentally and essentially "not capable" of masonry since that's a much simpler explanation than your lack of motivation and opportunity.

I absolutely am capable of masonry, I just don't do it much because I'm also capable of getting (by using money) someone else who's capable and willing to do it for me. Same applies to just about any other thing anyone outsources in their lives, but the end result is the same - the advanced work gets done. Other animals don't demonstrate any of that.

>So crows could build a jumbo jet, they're just lazy?

How can they physically even come close to building a jet?

It seems humans physicality has a LOT to do with our intelligence. Perhaps someone with actual knowledge on this can chime in.. but it seems to me if you have a build similar to ours, you have the opportunity to actually progress and manipulate things to a level where it might a situation where as a species you continue to evolve with more intelligence over time because you are able to actually use it.

I don't know how to say that better.. but on the other hand, if we had our same brains but had the bodies where we can hardly manipulate any tools.. don't you think that makes all the difference in the world?

The specifics of jumbo jet manufacture really has nothing to do with my point. The point of my comment is that there is a very evident and very clear discrepancy between human intelligence and animal intelligence.

It's always fun to watch a clever squirrel find its way into a bird feeder, a cunning fox outsmart a rabbit, or a curious monkey recognize himself in the mirror. These are signs of sentience, sure, but all of those are far cries from what even an immature human is capable of, and this obvious evidence is what leads us to believe we are smarter than them. It's not arrogance in any sense.

Building anything significant requires a relatively high level of dexterity, does it not? Even if crows could figure out how to build and operate tools that would allow them to build significant physical structures and objects, their bodies are not well-suited to doing so.

It's not about building anything, really. The cornerstones are figuring out a reliable method to store knowledge over generations, and then figuring out mathematics more advanced than counting your food and potential mates. Having that, you have both an abstract framework for developing better understanding of the world (which is a necessity for better control over it, i.e. technology), and a way to implement it as work that spans generations.

I think more in line with reality is that we would be more likely and better off reading how to build such things. The knowledge already exists around us in our culture. I program every day but it's not because I'm some super animal genius who invented computers and programming and software design.

They can build nests. Nest building seems to often get overlooked in discussions about tool use, perhaps because shelter isn't traditionally considered a sort of tool? But it seems tool-like to me. Maybe nest building doesn't impress us because bugs do it too?

Birds might lack the physique to use human tools, but they have plenty of dexterity when it comes to building nests. They just seem to have relatively little interest in using that dexterity to build things which are not nests

How could a human physically come close to building a microchip? We're much, much, much too large for that to be possible.

> How can they physically even come close to building a jet?

A human can't do that either. Humans as a whole can do it because we have enough intelligence to implement the whole chain of technology required to be able to do things on this scale. Not just the physical scale, but also the scale of the science and engineering required to make the thing actually work.

Possibly inversely correlated.

Tribes that expressed humanity to creatures outside of homo sapiens were frequently wiped out by tribes that couldn't even manage to express humanity to other tribes of homo sapiens.

The victors sit on a throne of skulls, wondering why they are so lonely.

Aggression is a gene that selects for itself. But if it's too successful, then the next time some external selective pressure comes from outside, that 'loneliness' may become an existential threat, wiping out the local gene pool entirely. Just like a virus.

Intelligence is one of the strongest predictors for success even among humans.

You're begging the question. You've defined what humans do as success. It's not even clear that what we do isn't complete failure (see climate change, nuclear war, etc.) Let's see if our actions keep us alive for some 160 million years.

So let’s say human behavior is failure, and animals are at least reasonably smart. We’re implying the reason why animals don’t engage in human-like behavior is that they recognize it will lead to things like climate change and nuclear war. Why are they not stopping us from destroying them along with ourselves?

No, that's not the claim, only that our "success" is not a good measure of intelligence.

If the question is whether animals can be deemed intelligent in the same way we humans are, and you define intelligence to be something other than what made humans successful, then the question becomes kind of moot, doesn't it?

We definitely have a unique ability to change our world but whether that's an effective "ruling of the world" and "smart" is really debatable. While that may sound be glib "judging them by their results" is really a ridiculous notion. The "results" would be purely framed in human terms "who can solve puzzles" who can "think like we do".

A cat doesn't need to think like us to live in their cat world, a worm doesn't need to solve a puzzle to live and thrive. Yet they both have thrived for a long time and existed in a way let them persist with their environment in an equilibrium.

It seems pretty reasonable to frame intelligence as thriving within your environment and persisting, and humans have only been around a short time and driven our planet to literal environmental collapse. I'd contend it's equally reasonable to describe humans as some of the least intelligent species.

I'm not sure this is a fair characterization. Almost all predator animals overhunt if given the chance. The equilibrium is typically due to the predator's inability to catch the remaining prey rather than some intelligent realization by the predator that they ought to stop hunting so much to preserve the ecosystem.

High intelligence isn't just a blessing. There are serious evolutionary costs associated (such as, for one, longer childhood). Evolution patterns follow the adage "use it or lose it", so if a species doesn't show signs of benefiting from higher intelligence, why should we assume that it's there? Why would natural selection maintain this trait if there was no obvious payback?

> High intelligence isn't just a blessing.

Not only that, mental illness correlates strongly with higher IQ: https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human...

Perhaps that's why I frequently see links about depression, bipolar etc on HN... I read so many comments about "I got burned out coding 15 hour days and then I got diagnosed with major depression and my life's been a wreck since and no one will hire me" sort of themes!

> Why wouldn't they have higher intelligence?

Because almost no other animal appears to think ahead of time , master fire, build tools that did not exist before? You can come up with numerous explanations as to why it's that, but what one's species' brain can come up with will be a serious constraint as well.

> think ahead of time

The angry, injured tiger that killed its hunter by stalking his house and planning an ambush comes to mind


> master fire,

Nothing comes to mind but I would not rule out some kind of animal using fire for some purpose

> build tools that did not exist before

A number of species have been shown to construct tools to make their labor easier. "That didn't exist before" is a little difficult to pin down as animal communities are hyperlocal.

Regarding the tiger - that's a fascinating story, but it's worth noting that the article stresses "it was anything but typical" and that "in living memory, there was no record of an incident like this".

> master fire

To be fair, I don't think tigers were visited by Prometheus nor did they benefit from his sacrifice to humans!

Sorry, I'll see my way out...

It's not like the idea is arbitrary. Have you ever seen a giraffe build a car, or even a skateboard?

We don't assume superior intelligence, we observe it.

Perhaps it’s humans that lack the higher intelligence that would allow them to understand that other species may also be intelligent.

I believe it's something like the adage, "it's difficult to make someone understand something their paycheck depends on their not understanding."

Think about people who will tell you lobsters can't feel pain while they're rattling in a pot. The idea we are the only intelligent species, and that everything around us exists only to be exploited for our benefit, is quite convenient.

Edited to add: I think this is also related to the way tech companies view their users. They aren't humans with needs to be fulfilled, they're a resource to be extracted. More a coal mine than a customer. (Not to lob a grenade into the discussion, I just found it relevant.)

I think it might be quite the opposite. Our highly developed minds/egos sometimes cloud our ability to see reality as it is, and often make us believe that we are more/less special or gifted than others.

There is very consistent supporting information to explore that thought further.

We rely too heavily on structured vocal responses to determine intelligence. On top of that we rely on observing erroneous unnecessary behavior to consider something might be thinking. This could be a real limitation of us as a species.

I don't think it's intelligence, but humility.

We are (hopefully) transitioning through an era where being a conqueror is less successful than collaboration. But there are way too many of us who are less than seven generations separated from conquerors. Conquerors bank on exclusiveness, not inclusiveness.

We're still trying to convince each other that all the humans deserve to be in the Humanity Club. If we can't hack that, then who is going to want to talk about cetaceans and chimpanzees and corvids?

Historically, humans have frequently tried to claim other groups of humans aren't really intelligent, so ...

Because then it's easier to justify enslaving or killing them. Mostly we just don't even want to know.

Well, that reasoning is your wording alone.

The reason scientists do not optimistically assert animals must have human-analogous intelligence is because of the difficulty required to design a test that will reveal traces of it.

Consider the Turing Test, not as a goal for AI, but rather the working definition of intelligence. Put another way, game knows game.

I think in 100 years this general thought will be something we look back on as obvious and the denial of it barbaric.

all you have to do is watch a nature documentary to see many different animal species reason, work together and have emotional reactions which shows that they have a sense of self and thus a consciousness

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